Amanda Pendolino
April 24, 2013

Work-Life Balance Is a ‘Myth’: 5 Tips From Executive Women in Tech

Work-life balance “is a myth created to make us feel a bit guilty,” says Sheila Jordan, senior VP at Cisco.

Jordan and other female executives gathered Monday for a panel organized by the Michigan Council for Women in Technology. They shared their advice on how women can rise to the top — and actually be happy there.

Many women have had trouble figuring out exactly how to “lean in,” and I think the advice from this panel is applicable in all kinds of industries. Here are the five big takeaways:

1. Take risks

“Risk is the key element around planning successful careers,” says Wal-Mart CIO Karenann Terrell. If you sometimes second-guess your decisions, you’re not alone; Boeing CIO Kim Hammonds admits she’s had those moments of driving in her car, wondering, “What have I really done?” But taking risks has paid off.

2. Give up on work-life balance

Jordan says that instead of work-life balance, we should focus on “integration.” IBM senior VP Bridget van Kralingen agrees, suggesting there will be weeks or months when work will dominate, and that’s okay. Some days, it may be impossible to leave the office early; you shouldn’t feel guilty about that, the same way you shouldn’t feel guilty about sometimes leaving the office for family commitments. You might argue that “balance” and “integration” sound similar, but I do think it’s helpful to let go of guilt and remember there isn’t a quota for how much time you need to spend doing personal things each day.

3. Let go of your specialty

“When you get really good at something, it’s hard to give it up,” van Kralingen says. “What I’ve seen in many women’s careers is they hang onto something too long in order to be expert.” Moving up the ladder sometimes means throwing yourself into something new and different. Terrell suggests women need more than just mentors to help with this; we need sponsors who actively fight for us — and we need to be sponsors for those coming up behind us.

4. Take credit for your achievements

“There’s a feeling of dirtiness that exists with women about taking credit even when directly asked about it,” says Terrell. Van Kralingen acknowledges that when women self-advocate, it’s not always seen well. But Hammonds says you shouldn’t keep your head down. IBM actually has a program to help women network and show off their accomplishments. This is one of the contradictions that confused people in Lean In, too. Should women accept the unfair double-standards and hold back so they’re liked? Or should we fight the status quo and be bold? Maybe it’s more about demonstrating your work rather than talking about it; success is “both about our work output, and how you’re seen as collaborating and leading,” van Kralingen says.

5. Demand flexibility

“Men and women are going to go through life phases — sicknesses, elderly parents, children — so allowing that flexibility is very important,” Hammonds says. “And they’ll be better performers if you stick by them in that time of need.” Jordan suggested women might hold themselves back because they feel they can’t fit the rigid mold of how their superiors are working. If companies are flexible, then talented women can fully explore their talents.