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.