How Women in IT Are Making Balance Work

As you examine what kind of balance is right for you, your type of work is a good place to start.

By Julie E. Miller | October 2008


It’s 24/7, it’s international in scope, and it’s constantly
changing. If you’re a woman in IT, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the
things you love about your career may be the things that confound your
best-laid plans for work/life balance. But women in IT are finding
ways, large and small, to achieve balance – and companies are starting
to understand the concept’s importance.

There’s no
question "balance" is a personal thing: What works for one person may
not be the solution for someone else. But as you examine what’s right
for you, the type of work you do is a good place to start.  For
example, Boston technical writer Cindy Bailen enjoys the challenge of
expressing information with technical clarity, and keeps things
interesting by working across functional teams in her organization. "I
love being a technical writer because it enables you to do the kind of
work that allows excellence, even if you have other obligations, and to
do work that is fortunately very portable," she says. Sometimes, taking
time to deal with family issues is a reality, she notes. "But if you
don’t love your work, or feel it doesn’t utilize your talents and
skills, then the frustration can grow when you reach the place where
your family needs you. If you love your work, you tend to find a way to
continue to do it."

Modeling Balance 

Finding
a boss whose own actions model a healthy work/life balance is another
piece of the puzzle. "My manager models appropriate work/life balance
every day," says Baltimore-based Missy Sinwell Smith, a manager in
IBM’s Global Technology Services. "If there’s a family thing, or you
need to take some time – he cares about delivery on the results rather
than the hours." (Smith, whose clients and co-workers are located
worldwide, finds having an office at home necessary to accommodate
communication across time zones.) If you’re considering a job change,
look for clues about a potential manager’s commitment to balance.  

Allison
Sharma is an independent SAP analyst with Auburndale Associates in
Newton, Mass, currently working on-site at a leading consumer beverage
company. "When I’m looking for consulting opportunities that will meet
my needs for flexibility, the organization’s management style has a big
impact," she says. But how can you determine a company’s commitment to
balance at the interviewing stage? The issue is "delicate," says
Sharma. "You don’t want to go into it saying, ‘This is what I can give
you and this is what I want from you’. You have to sell yourself to
some extent before making it all about you."

Breathing Space

Because
of IT’s 24/7 nature, women may have an advantage in carving out time in
their weekly plans to help keep life running smoothly. Let’s call this
time "breathing space."

To acquire her breathing
space, Sharma requested – and was granted – a three-day work week at
her client, though she readily acknowledges such a schedule isn’t easy
to secure. "I put in nine months of five-days-a-week on-site at my
client to establish myself, with the hope they would see what I can do
in three days, and let me do that."  While she’s certainly available to
work from home in emergency circumstances, she’s found it key to stay
away from e-mail on her off days.  "It’s how you set yourself up. If
you’re checking e-mail all day on your off day, you’re going to get
sucked in. Whereas I’ve said, ‘Call me on my cell phone if there’s an
emergency,’ and people have respected that."

IBM’s
Smith says that in her global role, ¿I sort of signed up for the
expanded hours, so you think, ‘How can I find time in the middle of the
day to address my needs and get the basics done?’¿  With a young
daughter, Smith has a regular babysitter once a week. "But the problem
is that people are figuring out, ‘Hey, Missy is free on Tuesday
nights!’  So I really work hard at guarding that time.¿

What Companies are Doing

The report Overcoming the Implementation Gap:  How 20 Leading Companies Are Making Flexibility Work,
by the Boston College Center for Work and Family, shows some IT
companies are updating their policies to reflect their commitment to
flexibility in the workplace. For example, Dell’s Virtual Call Centers
have employees "work(ing) from home on the same schedule as if they
were at work." Employees "can work part-time or adjust hours after
pregnancy or parental leave" through Intel’s New Parent Reintegration
program. And IBM’s Flexible Work Options – New Communications Strategy
"includes compressed workweek, flex hours, telecommuting, part-time,
and leave of absence" options, and was driven in part by the needs
identified by company’s women’s councils.

According
to the Boston College study, rather than branding flexibility a women’s
issue these days, companies who have rolled out successful flexibility
programs indicate they "had to find a way to make the new way of
working the expected way of working. They said that this can
be accomplished by integrating the new work arrangements into existing
systems in a way that encourages their use."

It’s Personal

Of
course, the "work" and "life" components to work/life balance are
different from one person to the next. Frequently, they involve a
combination of health issues, family schedules, elder care, child care,
or personal pursuits that compete with the 24/7 nature of IT careers
for women. But fortunately, individual and corporate solutions are
moving women in IT closer to their desired work/life balance
destinations.

A bit of laughter can help along the
way. IBM’s Smith finds humor in the situation when she explains that
her home office doubles as a guest room. "I’ve literally had to say to
my guests, ‘Excuse me – are you decent? I have a conference call with
Europe right now!‘"

Julie E. Miller is a career counselor with a private practice in Newton, Massachusetts.

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