Anne-Marie Slaughter’s stunning article in Atlantic magazine, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, has started a new national discussion on the issues of work-life balance and gender differences. It would be impossible to sum up the perspectives of her complex and nuanced viewpoint in the few words of this column. But drawing on her experience as a mother with young children working in a high-level position in the White House, she recognizes that juggling family and work obligations is more challenging than most would admit.
The whole subject of work-life balance is much easier solved in the pages of a human resources manual than it is in real life. And if we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that it is one of the last taboo topics in the workplace. Both men and women want to be engaged in family life – being truly present with their children. But the workplace has largely not adapted to support this shift in values and priorities.
This has a number of consequences in our public agencies, some of which are more obvious than others. An increasing number of workers in professional and managerial roles (mostly women, but also men) are opting to leave their public sector employment to stay home with young children. As Ms. Slaughter notes, many of these employees may be making this choice because they don’t believe there is another way; there is no real support in the traditional workplace for alternatives such as job sharing, working at home, or working part-time. This loss of trained, skilled personnel has real costs to our agencies over time. Is this the best way?
It is interesting that in professional fields traditionally dominated by women, such as teaching and nursing, we see workplace structures that are more progressive in this area. Job-share arrangements for teachers are very common. Nurses can work part-time, or per diem. Necessity has driven options into these workplaces, which is to the benefit of employers and their highly-skilled workers.
It’s time to have some meaningful discussions about how the 21st century public agency workplace should reflect 21st century priorities. While a prior generation may have viewed this as a women’s issue, the new reality is that Generation X’ers (the former latch-key kids who never saw their parents) and the Millennials (who are already tethered to the workplace 24/7 via technology) view this as a quality-of-life issue. They are willing to put in the hours and work as hard or harder than anyone else, but with non-traditional means and schedules. Our public agencies and management frameworks need to adapt, or face an even greater brain drain away to the private sector over the coming years.
Complex challenges don’t lend themselves to simple answers. I don’t think we start by coming up with new top-down programs or personnel policies to promote work-life balance. Let’s start with an honest conversation about how public service work fits in as a part of a bigger life that embraces family, friends, volunteerism, faith, and other interests.