Yesterday I went to the Glamour Love Your Life conference at 92nd Street Y. The conference was a one-day event that coincides with next week’s Glamour Women of the Year Awards, where honorees will include Queen Rania of Jordan, Constance McMillen and women’s rights activist Dr. Hawa Abdi.
The day began with a panel called “Love Your Work Life,” a collection of highly successful professional women at various stages of life, talking about how they juggle the professional and the personal. Unfortunate, the panelists – Arianna Huffington, Bobbi Brown of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi, Dylan’s Candy Bar CEO Dylan Lauren and fashion designer Anna Sui – didn’t seem to have many concrete solutions would work for working women.
Things started off well enough, with Huffington observing that the traditional, masculine definition of professional success isn’t a particularly healthy one. “Men have not done it right,” she said. “Men have taken it for granted that if you’re going to be successful you’re going to end up with a stroke or heart attack in your fifties.” Men, she observed, view sleep deprivation as a kind of “virility symbol,” a badge of honor. Women, she countered, don’t want success at such a high cost, and are redefining success on their own, more balanced terms. As Bobbi Brown put it, “What is success? It’s what makes you happy.”
Which is a great, even revolutionary sentiment. But the discussion was heavy on such sentiments, and light on substance. There was no mention made of policies that aid or inhibit work-life balance or of reframing work-life balance as a family issue, rather than as a women’s issue. Instead, the focus was on, as Huffington put it, helping women to figure out how to balance work and life so that “we can help men, first the men in our lives, and then men everywhere” to do it too. The panel opened with a question from the moderator, “20/20″ reporter Deborah Roberts, about why it’s only ever women who are asked about how to balance work and life. But then the panelists proceeded to talk as though husbands and fathers weren’t a part of the equation at all, concluding instead that “women need to support each other” in the struggle for work-life balance.
The discussion also failed to take in to account the fact that the women on the panel, because they have enjoyed such professional success, have access to services that most working women do not. Lakshmi, when the discussion turned to the subject of getting enough sleep (a cause Huffington recently took on), said that she struggles to find the emotional discipline required to stay in bed when her daughter cries during the night, and to wait the five minutes until her nanny wakes up to take care of the child.
Bobbi Brown said that while her professional life was important to her, being a wife and mother and having “a happy life” had always been very important too. Brown chose to live outside of New York City, and said that when her children were younger, she always left work at 5pm. “People looked at me like I was crazy,” Brown said, when she walked out of an unfinished photo shoot at five o’clock. Brown told a story of the night her husband came to the set of a photo shoot, baby in tow, to pick Brown up and take her home for dinner. The shoot was with famous photographer Francesco Scavullo, whose friend Jean-Paul Gaultier had come by and asked Brown to join them for dinner. “I remember saying to myself, ‘pick a door,’” Brown said yesterday. She chose to go home with her husband, a choice she does not regret.
Which is all well and good, but Brown is the founder and CEO of her own company. She doesn’t answer to a boss, and doesn’t need to impress anyone if she wants to land a promotion or angle for a raise. Brown clearly hasn’t suffered professionally as a result of her determination to set and stick to her own rules about work and family. But leaving work at a set time, whether work is finished or not, or choosing not to go to dinner with a potential client, isn’t a choice that most working women can afford to make. Nor, I hardly need to mention, do most working women have live-in nannies to take care of their children.
Finally, the discussion framed work-life balance not only as a women’s issue, but as an individual one. Despite urging women to support each other in the quest for a healthy, happy balance, there was no acknowledgement that no matter how hard women try, they can’t achieve the elusive on their own. Without institutional and structural change – in corporate policy, political policy and in our cultural definitions of motherhood and fatherhood – work-life balance will continue to be elusive. It’s true that women must support each other in this struggle, and obviously, it’s a struggle that will play out differently for each woman. But this isn’t solely a women’s issue – it’s also a family issue, a cultural issue, an economic issue and a political issue. We need to stop pretending that “you go, girl” is going to solve it.