Gender Differences in Achieving Work-Life Balance

October 11, 2011

Work-life balance is important for both sexes, but women may strive for it in a way men realize is unrealistic.

I was speaking with one of my (male) colleagues about an upcoming presentation hosted by our organization on work-life balance. I asked if he was planning to go to which he replied, “Oh, I don’t need that.” I inquired whether he already had work-life balance solved for himself. “Oh, no,” he said, “I just realize that it can’t happen for me.” We went on to discuss gender differences in the pursuit of work-life balance.

I do think that work-life balance is a goal for both men and women, but I also think it is true that women may strive for this in a way that men realize is unrealistic. Warning: I’m about to make sweeping generalizations about gender in the next two paragraphs!

Women, especially those who are wives and mothers, feel inordinate responsibility to be all things to all people too often. There’s no easy way to do motherhood-light. It’s an all out call to be proactively caring for, encouraging, nurturing, and shepherding your children through big and little events in life. With this type of pressure, balancing anything else can easily feel overwhelming.

Men, on the other hand, tend to be more accepting of their limitations, at least at home if not on the basketball court. I think they realize that they can’t be “all” to everyone in their lives and don’t even try to do something that is impossible in the first place. Sure, they need work-life balance, but the balance they seek is not the ability to be a perfect spouse-parent-physician all at the same time.

Sweeping generalizations aside, I think ongoing conversation is so helpful between colleagues, spouses, and with other parents. It reminds us that the pursuit of work-life balance is a challenge in one form or another for all of us. We learn from each other that different perspectives may help us to reframe our own conceptualization of the basic issue. Hopefully it helps us to be gentler with both each other and ourselves, recognizing that we’re all reaching for a similar goal.

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