Life happens. When it comes to the workplace, though, do men and women handle the challenges of meeting life’s responsibilities differently?
Recently, a client asked for my advice about how to deal with needing time off to handle a family issue she wanted to keep private. She might have to leave work suddenly, she told me, or she might need a day or two out of the office. The situation was fluid, with no clear end in sight. Working from home was doable, but she couldn’t promise she’d be keeping traditional office hours.
Coincidently, a friend told me how stressed she was about a situation where she needed time off three weeks in a row: once because her son was ill and she had to pick him up from school, once because her dog had to be taken to the vet, and a third time because she had to deal with a broken pipe in her bathroom. She was worried that her chances for promotion would be affected.
Both women were anxious about the effect on their credibility. Their concern was legitimate. A lot of factors come into play when someone is being considered for a future leadership position, and some of them are more emotionally-based than performance-based.
Generally, three criteria come into play:
1. How sincerely the firm’s leadership team believes in a culture where everyone is treated like a grownup. As long as quality work gets done and clients are satisfied, it doesn’t matter when or where you do it. Many progressive firms operate successfully on this principle. Some others pay it lip service but keep tabs on when people come and go. In the former firms, no reason for working offsite is needed. In the latter, an explanation is required. Once an explanation is necessary, emotions come into play. Like it or not.
2. The way the situation is presented when it arises. This can get a little sticky. It’s impossible to plan for unexpected situations or how you will react to them, but it can be important to think about how you will present the circumstances at the office. Should you sound matter-of-fact? Agitated/stressed? Apologetic? What happens when you need to unexpectedly change your schedule several times in a short period? Life doesn’t happen on a neat timetable.
3. The manner in which the firm has dealt with others who have needed time to take care of personal matters. This goes to the core of the firm’s culture. Are people with personal responsibilities that require flexibility able to stay on a leadership/partnership track or do firm leaders look at them differently because life took precedence over work? This is when the work/life balance conundrum truly comes into play.
And now the question overarching these three criteria: are men and women are treated differently in the same circumstances. As sad as I am about my answer, it’s “yes.” In large part this is because of generations of old school firm leaders’ perception that men are more focused on work than family. This is changing, thankfully, but there are still many people who think men won’t take off to handle family matters. And that you must be in the office to be working. Changing ingrained opinions is not easy even when technology makes them obsolete.
Another reason women are perceived differently when they encounter these situations is that they tend to apologize. They begin the conversation with “I’m sorry,” and that automatically puts them on the defensive. Men are more likely to say something like “Hey, Joe. My kid has strep and I need to take him to the doctor. See you in the morning.” Do you see the difference?
Life happens, and women need to be coached in how to handle themselves when it does. Being on the defensive is not a good tactic if you want to further your career.