Work It

05.26.13

A Work-Life Ways to Go

It’s not a women’s issue, or a children’s issue, or a strictly personal issue. It’s about who we are as a nation—and who we want to be. Ellen Galinsky on the new trailblazers.

The email I received early this week should have thrilled me, and it did, but it also made me sad.

It was from Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, soon to be president of the New America Foundation and author of the 2012 article, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" in The Atlantic. Centered on Slaughter’s decision to take and then leave her dream job at the U.S. Department of State for family reasons, this article quickly catapulted to the most frequently read article in the magazine’s history.

If nothing else, the huge response to Slaughter’s article reveals how much we, as individuals, care about trying to juggle our own work and personal/family lives. I know this from my own life. In fact, the very morning I received the email from Slaughter, I took extra needed time with my infant grandson when he woke up, and with his mother, my daughter, as they readied to go back home after a weekend with us. All the while, I was tensing up, knowing that this unexpected time would (and did) make me late for a crucial work appointment.

That’s an example of an everyday moment that so many of us face—especially those of us who can get fired for being late, even if it’s a crowded bus or traffic, not our own hectic home lives, causing the delay. Then there are the large moments that can cost people their jobs—like a death in the family or a personal illness.

These many work-life tensions have been part of my life’s work.

Three decades ago, I interviewed employees for two studies I was conducting and heard them describe very similar feelings. But then, in the 1980s, these conflicts between work and personal/family responsibilities had no name. Almost every person I interviewed for the studies—men and women who were younger or older, financially successful or struggling—thought theirs was a personal situation that ONLY they were facing. They thought that the person next to them—at home or at work—had it figured out.

As I began doing more studies, I called it the “field with no name” because when others asked me what I did for a living, it took many sentences, not a phrase, to describe this research.

That’s not true anymore. The field now has a name: “work life.” But how far have we really come in giving this field its due?

This brings me to Slaughter’s email.

She wrote me that as she researches her forthcoming book, she is “impressed and amazed” at the amount of research we have conducted over the years. It was a wonderful compliment, but at the same time, as I wrote her back, it made me sad, too.

Yes, the field now has a name. And yes, there are very public debates about whether telecommuting is good or bad and whether we should each “lean in” or not, but the mountains of research and theory in this field are still largely hidden in plain sight or, if visible, still primarily seen as a personal issue or women-with-children issue.

If it had been any other field, I thought, its history would have been written many times over. Is its history not being chronicled because it is still incorrectly seen as a personal issue (when it’s really an economic and business issue), or because it is seen as a woman’s issue (when it is a genderless issue), or because it is seen as a women-with-children issue (when it’s an ageless issue, particularly as our society ages)?

It was exactly those feelings of frustration that led the organization I head, the Families and Work Institute, and its board of directors, to create the Work Life Legacy Award 10 years ago. We could see history being made. We could see companies, small and large, shifting. We could see that these changes were affecting millions of employees, their families, and the fortunes of their companies in largely very positive ways.

But where were the Nobels for the work-life trailblazers?

In 2004 we stepped into the breach and began collecting oral histories from the creators and developers of the field. Since then, we have honored and collected oral histories from 49 change makers, including Adm. Mike Mullen when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; James Turley, CEO of Ernst & Young; and Slaughter.

On June 3 we will celebrate the accomplishments and hear the lessons learned from 10 more work-life innovators:

Rosalind Chait Barnett, senior scientist, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, who has always taken on the tough issues, such as the extent to which men and women really differ, and whose forthcoming book, The New Soft War on Women, is certain to be important;

Lisa Belkin, senior columnist, Huffington Post, who day in and day out has profoundly shaped public and private work-life discussions with her groundbreaking speaking and writing for The New York Times’s Motherlode and now for Huffington Post’s Life/Work/Family;

Ellen Bravo, executive director, Family Values @Work, who works tirelessly to make working families a public, rather than a private issue, and whose work has led to policy change, especially for low-income workers;

Stephanie Coontz, research director, Council on Contemporary Families, University of Miami, and professor, the Evergreen State College, who shatters myths and brings solid research to bear on the way we think about family lives in the past and present in her writing, speaking, and books, including Marriage: A History and A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s;

Stewart Friedman, practice professor of management, the Wharton School, who has pioneered connecting work-life and business leadership development through his cutting-edge work at Ford Motor Co., his teaching, and his book, Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life;

Bradley Googins, professor, Carroll School of Management, Boston College, whose work, including founding the Center for Work & Family, Boston College, has been instrumental in building a business constituency for best practice;

Brad Harrington, executive director, Center for Work & Family, Boston College, and associate professor, Carroll School of Management, Boston College, whose prescient work continues to shape the field, including defining how men see themselves as fathers and employees, and whose teaching inspires students to grapple with work-life issues, “one student at a time”;

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, whose revolutionary work has linked work-life to economics, whose network of companies has focused on realizing new streams of talent in the global market, and whose books, including the forthcoming Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, reshape our views;

Arlene Johnson, co-founder, Livingston Citizens' Institute, and recent mayor, Livingston, N.J., whose unique vision of work and life garnered attention, sparked action, and enabled companies to set new standards for best practice during her years at WFD Consulting, FWI, and Catalyst; and

Deborah Stahl, Deborah Stahl Consulting, whose inspiring work leading the AT&T Family Care Development Fund and helping to create the American Business Collaboration established models for what business can do to improve early education and care, and better prepare our future workforce.

Their work helped shape the field, a field that now has a name and much to celebrate. But clearly, there is still a long way to go!