Opinion: For Women in Advertising, the Promise of Personal and Professional Parity Has Become Toxic

Work is not always a negative, and life isn't always positive

"My life and my work are not separate; they’re completely intertwined." Illustration: Katie Edwards/Getty Images
Headshot of Kate Jeffers

The term “work/life balance” really pisses me off. It implies that work and life are opposing forces battling for dominance. That one is negative (work) and the other is positive (life). And that achieving an effective balance of the two is even possible.

I just don’t buy it. As a human. As a leader. As a woman.

For starters, my life and my work are not separate; they’re completely intertwined. My life has significantly shaped my work and vice versa. I met my husband at an agency. We’re raising our children in a neighborhood we discovered through a colleague. In 2004, it was a friend (outside of advertising) who pointed me in the direction of a small, little-known shop called Venables Bell & Partners. And the rest is history.

Kate Jeffers
Headshot: Alex Fine

There’s no doubt that I am who I am today because I work in this business. Second, in a plus/minus equation, I don’t (always) see work as the negative. I happen to think I lucked into one of the most dynamic and fun industries out there. And, I don’t (always) see life as the positive. That’s because life isn’t just what I want to do when I’m not working. Life is everything I have to do, including such glamorous things as sweaty lacrosse socks and Costco runs. And dog poop.

I know I’m not alone. It’s a statistical fact that women carry the burden of more household responsibilities than men. Despite the reality that there are nearly as many women as men in the workforce.

It’s also a statistical fact that more men than women in the workforce have a stay-at-home spouse or partner. This is absolutely the case in our industry; nearly every male leader I know has someone at home helping with “life” so he can focus on work.

After years of trying (and failing) to achieve the nirvana of “work/life balance,” my husband and I recently made the decision to have him give up his career as a creative director and stay home. Believe me, I know how lucky I am. Because most women in this business have a husband or partner who also works. For them the challenge isn’t “work vs. life.” It’s “work vs. work”—critical responsibilities at both the office and at home. And how they can possibly get it all done.

Finally, let’s not forget the maddening word “balance”—literally defined as “a condition in which different elements are equal.” Can anyone remember a day, or even an hour, when your work and personal responsibilities felt equal?

As employers, we need to formalize an approach that’s governed by the philosophy of “doing right by people,” and guided by three core principles: clarity, flexibility and accountability.

If you’re tracking with me, then work/life balance is indeed a flawed premise. But I would go even further: it’s also a flawed promise, especially for women in advertising. I think it sets up an unrealistic ideal, so that women who can’t achieve it (which is all of us) often feel like they have no choice but to opt out completely.

Add to this toxic brew the reality that the industry continues to celebrate those who choose work responsibilities over personal ones. That was certainly the attitude I encountered when starting out, which took its toll on both my health and personal relationships. I do worry that people who applaud a 20-something-year-old guy for deciding to work the weekend and forgo a personal commitment (even if it makes sense under the circumstances) might inadvertently be telling a 30-something-year-old mother that there’s a ceiling for her in this industry.

We can’t let that happen. We need women in this industry. Not because women make up 60 percent of consumers or influence 70 to 80 percent of all buying decisions. Or because it’s scientifically proven that women are better with stress management, multitasking and organization—traits that make them effective at driving outcomes in any business environment. But because it’s just the f-ing right thing to do.

So, what now? Here’s my take.

As employees, we need to remind ourselves that the endgame is not the utopian ideal of work/life balance but rather sanity and perspective in the face of a never-ending onslaught of professional and personal commitments. And we need to cut ourselves some slack. As employers, we need to formalize an approach that’s governed by the philosophy of “doing right by people,” and guided by three core principles: clarity, flexibility and accountability.

We need to be crystal clear with our expectations so that everyone is aligned on what they need to do. And then infinitely flexible with how they do it. We need to empower people to prioritize their own time to deliver on the “what” in a way that works for their unique personal situation. We need to hold them accountable if they’re not delivering and be unafraid of difficult conversations.

I don’t presume to be way out in front of this topic. But I do think this approach might be worth a shot. After all, can you ever really go wrong by putting your faith in people and trusting their judgment?

I’m willing to bet that they won’t let us down.

Kate Jeffers (@katemjeffersis partner and managing director at independent agency Venables Bell & Partners.

This story first appeared in the June 5, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@katemjeffers Kate Jeffers is partner, managing director at independent agency Venables Bell & Partners.