A COLLEAGUE RECENTLY received an invitation to speak at a prestigious women’s empowerment conference. She is easily one of the most recognized experts in her category in the world, and an award-winning entrepreneur. The topic she was asked to speak about: Work/Life Balance: Can Women REALLY Have It All?
She politely declined the topic, telling them she’d be delighted to speak on a range of other, more useful, subjects: entrepreneurial growth strategies, financing, customer experience, or leadership. She later confided that while she was honoured to receive the invitation, she was disappointed that given her expertise, “this is what I was asked to speak about.”
Of course, it’s hardly the first time she’d been asked about this topic. Indeed, the “how do you handle it all” question is routine fodder in the women’s leadership and empowerment landscape… which is why women’s initiatives continue to be relegated to a “special interest” category, rather than a business performance issue.
Think about it: how many times have you heard John Risley, Ken Rowe or Wadih Fares asked about how they “balanced life and work”, or how they managed to “have it all.” Rarely. Picture yourself inviting Mark Zuckerberg to speak at a conference and then telling him the topic is work/life balance. It would never happen.
In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg lamented an instance in which, taking questions from a group of young professionals, she found the women primarily asking her about—you guessed it—work/life balance.
Behold this talented, well-educated and accomplished businesswoman. Let’s ask her questions that reinforce her place is and always will be… in the home.
One might argue—given the fact that women continue to shoulder a disproportionate number of household tasks—the “work/life balance” question reflects the realities some women face and is therefore fair game. This is a reasonable assumption, if that question received the amount of air time it is actually due. The ongoing prevalence and incidence of this discussion point—as an interview question, as a panel discussion topic at women’s events—reinforces the inherent unconscious gender bias of the topic. Behold this talented, well-educated and accomplished businesswoman. Let’s ask her questions that reinforce her place is and always will be… in the home.
The reality of this entrenched unconscious bias has, in the past, prompted some powerhouse women to refrain from talking about the topic completely. At one point in time, Michelle Zatlyn, the Canadian-born co-founder of San Francisco-based Cloudflare (a web performance and security company with 600 employees), refused to address publicly how she built the company while starting a family out of a desire to keep the attention focused where it belonged: on the business.
I’m not suggesting that talking about work/ life balance should be taboo. One of the ways in which women benefit organizations is that we often bring a holistic perspective to discussion and decision-making. But the quality of our questions determines the caliber of our content. Event organizers in particular need to take a more thoughtful approach to programming and panel questions to ensure that we are paying women the same respect we offer to men.
One of the best ways to solve work/ life balance is to have more money (to hire a team), and more power (to exert greater control and autonomy). Therefore, obsessing about work/life balance is in fact focusing on a lag indicator. It would be far more insightful to ask powerhouse women questions that reveal the strategies and tactics that have fuelled their growth, their thoughts on the economy or industry trends… you know, the types of questions we ask powerhouse men all the time.
People who argue that all questions are valid haven’t spent much time at women’s initiative events, or at panel discussions on women and work. If they had, they’d know that there absolutely IS such a thing as a dumb question.