Making Work Work


What do today’s working women want? Tracie Stafford sums it up in just three little words. “Women want more,” she says, with an emphasis on more.

She’s not talking about money, and she’s not talking about the corner office. She’s talking about the things that really matter, like fulfillment. Flexibility. Freedom. And more.

Stafford is in a position to know such things. As the president of the board of the Sacramento Valley chapter of NAWBO, the National Association of Women Business Owners, her life revolves around women who became so weary of punching someone else’s clock that they now march only to their own drum (though that drum may, in fact, jolt them out of a sound sleep at 3 a.m.). “A lot of women get to a point where they say to themselves, ‘I either have to go work for a nonprofit for $5 an hour, or start my own business,’” says Stafford, a 39-year-old former corporate eager beaver who started her own event marketing/planning company, Exceptional Events, Inc., four years ago.

What Women Want: Locals Speak Out

Flexibility. More than anything else, today’s working women want flexibility—and we even have a little local data to back it up: Of the 15 female clients she polled, a whopping 13 placed flexibility on top of the list, says Lani Jennings, a Roseville-based psychologist and life coach. “They didn’t even have to think about it,” she says. “The word ‘flexibility’ just popped right out.” Flexibility can mean flextime, nontraditional hours or simply the ability to run a pressing errand in the middle of the workday without raising the boss’s ire. Mostly, says Jennings, women want the flexibility to respond to family and personal needs. “A lot of women are afraid to even ask their employers to take time off to care for a sick child, because they’re afraid of how they’ll be perceived,” she notes. As simple as it sounds, the key to finding flexibility within a workplace situation is to ask for what you want, Jennings says. “You just might get it.” 

Work/life Balance. Work/life balance may be something we all say we want, but apparently most of us aren’t achieving it: A recent national survey of 2,000 mothers showed that of the 41 percent who were working full time, 33 percent said they’d prefer to work part time. “There are significant work/life balance struggles that men and women are both facing, and women in particular,” says Tori Trask, a marriage and family therapist for Kaiser Permanente. “The pressure to perform at work, especially while raising children, is causing women to fall apart. Many of them are getting sick.” Although Sacramento’s skyrocketing housing prices cause many to feel a pay cut is out of the question, Trask is quick to point out that we always have choices. “Yes, you need reliable transportation to get to work,” she says. “But do you need a Rolls-Royce? Or would a Ford Focus do?” Work/life balance is there for those who really want it, suggests Trask—you just have to decide what’s most important, trade-offs be damned.

Fulfillment. Women of all ages come to Helen Scully’s office and say they’re looking for a job that they’ll find fulfilling. “They’ll walk in here and say, ‘I just don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing this.’” says Scully, a Sacramento career coach/trainer who started Scully Career Associates, Inc. in 1990. “It hooks into the bigger, deeper issues of meaning and fulfillment.” Although the classic midlife crisis still exists, Scully points out there’s also a “huge bump in the road between the ages of 26 and 29. If you think about it, that’s just about how long it takes for you to get out of college, start working and realize how much you hate your first job.” One of Scully’s biggest tips is to “stop denying who you are. If you are creative and funny, and that’s just how you show up in life, you really need to find a way to express that in your career.” 

Freedom to be Themselves. Instead of molding themselves to “fit into” the workplace, says Scully, today’s women are looking for a workplace that fits them. “Women want to bring their true and unique identity to the workplace, whatever that is,” she says. “They want to be able to express themselves in a more natural way, and to be accepted and appreciated for being who they are.” While Scully was alluding to individual differences, there also are the more generic gender-based differences that divide women’s work styles from men’s, notes Sydney Coatsworth, vice president of EDAW, Inc., a landscape architecture and environmental planning consulting company in Sacramento. “One thing women want is for our particular work style to be honored,” says Coatsworth, whose company offers work/life balance in the form of flexible hours, including a compressed workweek. “The same event that provokes anger in a man might result in a woman’s tears, but it makes us no less effective and no less professional. Women want to be honored and respected for being the emotion-driven, nurturing, intuitive people we tend to be, and I think we need to remember that there’s not only room for both men’s and women’s styles in the workplace, but that we need both styles.” 

Freedom, Period. The call of freedom is a compelling one—and a rising number of women are heeding that call: In Sacramento alone, there’s been a 10.7 percent jump in the number of privately held, majority (51 percent or more) women-owned firms between 1997 and 2004, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research. Kim Silvers, a human-resources exec who spent more than 20 years in the corporate world before opening her own Granite Bay-based business, explains why she became one of those numbers. “I just didn’t want to do it anymore—the endless meetings, the politics,” says the 49-year-old Silvers, who started Silvers HR Management after what she calls her yearlong “midlife crisis sabbatical” five years ago. “Most of the things I had grown not to like about the corporate world, I don’t have to do anymore.” Granted, she says, she wouldn’t have been up to the challenge if it hadn’t been for all those years of experience, but now that she’s made the switch, she couldn’t be happier.” 

