I’m quite good at balancing things. Plates on my head, scoops of ice cream on a cone, a child in one arm and several bags of groceries in the other while trying to open a door.
But the thing I care most about balancing is work and life.
That doesn’t sound too revolutionary these days, but many women might find it unusual to hear me bring up work-life balance for one simple reason: I’m a man.
A new survey conducted by Citi and LinkedIn found that 78 percent of women say they have never heard a successful man talk about the importance of striking a balance between work and family life.
I was skeptical of that number at first. But the survey grew out of the largest women’s group on LinkedIn — a 370,000-member group called Connect: Professional Women’s Network — and the results were confirmed anecdotally over and over again by people in the network. Working women just don’t hear many men talking about the importance of work-life balance.
But the survey also found that the top career concern for both men and women is “finding the right balance between work and family life.” So, as I can attest, this is an issue of great importance to male workers.
According to the survey, more than half of the male respondents said they had heard other men talking about interweaving work and family. It seems men are comfortable talking about this with each other, but aren’t letting their voices be heard more broadly.
“What caught me off guard was when the men said, ‘We are actually talking about this, we’re just only talking about this to other men,’ ” said Jacky Carter, a managing editor at LinkedIn who oversees the women’s network. “That was really enlightening. The conversations are happening about work-life balance, but they’re keeping it in their inner circle of men.”
So why do we have this disconnect? If it’s an issue both genders care about, why are men keeping the discussion largely to themselves?
I think part of the reason is that work-life balance is often looked at or presented as a women’s issue. But it’s not. It’s a workplace issue that involves women and men, parents and nonparents, employers and employees.
Keith Merron, co-author of “Gender Intelligence: Breakthrough Strategies for Increasing Diversity and Improving Your Bottom Line,” says studies have shown that work-life balance is something sought after by men and women.
“Women will make choices based on work-life balance more than men, but the truth is that we both feel it alike,” said Merron, a senior associate at Barbara Annis & Associates, which specializes in gender diversity and inclusive leadership training. “You’re making a conscious choice as a man or a woman at an executive level to forgo work-life balance in exchange for something else. If you’re asked to tell a little more about your feelings, a woman might say this is really hard and I feel really troubled by the sacrifices that I’m making. Whereas the men, if you ask them what’s going on, they might acknowledge that, but the pain point might not be as severe.”
That gives a hint as to the previously mentioned disconnect.
“For a lot of men, work is the place where they think, ‘This is where I’m making my mark in the world,’ ” Merron said. “Not many men look at parenting and say I want to make my mark as a father.”
That doesn’t mean men are callous toward parenting. It’s more a factor of brain wiring and the division of labor that, as Merron described, has been “baked into our culture.”
“However, those social norms are changing, and have been meaningfully for decades,” Merron said. “Now you see a lot more stay-at-home dads where the woman is the primary breadwinner. That seems to be happening comfortably more and more.”
But many men still feel a certain expectation to put work first.
“In a male culture, it is completely accepted that you work hard in order to be a good man,” Merron said. “And therefore, for somebody to say, ‘You know what, I don’t really want to work as much,’ that would break the male code.”
We men are an odd lot.
What would be best is if we all opened up about our desires regarding work and family, and if everyone acknowledged that there’s no reason to feel guilty for wanting to make it to your kid’s soccer game, or to occasionally be there to pick up your son or daughter after school.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune.