By Johanna N. Leonard, AICP
During last year’s annual budget cycle, I found myself in a position of reorganizing the community development department I lead in order to better manage day-to-day plan review activities while still supporting long-term city planning efforts.
For this reorganization, I identified a longtime staff member on the zoning team for a promotion to take the lead in making improvements to workflow activities and processes. When I discussed these potential changes with her, she expressed trepidation about the move and the additional work it might involve and requested greater detail on the expectations of the position.
I was taken aback: I had identified a path for promotion for her, and I was coaching her to “lean in.” Why was this so hard, and why would she not jump at this opportunity? She was smart, hardworking, and passionate about her work—all the attributes of a promotion-worthy employee. What possible reason would someone have for questioning this opportunity?
As we continued the discussion for many months, I came to recognize that she was very much interested in advancing her career and was prepared to work even harder. At the same time, she was cognizant of her work/life balance and how the choices she made professionally would affect her life outside of work, especially her responsibilities to her family. Our discussion opened my eyes a bit more to the challenges many women face when balancing work and career-growth opportunities and a life that often includes sometimes inflexible family obligations.
Navigating Work and Home
As a mother of two small children and a relatively new director of a city department, I am still navigating my own work/life issues. My job is exciting and engaging professionally. Evanston, Illinois, the community I serve, is an inner-ring suburb of Chicago that has strong development activity, a need for more affordable housing, an active business community addressing changing consumer habits in the age of the internet, and a robust multi-modal transportation system that includes rapid transit, rail, and bus but also is growing to include transportation network providers that offer shared bicycles, scooters, and cars. This all makes for ongoing, significant demands for long-term planning.
My time outside of work includes spending time with my husband—a stay-at-home dad to our two young children—keeping up with daily household chores, planning and preparing meals, and making sure we’re doing all the right things for our toddlers to promote happiness and health in their lives. Despite the support from my husband, I feel regular pressure to be present for my children and to be every inch a good mother. Whether it is reading many (many!) books before bedtime, teaching my son to bake, or carting my daughter to a music class, I do it.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics noted in 2018 in the American Time Use Survey that the average mother spent two-and-one-half hours per day in 2017 caring for children in the household if they are under six; this number declines to about an hour-and-a-half as the children grow older and fall between the ages of 6 and 18.1 Add this to the time at work and then a few hours spared for true “me time” to read, watch a show, or enjoy a workout, and I’m short on time. The footnote to all this is that being a director in a city like mine means that I am almost always “on call” for work; I regularly answer my cellphone or respond to email as long as I’m awake and my phone is accessible.
My ability to have both a demanding work-intensive job and be a mother to two small children is in part because I have a partner and an extended family that supports and enables this. After my son was born, we found that the flexibility of having one parent at home added stability to our family—both in supporting our small children and my position as breadwinner for the family by enabling me to work. Subsequently, this arrangement has enabled me to be successful in my job because my life has space for work to expand, and caregiving that might conflict with work obligations falls within my husband’s duties. Among the most significant barriers to women advancing their careers are the responsibilities that come with caregiving—whether to small children or to other family members.
The Changing Nature of Work
My family’s experience is consistent with a noted trend: Work is expanding into all parts of our lives with the result that one member of a couple may need to be “on-call” for work activities while the other is “on-call” for home activities. Claire Cain Miller wrote an article in The New York Times titled “Women Did Everything Right. Then Work Got ‘Greedy.2 How America’s obsession with long hours has widened the gender gap.” It summarizes an ever-present and significant barrier in gender equality in the workplace—the expectation that a worker can devote unlimited hours to the job—something that is seldom possible for women who have responsibilities outside the workplace.
The article notes that increasingly women with advanced degrees and access to professional opportunities that will yield significant earning potential find themselves unable to take advantage of these opportunities because of family responsibilities. The reason is the changing nature of work. “This is not about educated women opting out of work (they are the least likely to stop working after having children, even if they move to less demanding jobs). It’s about how the nature of work has changed in ways that push couples who have equal career potential to take on unequal roles.”
“How the nature of work has changed”: This observation particularly resonated with me. I am an exception to this trend of women with advanced degrees taking jobs that require less work and allow for more flexibility for a family; I have “leaned in” and taken on more work.
One could therefore understand my surprise in the case of the staff member who did not jump at the professional opportunity I offered her. I projected my own ability to take on more work responsibilities and my desire for professional growth to this staff member, while not acknowledging the structure I have built outside of work to make it possible for me.
What I see now is that she was managing the boundaries of her career with an eye to her family obligations. Her success and ability to do good work was the result of maintaining that balance. This recognition has made me consider how we manage the work/life balance for our employees, and also how local government operations may affect the residents of the communities we serve.
Why It Matters to Local Government
So why does work/life balance matter to local government? First, it matters because if we want to encourage anyone to be a leader in an organization, we have to find ways (both big and small) to support those who want to take on the challenges of professional growth and not just those who have the ability to assume longer working hours.
Second, it matters because those we serve in our communities likely face similar challenges in managing their work/life balance. In addition to the increases in time required to fulfill parenting or work duties, other responsibilities are ever present—pressure to engage in professional development outside of the regular workday, caring for an aging parent or partner, self-care activities, or expectation for “extra-curricular” interests that consume precious time. Between evening meetings, weekend activities, and increasing expectations to utilize technology to connect and deliver services (all accessible from a smartphone we carry at all times), there are few moments when we are disconnected from the work we do.
Considering these realities, it is a given that local government needs to address work/life balance to help both employees and residents. Here are a few ways that Evanston is doing this.
- Rethinking public involvement and engagement. Not everyone can attend a public meeting, and not all staff will be able to regularly meet outside of the workday. Could pop-up events at family-friendly places like the farmer’s market, the local library, the commuter rail station, or a school event be used to gather feedback on projects or ideas in lieu of a formal committee meeting to discuss a topic? In the coming months we’re going to test pop-up events to gather feedback on transportation and mobility issues instead of bringing these to a formal evening committee meeting. Pop-ups have the benefits of being able to occur during the regular workday, solicit a potentially broader range of feedback, and engage new voices in local government processes.
- Setting the right tone for what constitutes a workday. I have reminded managers and staff that we need to stick to working hours for the workday and determine when it’s appropriate to extend that day beyond the set time. Additionally, people often boast how they “worked nonstop” or “worked through lunch.” Lunch can be a good time to take a break or catch up on non-work tasks. Reminding workers to take that lunch and leading by example are important in setting a tone. It’s important that the culture not imply that working late or through lunch defines a hard worker.
- Reducing the reasons to visit local government offices. Evanston’s civic center is not centrally located and cannot be easily linked with another trip or errand without the use of a car. To reduce the need for in-person transactions, we accept building permit payments online, and we’ve started to allow customers to print building permits at home. We’re identifying other technological improvements that will reduce the need for a special trip to the civic center.
- Thanking employees and customers. As our city manager regularly reminds us, “thank you” is the simplest and often underrated way of expressing gratitude to workers and those we serve. It’s highly likely that the people you work with have other constraints on their lives on that particular day or at that moment. Reminding them that you’re grateful or acknowledging their service (however small) is just one way to maintain civility and remind ourselves that we are all in “this” together.
And, for the record, the staff member did accept the promotion, and we continue to work together to find the best balance of work and life for ourselves and encourage others to do the firstname.lastname@example.org).
Endnotes and Resources
1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, June 28, 2018, American Time Use Survey – 2017 Results “Average hours per day parents spent caring for and helping household children as their main activity” https://www.bls.gov/charts/american-time-use/activity-by-parent.htm.