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When Men and Women Talk About Work-Life Balance, Are We Talking About Different Things?

When Men and Women Talk About Work-Life Balance, Are We Talking About Different Things?

By Danica Lo

Earlier this week, when Google CFO Patrick Pichette announced his retirement and posted an explanation—a decision to re-prioritize his life couched in a touching love letter to Tamar, his wife of 25 years—on his Google+ profile page, there was something from his note that's stayed with me.

When Pichette wrote: "I am not looking for sympathy, I want to share my thought process because so many people struggle to strike the right balance between work and personal life"—the dreaded work-life teetering balance-beam act we all walk on a daily-weekly-monthly basis—he was talking about balancing his career with...wait for it...climbing, hiking, traveling, and cycling. Hobbies. Leisure pursuits. 

Now, granted, Pichette just spent seven years working incredibly hard as Google's CFO—and, by his own account, he is "completing this summer 25-30 years of nearly non-stop work." He self-identifies as "being a member of FWIO, the noble Fraternity of Worldwide Insecure Over-achievers" (fraternity, such a loaded word these days, I can't help but notice its usage in this case) and says he was "always on—even when [he] was not supposed to be."

So. Good on Pichette for finally taking time out to focus on work-life balance. It's high time. Congratulations on retirement, etc.

But the tl;dr here is this: While there's a strong possibility that Pichette's concept of work-life balance is skewed from mainstream America's because of his extraordinary financial point of privilege, education, class, race, etc., his note got me thinking: When men talk about work-life balance, are they talking about hobbies? Because when most women I know talk about work-life balance, they're talking about home—and all the home work time women need to find in a day to care for their children and keep the household running. When men and women talk about work-life balance, we're talking about completely different things, aren't we?

According to a study published last year in the Harvard Business Review, when work-life balance is specifically defined to incorporate domestic work, both men and women executives place that responsibility on women:

Executives of both sexes consider the tension between work and family to be primarily a women’s problem, and the students find that discouraging. “Given that leadership positions in corporations around the world are still dominated by men,” one explained, “I fear that it will take many organizations much longer than it should to make accommodations for women to…effectively manage their careers and personal lives.”

Current numbers from the Department of Labor indicate that 69.9 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 participate in the (paid) labor force. And the "participation rate for single mothers with children under 18 years of age was 74.2 percent in 2013." For these mothers—an overwhelming majority of mothers in this country, as it turns out—work-life balance is likely, really, a work-work balance: work in the labor force plus work at home. Because if men mean "hobbies" when say the word "life," well, let's be fair—"life" can't just turn into a euphemism for "childcare and domestic duties" when women say it.

This isn't exactly a novel concept—there's been a small, slow, growing movement to redefine the semantics of work-life balance entirely. Late last year, professional coach Anna Rasmussen released a "Keeping Women In" report, and told the Telegraph:

The work/life balance is a tired term. Our work and home lives are interconnected—each directly impacts the other. As a mother of two small children I became increasingly frustrated with the task of balancing my work life and my home life. It felt like another job in itself. I was determined to make it work so I decided to replace the myth that is the work/life balance with the work/life 'blend,' and my level of productivity at home rocketed.

But that doesn't exactly address the gender disparity in meaning when talking about work-life balance as it stands in corporate culture right now. And if men and women are saying the same words, but aren't talking about the same thing, how can we make any progress on this fundamentally challenging issue at all?

What do you think? Have you noticed that men and women you know mean different things when they talk about work-life balance? Tell us in the comments, below.