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Women Saying "Yes" or "No" - Work/Life Balance and the Changing Economy

By March 10, 2009

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When it comes to work and career advancement, should a woman ever say "no"?

The right answer may depend on where you're standing as you contemplate this question. Two women tackle this highly debatable topic, and both stand on opposing sides.

Suzy Welch is the former editor of the Harvard Business Review, and co-authored the book Winning with her husband, former General Electric CEO Jack Welsh. The author of numerous articles about leadership, creativity, change and organizational behavior, she is also the mother of four children ages 14-19. A contributing editor to O magazine, she recently wrote, "The price of saying 'no' at work."

Emily Stoddard Furrow is in her twenties and lives in Michigan. She left a rewarding job at a communications firm, took a 50% pay cut and returned to work in the family business. She also provides communications consulting to non-profits. She responded to Suzy Welch's commentary with her own thoughts in "There isn't 'yes' and 'no' in your career - there are opportunities, decisions, and shifts."

Why You Should Never Say No
Welch makes the case that saying no has consequences and the most successful women realize this and accept it. From a consulting firm CEO who juggles marriage, family and career:

You know why I never say no?...Because I think about the consequences of someone else saying yes. Someone else gets my piece of the franchise....You know, I miss my teacher conferences, too. I miss school picnics. That is why I am at the top....To get where I am...I have given up so much. My job has inflicted untold brutality on my marriage. Untold brutality on my life. I will not start saying no and take the hit in my career, too. The price I've paid is already high enough.

From an anesthesiologist - also a wife and mother - on the the work/life balance and why she can now say no selectively:

It's a bit of a shell game...I said yes to every request for probably 15 years. I took the hardest cases, worked the worst hours, volunteered on holidays -- I'd do anything to make it into the hospital on those snow days when other doctors couldn't get their cars out of their garages. I stockpiled goodwill as if a nuclear war were coming.....In reality...I paid up front.

That same woman on other women - female doctors - who make work/life balance a goal from day one:

I've seen them a million times....They come in right after their residencies and immediately start trying to negotiate time off. Everyone can't stand them. They get managed right out. You can't say no until you've earned it, unless, of course, you're willing to pay the price of irrelevancy.

Saying No as a Holistic Approach

Compare and contrast the above views with those of Furrow, who's a generation younger and falls into the millennial category -- a group with very different views of work/life balance:

Many of the women who now run companies and mastered the career ladders...arrived on the professional scene at a time when women could finally attempt to have it all, yet they still had to do it all to make that possible. So it's not surprising they feel they had to say yes to everything - was there really another option?

But I don't think this approach is relevant anymore or healthy. Besides the personal turmoil the "yes" life can create, my generation has seen consequences that undermine the supposed rewards of this approach. We're watching companies crumble, taking the assets and benefits promised to their longstanding employees down with them.

Based on these realities and other factors, I think young women in my generation tend to be more holistic when it comes to decision-making, priority-setting, and to assessing consequences of both. In general, I think young professionals today are too entrepreneurial and open-minded to perceive "yes" and "no" opportunities. There is never truly a "narrowing" of opportunities. There is only a shifting of opportunities until we get to the life we want, and even the understanding of what we want may change over time.

Women have always pondered whether or not to say no. In months and years past, 'no' was seen as the healthy response of a woman trying to reclaim her life and unburden herself of those obligations, commitments, and duties that didn't enhance her personal well-being. But now 'no' is a riskier proposition in a world in which many out-of-work professionals are pounding the pavement looking for an employer to say 'yes.'

'No' Redefined By the Recession
The consequences of saying no is an important point to ponder in this time of economic distress when change - often for the worse - is thrust upon us, forcing us to shift priorities. Although more men are experiencing job loss than men, successful women who put their careers first may find themselves feeling what many men feel - a loss of one's sense of self as defined by the work that we do, the title we hold, the career we've put at the center of our lives.

Those who are still hanging onto jobs are being asked to do more and more to take up the slack left by others already let go. How far can we push ourselves before we sacrifice too much?

I have said no and I have said yes in my life and in my work. Like one of the women Welch interviewed, I've probably said yes with greater frequency as I made my way up the ladder, and am saying no more often now that I'm older, wiser, and more established in my chosen career.

What have your answers been, and have they changed over time? Who do you think has the better handle on what working women face - Welch or Furrow? Or does it really depend on where you are in your life to understand and agree with either view? Do millennials have a healthier approach to work/life balance than their mothers?

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March 10, 2009 at 4:29 pm
(1) Anne Caroline Drake says:

Whew! This is a loaded subject!

The thing I noticed during my career was that my male colleagues weren’t burdened by their responsibilities at home. The single men didn’t worry about laundry or cleaning or kids. They hired or married somebody to do it for them.

Their focus was totally on their careers. Nobody criticized them for missing a soccer game.

Now that I am older and wiser, I would caution young women to think carefully about sacrificing their career aspirations to rear families.

And, I would ask them why we are the ones who have to make the choice between career and family? This isn’t a corporate problem. It’s a family problem. Women have to make these hard choices because men have been conditioned to believe they have no responsibility at home other than to bring in the bacon.

We’re still operating under the old paradigm of our husbands “letting” us work. Excuse me? This is what needs to change.

We women need to wake up and realize that dumping family responsibilities onto women is a very passive way to sabotage a woman’s career success. The problem isn’t at the office. The problem is at home. It is in bed with us. But, we don’t want to acknowlege it because that messes up the fairy tale in our heads.

Sorry this is harsh. I wish someone had been straight with me when I was younger. But, the women older than me were living with the same fairy tale in their heads. . .and the same societal pressures.

We aren’t equal because we haven’t made a credible demand for equality. When some guy challenges us, we blink. It’s over.

We want our careers, but we know men won’t want us if we’re as focused as they are on getting ahead. So, we compromise our souls.

We need to be more clear about what we want, and we need to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to get it.

There isn’t a CEO on the planet ~ male or female ~ who has spent quality time with the kids.

March 10, 2009 at 4:44 pm
(2) PunditMom says:

I guess it depends on what your ultimate goal is. In 20 years of professional life (journalism and law) I never said ‘no.’ And where did it get me? It didn’t do anything for my career and my personal life suffered. It’s easy to say yes to everything when you’re young and have no children or aging parents. It’s different now and I carefully analyze all the consequences — personal and professional — before I answer yes or no.

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