Women on the Frontline

Keeping the Work/Life Balance

Marie Van Steene, Schlumberger; Alicia Koral, ConocoPhillips; and Shruti Ravindra Jahagirdar, Shell

Work/life balance has become one of the most important aspects of job satisfaction for young professionals. This article explores the meaning of work/life balance and how it can be achieved, complemented by the opinions and insight from nine experienced women in the industry: Lynda Armstrong, vice president, Technical Solutions, and Sheila Dubey, principal production chemist, Shell; Achala Danait, principal scientist, Production Enhancement, Halliburton; Susan Herron, scientific adviser, Valerie Jochen, Reservoir Stimulation technology director, and Sandra Marca, geologist,Schlumberger; Michelle Pittenger, staff geologist, Subsurface Technology, Lynn Strickland, exploration manager, Global New Ventures, and Meg Yaege, former manager of Pipelines and Terminals, ConocoPhillips.

Work/life Balance: A Definition

Work/life balance means being able to have and enjoy a personal, social, and family life while working full-time. The idea is for life not to be just about work but also about being able to focus on your personal life and family when it is important. “I don’t want to be so consumed with work that I ask myself why did I even have a family?” says Yaege.

Being unable to maintain a balance between work and personal life has consequences. The family, although supportive, is most likely to suffer. Marca recalls one of her managers receiving his 20 years seniority reward—a luxurious watch—in a company ceremony and telling the following story: “While choosing my watch I was proud to tell my wife that she also should choose one as a gift from the company. She replied, ‘I don’t need a watch, I need your time.’”

Balance or a Successful Career?

One way of addressing work/life balance is to clearly determine  priorities and honor them in every decision. Once your priorities are well defined, then the decisions you make are choices, not compromises or sacrifices. In addition, you should be clear on what success means to you. If it means more money and moving up the organizational ladder, then your priority will always be work. It becomes difficult to achieve balance in such cases. Often, a successful professional is seen as one who enjoys her job, meets or exceeds her supervisor’s expectations, and at the same time has a fulfilling personal life. If you are realistic about your goals at work and the amount of time required at home, then balance is achievable.

Balance often changes during one’s career. This means that you might need to continually review your priorities and be flexible.Flexibility is a key ingredient of work/life balance: sometimes home things will have to be done from work and work things will have to be done from home. “I feel I want to do it all,” says Dubey, “so I go to watch my sons play soccer and stay up at night to catch up on work.”

On the other hand, “upward potential can be limited if you want to always be able to put your family first,” says Yaege. To be successful at work, your performance cannot be seen to be suffering as a result of having a home life. “Perception is key,” says Strickland.

Men, Women, and Balance

The conventional wisdom is that  women give up more than men, particularly when raising children, but it is a choice that women make. However, there are increasing examples of men going out of their way to support their wife’s career.

Again, achieving a prosperous professional career and work/life balance depends on your definition of success. “If success is a challenging position with fair compensation, then it is possible. If success is very senior level positions for both partners,then it is not,”says Yaege.

Balance is harder if a woman’s partner is unwilling to share in housework and childcare responsibilities. “It is important to choose your mate carefully and discuss these issues before marriage,” says Yaege. “The workplace doesn’t care about gender. The very successful men aren’t carrying the full burden at home. The most successful women aren’t either. So, sit down with your spouse and agree whose career will be primary. If your spouse’s career is primary, enjoy reasonable success and recognize that upward movement will be limited. If your career is the primary one, enjoy great success, but don’t complain about the sacrifices you make for that success.”

Danait adds: “Having an understanding spouse is crucial to a woman’s success. If he understands your passion for work, he can take care of things when you are not around.”

Roles and Companies

Some of the women interviewed for this article believe it is much harder to maintain balance in a managerial, rather than a technical role, while others believe that the two simply involve different issues and challenges. In a managerial role, you are expected to be available at all times. However, technical people can also have very demanding work schedules depending on their level.

Women who have worked for both operating and service companies believe that it is often more difficult to maintain  balance in a service company because client needs are an additional variable difficult to overcome. Others felt that it makes no difference for whom you work. “Pressure might take different forms but exists in any business,” says Marca.

While companies generally do not have a system in place to ensure work/life balance, having an understanding manager may help. “I worked out a way with my manager to work reduced hours,”says Herron. “This helped me build a successful career and a good family life.”

Pittenger shares this view. “Working part-time was the best thing I ever did,” she said. “Amazingly, some people I worked with didn’t even realize I was working part-time. Certainly, it slowed down some of my promotions, but I was still able to make significant contributions to the company. I never felt held back or marginalized for not being full-time, and I was able to focus better on my job because I knew I had the time to take care of things at home after work.”

The Impact of Children

Having children can impact your career in a positive way. “I personally think that having kids helps with professional success because women managers (and men) who have kids are more grounded and better at multitasking and time management,” says Strickland. “Child psychology is a skill you develop as a parent and is very useful to have at work when dealing with bosses, peers, and subordinates alike.” 

Children do not limit your professional success if they do not affect your ability to address the company’s needs. “Remember you will be successful only if you do your job well,” says Herron. “So only accept a job that you can do honestly and thoroughly. If you plan to care of your children, accept only jobs that will allow you to do so. If you accept a job that demands too much time or that causes too much stress, then you will inevitably fall short on either your job, your family, or both.” 

“I never have enough time with my children,” Yaege says. “The guilt never goes away,” Danait agrees. “During the week, I find it difficult to spend enough time with my children. But I compensate for this by spending a lot of time with them on the weekends.”

Learn to say “No”

Many in our panel recognize that they almost never said “no” at work. “If you want the maximum upward potential, the company needs to know it can count on you when it really matters,” says Yaege. “Saying no to a social gathering is OK. Saying no to a meeting with key customers is not.” Jochen agrees. “I said no when it didn’t make sense for my balance between work and home. I had to decide and live with the consequences.”

Know what you are asking for

says Herron. “Be sure you know what you are asking for, and make your request clearly and respectfully. For example, if you want part-time, know how many hours, for how long, and be prepared to ask, without whining and without complaining.  Know ahead of time what you will do if the response is negative, and maintain a professional, positive attitude no matter what the response.”

What really matters

“Choose what is important to your family by asking: What memories will be important to my family in the long term?” says Yaege. “Your family doesn’t care if you do the cleaning or cooking. They care if you are there to help them with homework, and are there when they are sick/sad/ecstatic, etc.”

Help at hand

Domestic help can considerably reduce the load. “We hired people to do yard work, house work, and most home repairs,” says Herron. “That gave us weekends to focus on family instead of chores.”

Help at work

Develop a good team at work to allow the workload to be shared, lessening the demands on your time while helping team members grow. Don’t be too proud to ask for help.

Make time for hobbies

There is generally little time for hobbies in the prime childcare years. “I put my husband and children first,” says Yaege. “It took me 12 years to finish one cross-stitch project!” However, early morning exercise can fit well in the schedule of busy women. In addition, developing the same interests as your kids gives you a chance to spend more time with them.