Glamour magazine’s “Love Your Work Life” panel: Lots of sentiment, few solutions

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted November 2, 2010 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    It is unfortunate that the people lifted up as adequate teachers and role models are sometimes the most clueless and the most beholden to privilege. I think the people on this panel just don’t get it because they’ve never really had to get it.

    • Posted November 3, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      I couldn’t agree more. But audiences (many members at least) seem to want the myth.

  2. Posted November 2, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Good points. Other things to keep in mind:

    Although undeniably well-educated and smart, Arianna Huffington is where she is in large part because she was married to a very wealthy man and she received a huge financial settlement when they divorced. I’m glad she’s trying to use her money for good, but still…

    Padma Lakshmi, as beautiful and talented as she’s supposed to be (I don’t watch food shows), benefited from being married to Salman Rushdie — that helped put her on the map.

    Dylan Lauren is the daughter of Ralph Lauren. Money and contacts.

    I don’t know anything about Bobbi Brown and Anna Sui’s businesses, but, as you said, being the head of your own business gives you flexibility. Since I’ve known about her, Bobbi Brown has always been successful, but as I recall, she’s married to a lawyer, which undoubtedly gave her some financial stability if needed.

    The problem with these panels, and in America we’re treated to them all the time, is that they foster the emulation of celebrities when we don’t actually know what they did to attain their success. They discourage more boring and less immediately gratifying discussions of systemic change.

    So the takeaway from these panels still is: Be attractive, smart, hardworking and have major access to money and connections.

  3. Posted November 2, 2010 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    One of my most memorable experiences in college was showing up to a seminar on work/life balance and the speaker (a female professor) burst out crying before she could even start her speech. Turns out she had just found out she was pregnant, and she was already overwhelmed trying to make tenure and didn’t know how she could possibly handle another child. We spent the rest of the night trying to console her, and I still don’t know how anything about work/life balance…

    • Posted November 3, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Disappointing but truthful. The thing is, if most panelists departed from the “script,” there would be no panels.

      Whenever I watch these things, and it has to feature people I’m extremely interested in, I go strictly for

      1) entertainment;
      2) self-presentation tips, e.g., how not to answer questions gracefully; and
      3) VERY general inspiration.

      I no longer seek actual, applicable insight or usable information.

  4. Posted November 3, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Your last paragraph made my radical feminist heart flutter. I love it.

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