Balance: A Myth for Ambitious Women

One of the more controversial positions I have taken over the last 10 years is that balance is a myth if you really want to climb the corporate ladder. It came up again as I was interviewed for a profile in a local Bay Area magazine yesterday and the reporter asked me my opinion on balance (I’ll link to it here once it is published).

I think I first said it out loud at a panel for women in design automation and not only did I clearly upset the room and shock some people, but several women (and one man) came up to me to thank for speaking the truth out loud.

My opinion is that as women in the corporate world we are competing for opportunity and promotion and, like it or not (especially in tech), we are competing for the most part with men. For time immemorial men have worked hard, competed, and given up personal time to build their careers and provide for their families. They know its part of what’s required to go the extra mile and help the business excel.

I know women like to find new and better ways to do things but I think it’s naïve to believe we can provide as much value to our companies as the men we’re competing with if we are not just as committed to the job and the business results. That will require, at times, long hours and travel and I believe makes the ideal of “balance” an unachievable, and so ultimately depressing, goal.

Now, I am not talking about striving for balance as you stay in a middle level, fun job, but need to leave at 5pm every day to pick up the kids. Or running your own, home operated, small business. That is very possible and (just) takes great organizational skills. I have a number of friends, and employees, who have conquered this challenge very successfully.

I am talking about wanting to be a senior exec, be in the board room, run a billion dollar division or be a CEO. I have experienced some harsh realities on the way up:

1. Business is global today. There is no getting away from it – customers are all over the world and to run a global company, or service global businesses you have to travel. Webex, email and cellphones are helpful but none of them substitute for meeting customers face to face and rubbing shoulders with your sales team. One of the great things about FirstRain is that at least the travel is to New York, Boston and then New Delhi maybe twice a year, which is much easier than Japan, Taiwan, France, England at least every quarter in my last company.

2. Many times the men I have been working with have wives at home. At one point I was on an exec staff where I was not only the only woman, I was the only exec without a spouse at home. I strove to hold my ground against weekend meetings, or endless late night dinners, but it was clear that the rest of the execs were not going to change their pattern of behavior easily and at some point I had to make their schedule work in my life. I did not like it, but I was pragmatic about it.

3. And to complement that, there is no question my family’s life got better when my husband decided to stay home and kite board every day. We still have childcare for the few hours after school (until the wind drops) but the impact of my job requirements and my travel was reduced because one of us was home. That was hard for me to admit, but now, 3 years later, I admit it and am grateful.

4. As CEO I do have more control over my time than in any other job, but I also have the ultimate demanding boss – mycompany – and there is no excuse I have ever been able to come up with to not put my company first when it really needs me. All my employees depend on my company for their livelihood, not to mention my investors expectations.

I very much agree with the comments in the New York Times article “Women Take Off The Gloves and Come Out Multitasking”. Many women do have evolved skills in multi-tasking (try running a board call while cooking for a hungry 2 and 4 year old) and many women are great communicators and builders of community which can lead to terrific management skills.

Women have the skills and the aptitude to win in any field we take on. I just want young women who are coming up to make informed choices and not try to have it all and end up frustrated or exhausted or, worse, self critical because they didn’t bake cookies for the library group or volunteer for the school play.

Finally, I’ll add that the moms who don’t work can put a lot of time in and do a spectacular job helping out the school and I just can’t, but I do my best to thank them and make sure they know I appreciate the choices they have made.

At the end of my daughter’s kindergarten year ten years ago she asked me “Mummy, how come you are the only mom who didn’t volunteer in the classroom this year?” After I pulled the knife out of my heart I crouched down next to her and took the opportunity to talk to her about how much I loved my job, how I want to change the world so that women have equal opportunity with men to do whatever they want to do, what this required me to do, and how I hoped one day she’d have a job she loves as much and a little girl as great as her to talk with about it.