Friday, March 18, 2005

I recently attended a forum conducted by my company as part of its diversity initiative. The topic of the day was whether women in or on their way towards senior management could achieve a proper work/life balance.
There were four speakers but only two made any impression on me; one of them was a very high-powered woman working in my company, while the other was a prominent lawyer - with an equally, if not more so, prominent husband, although I was unaware of that fact at the time. Anyway, that's beside the point. Being a young woman doing her best to cope with the long hours and lousy pay at the expense of one of the great loves of her life, I was, of course, most interested in hearing what these people had to say.

Essentially, it all boiled down to a few salient points. With the advances of technology which have now given us nifty innovations such as mobile phones, Blackberrys and remote access, it is now possible for us to work from anywhere we choose. It's not necessary to be at your desk all the time to get work then. In fact, if you wanted, you could leave the office at 6.30 pm, bring your work home with you, spend time with the kids until they fall asleep, and then continue working after that. In other words, it's now easier to fit your hobbies, passions and well, life, around work.

Women who have just given birth can make use of this as well if they don't want to be away from what's going on for too long. In my line of work, that's one of the things I'd be most worried about. My industry is very fast-paced. I struggle a little to catch up after being away for a fortnight, much less a couple of months.

Aside from technology, the speakers stated that what we as women need to do is be a little selfish. We need to consider ourselves and what we want out of life more, instead of thinking about the needs of others. And once we know what it is that we want, then we need to be tenacious enough to go after it, no matter what, and not allow anyone or anything to hold us back. In other words, we need a killer instinct in order to be successful.

The speaker I liked the most - the lawyer - was the most forthright. She put forward a lot of interesting points which, at some level, I already knew, but was not fully aware of. For instance, she pointed out that a man's career path is linear, whereas a woman's career trajectory isn't. It's more of a hyperbolic curve, because the point most men (and women) are trying their best to get a foot into the echelons of senior management, is also the same time that most women would (ideally) want to start having a family. However, jobs are designed purely to accommodate men's career paths, and not women's. Moreover, she pointed out that in order to rectify this, we'd probably need to revamp the whole system.

Another thing she said that I liked was her frank admission that after the birth of her first two kids, she was a physical wreck. She was working incredibly long hours in the office and her two pregnancies were unplanned. After the birth of the first son, she felt horrible for not being at home for him because she was in the office, and at the same time, she felt like a lousy worker for not being the last one to leave. So, she took a year off work (although still keeping in touch with what was going on in her industry) and spent time with her family before jumping back into practising law.

She also pointed out that we shouldn't regard women who choose to work and aspire to be in senior management as superwomen, but rather ordinary women, and that all of us are capable of achieving "high-powered high-flyer" status if we had that "killer instinct".

Before you start thinking that I was incredibly inspired by the forum (I was... and still am, but my natural cynicism has sunk in again), I do have some quibbles with the points brought up. First and foremost, I work in a department where the boss herself seems to consider that if we leave the office earlier than say 8 pm, then we're not getting enough work. And true enough, more work will appear on our desks the next morning. In addition, I'm far too junior for my company to give me a Blackberry to use if necessary.

Secondly, of course it's possible to raise a family in Singapore even if both you and your husband worked. Usually, the parents or the in-laws will be more than happy to take care of your kids while getting a maid is an affordable alternative. Given the peculiarities of this city, I would quite like it if we could get a Western speaker (as in high-flying female, married, with kids and based in a Western country) to tell us how she coped without having a maid or her parents or in-laws taking care of the kids.

Finally, for those of us who haven't found the perfect house husband and are doing our best to work towards a senior managerial position, how, then, do we go about achieving that work/life balance? It requires so much time and effort to meet people, much less having to filter the chaff from the wheat and then build a relationship which will hopefully last. I don't think I've got the time - or the energy these days - to be able to do that.

There're some other things I wanted to say but my notes aren't here. Also, I've been working pretty late the last few nights and I'm starting to fall asleep. I'll complete this later.

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