A few years ago Sharon List was a professional woman who did it all: As a CPA she was successfully climbing the corporate ladder at a public company, reporting to the CFO and making what she describes as a respectable paycheck. She was also meeting the demands of family life as a wife and a mother of two young sons.
And List’s perfect life left her overwhelmed, depleted, and unhappy. To change it, she had to let go of the idea of work-life balance.
List, who advises women on their personal lives as well as careers through her coaching business, All Inclusive You, will speak at a meeting of the Ellevate networking group on Tuesday, May 21, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Tigerlabs at 252 Nassau Street in Princeton. For more information, visit www.ellevatenetwork.com/chapters/33-us-central-new-jersey.
List says she realized she needed to make a change in order to enjoy the life she was working so hard to build. And since there are only so many hours in the day, that meant something had to give. It wasn’t going to be her family. List switched careers and traded in her 50+ hour corporate work weeks for a CFO position at a smaller company, VelocIT in Cranbury, in addition to her life coaching business.
She says that today she is much happier and performs better in both her business life and her home life.
Not everyone needs to make such a drastic change, she says. Instead, it’s a matter of evaluating both career and home life and eliminating activities that don’t lead to success in order to better focus on the ones that do. “I believe in work-life success,” she says. “You aren’t taking anything away from your life and career that you want, but letting go of things that don’t lead to success.”
Success, she says, means something different to every woman, so everyone needs to do the calculus for herself. “If a woman is participating in many organizations and events through her life and pulled in many directions, she may not be doing a good job in any of them,” she says. “For example, if volunteering at one organization and advancing in your career are two of the most defining measures of success, you shouldn’t feel guilty about letting go of other obligations because they don’t support the life that you want to live.”
“I think it goes back to prioritizing what’s important in both of those areas,” she says.
A major contributor to women having a hard time balancing work and life is a corporate culture at many companies that demands long hours regardless of what is being accomplished. “All that does is add to the wearing down and the stress and the guilt,” List says. “These women become less focused and productive.”
List says in some cases the long hours are required by companies and in other cases by women on themselves in an effort to “lean in” and get ahead. “I do feel that women take on a lot more, hoping to be recognized, and sometimes if they say no to an obligation at work because they want to spend time with family, they may seem less committed and less driven than male counterparts,” she says. “They may also leave work early to go to a ball game, but men are viewed differently: as great fathers and family men. With women, it’s ‘Well, are you committed to the job, or are you a mom?’”
One way out of this pressure is to carefully select which obligations to take on and which to refuse, List says. For example, someone may wish to have a technically focused career as an individual contributor to a workplace. In such a case, there is not much to be gained by going to after-work happy hours and schmoozing or leadership workshops.
On the other hand, someone who wants to be a leader would want to prioritize those events and consider skipping extra technical training workshops. “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything,” List says. “You should really focus on what’s important and reduce stuff that doesn’t help you.”
The same is true of family life. Someone who loves cooking and baking might want to carve out time for those activities. On the other hand, someone who prefers exercising and taking children to events might need to skip the cooking obligation in order to do those things.
Additional pressures come from outside the family. “This comes up a lot with PTA moms,” List says. “If you’re involved and want to be involved in your child’s schooling, you must make the time for the PTA in order to feel good. But if you feel confident in the school and you’re not interested in participating, you should feel good about not participating and letting that go instead of struggling to fit it in, or not doing it and then feeling guilty about it. You shouldn’t feel guilty about something you never wanted to do in the first place.”
No matter the particular situation, List says help from a partner is invaluable. “In many homes there are still socialized gender roles, and I think that it can’t be all on the woman to take care of laundry and kids and the social calendar and family parties and also go to work a full-time job the same hours as her partner … when one partner is contributing 10 to 20 percent at home and the woman is doing the other 90 or 80 percent.”
“I’m definitely walking my talk,” List says. She grew up in Monroe Township, where her mother was a legal secretary and her father was a maintenance man who shifted to doing computer work in the 1990s. List was the first in her family to go to college, and her goal has always to go into business and earn a decent paycheck. “I felt that would make me feel happy and have a life worth living and be successful,” she said. She was surprised when achieving this goal didn’t make her happy.
“At the end of the day I want women to enjoy the life they’re working hard for,” she says.