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Women in senior positions and their work-life balance

20 November – by Maartje Scholten, &samhoud women

How do women in senior positions combine their jobs with a private and family life? And what typifies the lives of women with a demanding job? These were the questions I brought with me to &samhoud women. A literature review and 17 extensive interviews conducted with senior women from the &samhoud women network yielded the answers to my questions.

Literature on work-life balance contains a myriad of divergent opinions. The numerous responses I received upon asking people to participate in the study indicate that this is a topic that resonates amongst women in the network. I am particularly interested in the perception of the women themselves. What do they consider important in their home situation and work situation? What are their own standards and values in relation to their jobs, motherhood and their work-life balance?

I deliberately included the dimension of values and standards in my research. This is a decisive factor in how the work-life balance is perceived and is highly personal. A good work-life balance for one person may be involve too much pressure for someone else. And what one person considers bad parenting may be viewed by another as the best way to ensure everything runs smoothly. Consequently, 17 interviews yield 17 different definitions of what a work-life balance is.

I also distinguished between differences in terms of company support. I split this into Structural Support and Cultural Support. Structural Support entails policy measures that provide greater control over time, location or volume of work, such as flexible working or teleworking. Cultural Support involves the company’s culture. Does this culture actually help you use the provisions within the policy or are you subjected to critical looks if you use them? Examples of this are support from the manager and colleagues.

What did the study reveal and what are its key conclusions? Work-life balance generally means: ‘having the time, energy and flexibility to do the things I deem important’. Working hours were of less importance. Working many hours was factored into the calculation. Considerable importance was attached to flexibility. Of particular importance was the fact that flexibility should not be one-way traffic. In a demanding job, people devote a great deal of energy and often work more hours than contractually agreed on. This was not a problem, as long they had the feeling that a few hours could be recuperated when needed. If this was not possible, it was perceived as a hindrance.

Cultural Support proved to be far more important than Structural Support. Indeed, if Structural Support was lacking, this did not pose a problem, so long as Cultural Support was present. But when Structural Support existed and Cultural Support did not, this was often considered troublesome. If company policy permits flexible working, but you are greeted with a ‘good afternoon’ and a glance at a watch when you walk in at 9:30 a.m., such a policy has no value.

Children often ensure a better work-life balance because they play an inhibiting role. This is contrary to literature, which states that children affect the work-life balance. The interviewed women were ambitious and therefore worked many hours every week. Children were the reason why they ‘had’ to go home. Those without children admitted that they occasionally missed ‘having’ to do this and were therefore more frequently prone to finishing off this or that, which meant they stayed at work longer. One childless interviewee even revealed that she once said: “I really have to go; I have to pick up my children from crèche”.

As a 24-year-old ‘fresh-out-of-university’ student, I was surprised by how it differed from my expectations. With my naive (?) outlook, I had not expected women would still encounter so many preconceptions. And I was dumbstruck when I heard statements such as “If the crèche calls, you sometimes see the blind panic in someone’s eyes” and “When I revealed I was pregnant, the response was: “No, oh no, when will you go on pregnancy leave?”. This study showed me that this was probably naivety and that it is simply a fact that women need to deal with greater prejudice, or have to make their way through the labyrinth of leadership. There is also still a great deal to achieve within the business culture. I noticed that the sector in which people work and its prevailing norms and values are an important factor. Working from home and four-day work weeks is firmly established within government institutions, and the difference with the legal profession, where completely different norms and values apply, is significant.

But what struck me most was the attitude of the women. Yes, there were prejudices, but often only when I specifically asked about them. I noticed that the women I interviewed revealed how wonderfully they had organised things with their husbands. They worked a lot, but enjoyed doing so and were able to arrange everything with their families. It was incredibly fun and inspiring to hear how happy these women are with their lives and that they stand behind their decision. That is why I began my report with a quote from Ellen DeGeneres, which I thought was very applicable to the kick-ass attitude of the women I interviewed. I therefore believe it is fitting to use it to conclude this blog: “I have two X chromosomes and I am not afraid to use them!”


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