The conflict generated from managing work and family is real. For half a century, the primary focus of research on this topic was driven by this potential conflict. Still today, female leaders reveal what seems to be a trade-off between career and children. One of the most powerful women in the world - former CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi - shared and advised when stepping down as CEO from PepsiCo last October:
I've been blessed with an amazing career, but if I'm being honest, there have been moments I wish I'd spent more time with my children and family. Make the most of your days and make space for the loved ones who matter most" – Indra Nooyi
Balancing demanding jobs and family: what research reveals
In a quest of understanding further how women with demanding jobs and family responsibilities cope with their work and family life, I conducted a study interviewing female leaders primarily in the hospitality sector across Switzerland. As an increasing number of women join leadership positions without an intention to leave their family ambitions behind, I focused in particular on what factors enabled women to achieve their life goals.
I found that women have a dual-centric identity as they place a high identity on both and work family roles, and not necessarily one over the other. Women perceived their work and family spheres as integrated (vs. segmented) even if the degree of permeability (cognitive, affective, and behavioral spillover of roles) and flexibility (roles are elastic and mutable) of work-family boundaries were context dependent.
In general, women who ran their own hotel properties had greater permeable and flexible boundaries than women who were hired to manage a business unit or operation.
Women excelled in proactively developing an ecosystem of support which included family (nuclear and immediate), company (supervisor, peer, and subordinate), and the institution (childcare systems) and engaging in boundary management behaviors.
Developing a support ecosystem
As an example of this integration approach is the experience shared by consultant Cornelia Kausch, an EHL Alumni and VP of development at hotel property company Pandox. She told EHL students during a panel discussion that women make up more than 30 percent of Pandox’s board. Noting this was ‘nothing special’ for a Scandinavian firm, she argued that the industry needs to find ways to integrate women with children.
“My big advantage when I had my twins was that I was running hotels, so whenever they were sick I just took them with me to the hotel and put them in a hotel room. That was my solution.” Kausch acknowledged that this solution is far from being perfect and that it was one of the benefits of being in a leadership role. Many women in hospitality clearly would not have such advantages but the message is clear: companies could be doing more to support women achieve their goals, whether through flexible work arrangements or childcare provision.
In line with this suggestion, one of the family owned hotels in my study sample had opened the hotel guests’ childcare facilities for their employees, which impacted employees’ rate of attraction (to the company) and retention.
While this might not work for all hotels including business hotels or any type of hotel without childcare facilities, other alternatives exist to enable employees to manage their work and family life. In fact, having family supportive work environments and supportive supervisors are far more important than work-family policies per se. As gatekeepers of a positive environment, the role of supervisors is critical: are they - or are they not - providing the right amount of psycho-social and emotional support to their employees to balance work-family life?