5 big ideas — rethink work-life balance

Work-life balance is not a women's issue or an issue that applies only to professionals with children

By D.J. Miller

On Thursday October 11th, 2012


Ten or 15 years ago, “work-life balance” became a buzzword in the profession. No one really knew what it meant but that didn’t stop people from expending considerable resources and effort trying to understand and/or achieve it. When it initially appeared on the legal landscape, it was embraced by women as the magic formula that would provide the solution for managing a busy career with the demands of a young family. Perhaps unsurprisingly, work-life balance then became identified largely as a “women’s issue,” and much of the discussion in the media continues to portray it as such.

In my view, that is an unfortunate and potentially damaging generalization. It unnecessarily polarizes the discussion along gender lines and may reinforce the notion that maintaining balance on the home front is a responsibility that rests primarily with women.

The legal profession has changed considerably over the past 15 years and so too has the face and composition of Canadian families. Within that time frame, same-sex marriage has become legally recognized, and advances in reproductive technology have opened and expanded the options available to individuals and couples. In short, the Norman Rockwell image of the family unit is now outdated.

Work-life balance is not a women’s issue or an issue that applies only to professionals with children. What may have begun as an effort to embrace the growing number of women entering the profession who were concerned about their ability to balance a career and family has matured to be much more than that. So, too, should our thinking on the subject. Men and women, with or without children, married or otherwise, have the same ability to make choices based on individual priorities and personal circumstances, and should be afforded the same respect and support within our profession for those choices.

Ground zero of any discussion on work-life balance is the notion that it involves choices. It is based on one’s own priorities, values and the extent that other options may be available. These are largely influenced by financial considerations and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Excelling within any profession takes hard work and time. Raising children, caring for elderly parents or pursuing personal goals also requires considerable amounts of time. Along the way, choices are made based on priorities. These are choices that everyone must make — not just women and not just those with children. What works for me and my family may be very different than what works for my colleague across the street.

Many people do not have the privilege of choice that higher education and professional careers provide or the luxury of debating the relevant balance between work and life. We have a greater range of choices and opportunities than are available to most other people. The choices we make based on our personal circumstances are not burdens imposed on us that are deserving of sympathy or criticism — they are benefits of the educational and economic opportunities that we enjoy. As members of the legal profession we should embrace and support choices made by all our colleagues.

D.J. Miller is a partner at Thornton Grout Finnigan LLP.

Illustration by Graham Roumieu