Work-life balance has been the focal point of discussions around company cultures worldwide, but never before, have we seen it in action the way we did in 2020. As parents around the globe made tables out of baby carriers and lego blocks, primary caregivers coped with the additional responsibility of keeping their family members safe, and people suddenly found themselves entirely responsible for their own safety and wellbeing, something interesting was happening on the side.
Being at a workplace, which would allow people to leave the said workplace eventually, suddenly vanished. While several companies responded commendably, some companies began to expect their employees to be on video all day long, or in extreme cases, fired their employees for having 'too many' household duties to fulfill.
This brings us to an important question- what is work-life balance?
Is it enough to separate everything we do into two buckets? Moreover, is 'work' such an all-encompassing construct that everything that isn't 'work' is automatically 'life'?
Delving into the work-life equation
Cultural transformation is so rapid that it is sometimes easy to forget that even as recently as a decade ago, women could not legally drive cars in some countries. The work-life balance construct is yet another example of a policy developed for a man's world and extrapolated into all other genders' lives. It assumes that a man's 'life' entails social commitments, networking opportunities, and scheduled downtime, and therefore the opposite of work must be life, after all.
However, one would be hard-pressed to find a woman who does not have at least one commitment involving the care of another person in her ‘free’ time. A woman's 'life,' it would seem, consists of the element of care, of nurturing, and of being there to support the needs of people in her life. What happens to her 'life' component, then, is anybody's guess.
Gender norms and roles have traditionally assigned the breadwinner role to the man and that of the caregiver to the woman. However, these constructs were maybe ideal in another era, where breadwinning literally meant hunting an animal down. Today, we have diverse familial setups, and people of all genders are equally equipped to fulfill all roles. In this new circumstance, what remains unchanged, though, is the demarcation around what it means to have free time.
This is well-entrenched in the fact that gentleman's clubs and spaces serving only men continue to exist today, but such spaces for women are few and far between. Moreover, it would be a very myopic solution to propose that the answer to gender-based work-life balance challenges is simply creating downtime spaces for women.
What needs to change instead is the conversation around roles and responsibilities. The next time a female co-worker leaves early to run personal errands, her colleagues can consider supporting her by simply not asking questions. After all, when someone logs off work is not a sign of their productivity or lack thereof.
Moreover, the conversation around gender needs to bear in mind that these same constructs also impact the men - by causing them to believe that their workplace worth is measured by how long they stay at the workplace or whether they make themselves available on weekends.
Making a case for systemic change
Every cultural shift begins with small changes. Working towards an equitable definition of work-life balance is no different. It starts with creating a workplace culture that discourages all people, irrespective of gender, from staying beyond a specific time every evening. It begins with organizations that pay for their employees to take time off from work.
And the best bit? These companies do exist. It is up to every organization to emulate these examples and show their employees that their value to the organization is defined by the outcomes they can generate alone.
Now that we've addressed the 'work' aspect, how about the 'life' aspect?
This is far trickier, as most women subconsciously believe that any time not spent at work must be spent working in other ways. The next time you see a woman in your life running errands, see if you can take over.
Encourage her to take focused time out for herself by stepping out and discovering new experiences. The key here is to find a sustainable solution for everyone and explore various ideas until you reach a balance that is just right for you.
(Edited by Neha Baid)