When people hear I am an executive coach specialising in working with women, people's immediate response is: "Well, what's your view - can women have it all?"
So, as a mother of 3 kids juggling work and family life, I found myself wondering yet again about the answer to this question. "Having it All" is one of those ubiquitous straplines probably invented by marketing professionals; a rather homogenous concept which has in recent times become synonymous with the perfect balance of career and motherhood.
However my professional experience would suggest that this "one size fits all" approach can promote an impossible benchmark of success, with the effect of leaving many women feeling frustrated or inadequate. According to research, millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot rise up the ladder as fast as men, whilst also having a family and an active home life (not to mention be thin and beautiful!). Voices are getting ever louder to try and dismiss the concept altogether, an idea which I would endorse but sadly the phrase now has such cache that it is unlikely to be disappearing any time soon!
So what does it actually mean? Perhaps that is the point - it can mean so many different things to different people that rather than try to answer that question maybe we need to reframe it.
I don't know anyone who feels they have struck the perfect balance in life. And I think that's OK. So instead of asking yourself if you have the perfect balance, which remains elusive to most people, instead ask yourself what makes you fulfilled and what needs more attention, and then find time to create the space for that. What can be particularly unhelpful are the "shoulds" that creep into your inner narrative such as "I should be doing more networking....I should be at the school gate more...I should be progressing faster up the ladder" etc. Be brave and challenge where these are coming from - they can derail you more effectively than any employer.
Samantha Ettus' recent publication "The Pie Life" endorses this within a seemingly simple framework for balancing a successful career with a fulfilling personal life. Her unfiltered advice is to keep your career rolling by designing your "pie"--by which she means the pie chart of your life--to reflect what you can do and need to do at any moment, and then removing the guilt that can accompany a sense that something (kids, work, partner) isn't getting 100 percent.
Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as the unresolvable tensions between family and career derail many, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have become cynical, on the grounds that they regard the constant refrain of "you can have it all" as airbrushing reality, it really is time to reflect more.
The truth is there are no easy answers. There is no simplistic way to address the desires, needs, and concerns of half of the workforce. Why? Because all women are individuals with differing personalities and differing levels of ambition. Just like men. We all want different things at different points in our careers.
Asking women what they want, rather than having a single voice purport to speak for all women, allows the conversation to shift and place increasing value on personal desires. A more thoughtful approach to the "having it all" conversation could take into account economic situations, age, life experience, previous employment, relationships, and home life. Let's hope this approach becomes more popular.