Maximizing the Work-Life Sway for Women
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Maximizing the Work-Life Sway for Women

Janel Wittmayer, 50, still recalls the advice she got about blending work and family while she was an MBA student at the University of Minnesota.

She had joined fellow Carlson School of Management students at an annual conference targeted to graduate women business students.

“I distinctly remember one of these women who was speaking,” Wittmayer says. “She was telling us that as you start to accelerate your career, and as you have kids, you have to constantly be thinking about what value your time has.” The speaker’s advice: Seek help and outsource whatever you can.

Today, Wittmayer is president of Colder Products Co., which employs about 840 people and makes quick connect couplings, fittings, and connectors. Last summer, the business moved into a new 132,000-square-foot headquarters in Roseville.

Working Moms Recalibrate Corporate Life

Amelia Williams Hardy is undaunted by busy schedules, but she also recognizes that daily life can quickly deteriorate into chaos when both parents are corporate executives trying to raise four children.

Hardy is vice president of inclusion and diversity strategic initiatives at Best Buy. Her husband, Cordell, is vice president of global corporate research and development operations at 3M. Their children are Elijah, 3; Eden, 10; Elise, 13; and Isaac, 16.

“We live by our Google family calendar,” Hardy says. “I always say, ‘If it’s not on the calendar, then it doesn’t exist.’ ”

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Wittmayer, who was hired full-time by H.B. Fuller while she was still earning her chemistry undergraduate degree, has been keenly focused on her career for 30 years. Despite being a disciplined person who doesn’t waste time, she knows that she doesn’t have enough time in her days to solely lead a business and care for her family and home.

When her son, Zachary, was born 14 years ago, she and her husband, Jon, hired a nanny. “That was really one of the best decisions we ever made,” Wittmayer says. “She is an extended part of our family yet today.”

Wittmayer’s family has a housekeeper and a snowplow service, and the business executive says she’s grateful that she learned early to “make time for the things that do add value.”

Coping with ‘mother’s guilt’

Despite her efforts to prioritize time for her family and her job, Wittmayer says “mother’s guilt is real,” based on her experience. She says other working mothers have told her they feel the same way.

“I remember stepping on the plane, once yet again to be gone from my son for several days and knowing there were things that were going on that I was going to miss, and breaking down crying on the plane,” she says.

Her travel schedule fueled the guilt. “Historically, I have traveled in my career somewhere between 50 and 70 percent,” Wittmayer says. “When I’m not traveling, I make it an absolute point to be home for dinner.”

Janel Wittmayer portrait
Janel Wittmayer

Dinner time becomes the family’s connection time. “When we are at the dinner table and when I’m able to make dinner at home, the phones are away and we don’t pick up our phones,” she says. “We are trying to be present and focused and make sure that I have time with my son, as well as with my husband, that is meaningful.”

For many years, executive women have talked about their desire to achieve work/life balance. But veteran journalist Joann Lublin says that elusive balance has been replaced by the concept of “work/life sway,” which is embraced by young women business leaders.

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She discusses it in her new book Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life. She wrote: “They deliberately move back and forth between the professional and personal sides of their digital-centric lives, accepting inevitable and aggravating disruptions such as taking youngsters to medical checkups during the workday.”

Yet the ability to “sway” gives some women a greater feeling of control during the day, because they aren’t waiting for their workdays to end before they can attend to personal business. “Certain second-wave mothers I met run a global work team from their master bedroom,” Lublin wrote. “Some order groceries online as they march into a business boardroom. Others escaped corporate America by forming their own business. Female entrepreneurs frequently devise family-friendly environments rather than expect mothers and fathers to work as if they weren’t parents, too.”

The constant movement between work and family responsibilities has been especially clear during the pandemic as parents juggled doing their own work and helping their children learn from home.

Based on recent research by McKinsey & Co., senior partner Kweilin Ellingrud says it’s been exceedingly difficult for some parents to meet the demands of both their employers and families.

Kweilin Ellingrud portrait
Kweilin Ellingrud

“We did see around half of even senior women felt there was an increased pressure to work more during Covid-19, and also a really intense pressure to be what they call ‘always on,’ ” Ellingrud says. Instead, she says, parents and nonparents alike need their employers to solidify flexibility options, so they can take more time to care for a loved one or address other needs in their personal lives.

Drawing boundaries

As 3M’s global chief marketing officer, Remi Kent is accustomed to the hectic pace of corporate work that includes frequent travel and a full meeting schedule. Yet, in some ways, she says, working from home during the pandemic has been even more taxing.

“I didn’t realize how much driving to and from work created some boundaries,” Kent says. “It gave me a clear cut-off time from work, and when I was home I was available to my son.”

She is a single mother to her 13-year-old, who lately has been telling her, “You work too much.”

While some business leaders have argued that working from home is more efficient, Kent has found that the environment easily can drift into long workdays with no boundaries.

“I’ll push dinner to take a call and it goes and goes,” Kent says. “We’re a global company, so I’m constantly meeting with partners from around the world. The day has expanded, with meetings from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., depending on the time zones.”

Terry Rasmussen, president and CEO of Thrivent, has similar concerns. “There are good things about technology, and bad,” Rasmussen says. “You can work from anywhere, and if your child has a doctor’s appointment, you can be accessible. That’s also the bad news. We have to learn to set boundaries.”

Rasmussen also recognizes the downside of an endless stream of video meetings, emails, notifications, digital chats, and social media posts.

“Zoom fatigue is real,” she says. “If you’re on calls all day, there’s no thinking time.” Thrivent recently instituted a “no Monday-morning meeting” rule. “People need time to prepare for the week,” Rasmussen says. “I know I take an hour every morning to do my reading and prepare for meetings so I can have productive meetings.”

While Rasmussen is striving to create a workplace culture that supports working parents, not every employer offers a family-friendly environment. Author Lublin tells TCB that this current reality means that talented women have the power to choose workplaces that demonstrate support for family needs.

“There are many, many more places you can work that are supportive of the needs and demands of being a working parent and a committed worker,” Lublin says. In contrast to 20 or 30 years ago, she says, “that’s partly different because, lo and behold, there are more women in senior management.”

As baby boomer women rose to senior management roles, she says, they proved that women could handle powerful corporate jobs and also be mothers. After they ascended to C-suite positions, they changed workplace culture by incorporating policies to help women fulfill their family responsibilities. “Now they act as mentors and sponsors for a lot of the younger women,” Lublin says.

Allison Kaplan, TCB editor in chief, contributed to this report.