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Penny Herscher Headshot

Balance is a Myth for Executive Women

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In the technology industry, with few women in the executive ranks and fewer still in the board room, we live in a world where balance is a myth. We talk about balance but the reality is that women in the corporate world are competing with men most of the time, appropriately competing on skill and hard work, but up against significant gender stereotypes and so we have to work harder and smarter to get ahead.

Balance is hard for most working women -- but it is particularly elusive for women wanting to be a senior exec, be in the board room, run a billion dollar division or be a CEO. It's elusive because:

- Business is global today and travel is a part of any executive job because you have to meet your customers and your sales and distribution teams. When you are a leader you can't lead from your desk, even with great communications technology.

- As CEO I do have more control over my time than in any other job, and the ability to make a better culture for my own female employees, but I also have the ultimate demanding boss -- my company -- and there is no excuse I have ever been able to come up with to not put my company first when it really needs me. My employees depend on their jobs and I am accountable to them.

- Many men at the top of companies, even today, have wives at home taking care of the family and house. A couple of years ago I found myself the only women on a large company executive team. I strove to hold my ground against weekend meetings, or endless late night dinners, but it was clear that I had to conform to the schedule to do my job.

So given these types of challenges how can women survive and thrive at the top of companies?

Women often have an over developed sense of responsibility -- the belief that they have to care for it all: work, children, husband, aging parents -- caring for everyone else. Recognize that's what's going on in your head, give it up and prioritize what you have to get done. You just can't do it all and be Wonder Woman every day so explain this to your kids, they will understand. My kids learned early on that I didn't play the same role in school as most of the moms, but they're confident in the world because they have travelled extensively instead and I have shared my work world with them whenever I could.

Many women have highly honed multi-tasking skills (try running a board call while cooking for hungry 2 and 4 year olds). You can use these skills to juggle the conflicting demands of work and family. And with the level of travel executive management often requires it's important to have a partner, your spouse and/or child care help, that you trust.

And in the end I have found the most powerful tool I have is to be conscious of the choices I make every day. Choosing carefully rather than being dragged along in the turbulence of my daily demands. I've had my share of tough choices, like when on maternity leave and my company needed me and deciding whether to go to my son when he broke is arm. There is never an easy answer but being aware of the choice each and every time helps me stay sane.

Women can and will find new ways to be executives, and we need this in order to bring women into the executive ranks of companies and so create more diverse companies and more opportunities for women. It's amazing that even today Fortune reports that almost half of the California tech companies have no women executive officers. And Diane Greene of VMware was the last female CEO in the top 150 in Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs has all white men in his executive staff at Apple, and the pervasive prejudice in the VC world still shocks me.

But it's important not to be naïve about how this can and will change in the future. We can only be effective in the boardroom if we are just as committed to the job and the business results as men are, and willing to work just as hard, or harder. So it's our responsibility to get more women to the top and only from there can we change the culture of companies to make balance easier -- but we will always be challenged by the need for long hours and travel that just goes with any executive job.