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What Women Are Teaching Men About Work-Life Balance

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In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg stated, "If you survey men and women in college today in this country, the men are more ambitious than the women ... and until women are as ambitious as men, they're not going to achieve as much as men." But I meet many brilliant young women who have no interest in achieving leadership in business or public life because it just seems so hellish.

I think sometimes men should thank women for being a little less ambitious -- at least given the traditional interpretation of the word -- and thank them for helping men at work be able to have a life outside of it.

Speaking up and asking for what you need is a form of leadership. Insisting upon taking the time you need to think, focus, care for others and live a life it is also a form of leadership. We're not often told that when we are earmarked as ambitious young people and put through our paces in school, university, early career jobs and graduate school.

Women are often berated for our lack of "leadership" in Corporate America. According to Catalyst, we only comprise 14 percent of executive officer positions in the Fortune 500, but hold almost 52 percent of management and professional positions.

On talk shows and conference podiums, no one ever credits the middle manager who takes on the responsibility for caring for a sick parent and young children while managing a team both up and down. But that woman a leader in my book, and she's helped change how we work over the past thirty years.

Recently, a woman at a summit for senior executive women in Canada (oh, how I love Canada) put me right. She said, "it's largely because of women in the workplace asking for what they needed in order to manage both work and family responsibilities that it's not considered completely alien anymore to leave work early when you need to. And men should thank women for that, because they enjoy the benefit as much as women do."

We in the work-life field are loathe to associate our work with women. We don't want flexibility -- or even the mere ability to leave work so you can see your kid's game or play -- to be confined to the pink ghetto.

But this is exactly the kind of change women should stand up and cheer for and say, "Hell yes, I take credit for this."

Because women usually assume the bulk of care giving responsibilities and are still expected to earn their bread, they have been forced to request changes in how they work. I imagine these demands were first laughed off, then denigrated, until they finally became pretty normal.

Indeed, a majority of employees have workplaces that officially support the use of flexibility. Still, this data from Families and Work Institute shows that 27-49 percent of male and female employees -- quite a sizable number -- believe that using flexibility could jeopardize their careers across the various organizational and employee groups. Ambition is still often perceived as being in conflict with the need to make time for interests outside of work.

Many of us use workplace flexibility informally; we run out early to relieve the sitter, but promise to log on later at night. These changes -- empowered by technology -- were fought for by women who probably didn't reach the corner office. But they got it done.

And now, more men than women feel the strain of committing too much to work: among the 29 percent of men who prioritize work over their personal or family lives, 62 percent experience high conflict, according to The Families and Work Institute study. The Institute also found that among the 38 percent of US men who work 50 or more hours per week, 60 percent report experiencing some or a lot of work-life conflict. And they feel stressed not about hours spent on child care or even housework by men, but hours spent working.

For men and women, ambition is a heavy burden to carry in a society where work feels like a zero-sum game. Sheryl Sandberg is an incredible role model to many women. She's also a committed "50-50" parent, who embraces the workplace flexibility and shares care giving with her husband. She's benefiting from the fight of many working women ahead of her, but perhaps forgetting that even today, many women are still pursuing ambition at too heavy a price.