Work-life balance: the mommy problem

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Work-life balance is gender neutral, so why do we keep only asking working mothers how they manage, asks the chief operating officer of Zambezi

Work-Life balance is something that everyone wants. And yet the advertising industry continues to compartmentalize it as a women’s issue, reducing it to a patronizing talking point.

I recently attended an industry conference featuring a woman running a wildly successful baby products company and a man running a wildly successful content studio. The moderator asked the woman how she maintains a work-life balance. Her answer was followed by an awkward pause, as the moderator started moving on to the next question. Fortunately, the man spoke up, volunteering that he has two kids and never feels like he has enough time. 

Sound familiar?

Unlike many other industries that have made work-life balance gender and age agnostic, in the advertising industry, which ironically prides itself on being progressive and innovative, the way the work-life balance question is posed reflects an institutional bias that refuses to die, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding Kevin Roberts sexist comments, and Cannes 2016, where sexist ads and party invites were on display.

There’s got to be another way.

Let’s start by stopping to ask only women about work-like balance. Three years ago, the Pew Research Center Study conducted a study that found the percentage of working mothers and fathers who feel that it is difficult to balance work and family life are just about equal, at 56% to 50% respectively. That same year the Hay Group conducted a survey that found 49% of respondents from the "World’s Most Admired Companies" believe work-life balance issues across the board are a "top priority or very important as a human capital challenge."

Clearly, this is not just a women’s issue or "mommy" issue. Gender and family have dominated the discourse for too long. In fact, the modern family has changed, and the younger work force, mostly single, has made it mandatory for companies to evaluate how they view a balance between their work time and their lifetime. They’re demanding it, which is a good thing. Companies need process and regulations for everyone’s protection, but it’s important for employees to know that management is flexible. That’s how companies attract top talent today.

In 2014 job search site CareerBliss put out a list of the "20 Happiest Companies for Young Professionals" and at the top of their list of factors contributing to young professional happiness was, no surprise, work-life balance. Even more important than compensation, balance was up there with an employee’s relationship with their manager and coworkers, company culture, office setting, opportunities for growth and the nature of an employee’s day-to-day work.

It’s time to re-frame, especially in our industry where long hours are encouraged and demanded, particularly of younger employees. By making balance a want for all our people, we can elevate the discussion to how we conduct business today, and how agencies create policies that work for all employees and at the same time don’t sacrifice productivity. Balanced policies such as paid leave for parenting for both spouses, paid dependent care leave, paid continuing education leave and yes even unlimited paid time off, can improve the workplace, fostering employee well-being while generating more creativity and productivity in the long run.

Finally, here’s something that might sound familiar: The Hays Group study also found that: "More than one in four employees (27%) in organizations that are not perceived to support work-life balance plan to leave their companies within the next two years. That's compared with only 17% of employees within the work-life balance leaders." Let’s face it, advertising is notorious for having high turnover rates. Many believe it’s the nature of our industry, that we’re populated with ambitious and impatient individualists who prefer to move on to the next big thing rather than stick it out at one agency.

The truth is, talent simply needs to know that agencies are flexible and positive about reducing the stress and strain of the job and that they are ready and willing to negotiate a work-life equilibrium. In other words, they need to know that we are willing to talk about it across the board, not simply as it relates to one group or gender. Let’s not forget, we’re an industry that relies most of all on our people. If we don’t, they will walk, and agencies today cannot afford that.

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