Opportunity to Learn New Skills. Working women also frequently voice a desire to stretch and expand and learn new skills. “Women say they want not only to use their existing skills in new and creative ways, but they also want to learn new skills on the job,” says Jennings. Similarly, EDAW’s Coatsworth is seeing a trend of employees who want “a broader range of experiences. People are wanting to specialize less, presumably because they want variety in work. There may be some kind of a job security element in that, too, since employees with a wider array of skills are more marketable.” 

Appreciation. “I think appreciation in the workplace is sorely lacking—not just for women, but men, too,” says Jennings, whose clients complain that even managers who express their appreciation often do so in very dehumanized ways. “The way my clients describe it is like getting a computerized phone message saying ‘thank you’—very impersonal.” Yet when Jennings asked women clients what was most important to them in the workplace, appreciation figured high on the list. “Recognition in the workplace is very important to me,” notes Kathy Limon, 36, a communications specialist for VSP (Vision Service Plan), a company that consistently wins awards for its ability to keep its employees happy. Limon feels her worth was well-recognized when the company granted her request to go from full-time to part-time status after the birth of her second child two years ago. 

Fair and Ethical Business Practices. One of the things Tracie Stafford cherishes most about owning her own business is that she is no longer at the mercy of the someone else’s ethical standards (or lack thereof); she can set her own. “One of my biggest struggles in corporate America was that the protocol was not necessarily fair to my employees, yet I had to tow the line,” she says. In one particularly unconscionable incident, Stafford recalls receiving a five-figure bonus while her employees got nothing. “I felt terrible about that.” As a business owner, Stafford—who, by the way, is also a wife and mom—is now free to “be ethical all the time, not only in the way I conduct business, but in terms of the people I choose to work with. Even if I just get a bad feeling about someone, I can choose not to work with them—something I couldn’t do if I were working for someone else.” 

Good Communication. It’s true: Without good communication, you’re sunk. And it’s more than just being kept abreast of day-to-day work matters, notes Jennings; it’s a desire to feel included and to be kept in the larger loop. “My clients labeled it as wanting a ‘cooperative and inclusive’ work environment—one that isn’t ‘us versus them,’” she says. Among Jennings’ clients, women in clerical positions voiced a particularly strong need to feel included and involved. “They often feel like they’re shut out, looked down upon and treated like second-class citizens,” she says. 

The People Factor. Last but certainly not least is the people factor—the fundamental and altogether human need to work with people we genuinely like, respect, trust and even have fun with. (Imagine that!) “For me, being happy at work really comes down to the people,” says EDAW’s Coatsworth. “I’m in a lucky spot, because I admire and respect and just really adore the people I work with, from my fellow principals to the entire staff.”

Tips From The Pros

Work/life balance may seem an elusive dream, but there are plenty of steps you can take to make it happen. Here are some tips from the pros.

Ask For What You Want. The simplest and most obvious step also is the hardest for many women to take, according to Helen Scully, president of Scully Career Associates, Inc., a local career coaching and training firm. The reason? Lack of confidence. “Confidence is a big issue among my clients, and sometimes they’re not even aware of it,” she says. A strong support system and positive role models can make all the difference, says Scully. “I think the majority of people are surrounded by negativity and a statement that says, ‘Just settle.’ You need to get away from that.”

Offer Solutions, Not Problems. Bring solutions and options to the table, suggests Lani Jennings, a Roseville-based psychologist and life coach. “Don’t just go in and tell your employer what you need,” she says. “Offer a way of solving the problem.” If you’d like to telecommute two days a week, for example, give your employer specifics on how you’ll manage to fulfill your job duties from home. Even better: Show the employer how this new arrangement might benefit the company.

Blow Your Own Horn. A little self-promotion can yield big benefits. “Men don’t tend to have as much trouble with this as women do,” notes Jennings. “A lot of women feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘bragging’ about their achievements.” But remember, it’s not bragging; it’s simply stating facts. And you can let others do the talking: When you get a complimentary note from a customer, for example, pass it along.

Be Valuable – Not Indispensible. It’s a fine line, but an important point: While being valuable to your employer will improve your chances of getting what you want, being indispensable can work against you, notes Kim Silvers. “If you want more flexibility from your employer, the first thing you have to do is make yourself of value,” says Silvers, who spent more than 20 years in corporate HR before striking out on her own. “But if you make yourself indispensable, it makes it very difficult to take time off, or to get flextime.” Savvy flextime wannabes should make sure to have a backup at work—someone who can do the job if you’re not around. Make sure your staff and/or co-workers are trained accordingly.

Be Creative. Use your imagination, suggests Lisa Clawson, assistant vice president of human resources at EDFUND in Rancho Cordova. “Some of our employees will leave here at 3 p.m. and put in the rest of their hours later that evening, from home,” she says. “I think women are learning to be more creative about these things, which is often what is required.” Granted, you’ll need your supervisor’s blessing—but, as Clawson says, if you just communicate your needs and your solutions, you may be surprised.

Find a Life Coach, Mentor or Counselor. “A life coach or mentor will build you up and help to move you forward,” says Tracie Stafford, a local business owner and president of the board of the Sacramento Valley chapter of NAWBO. Although Stafford was referring mostly to women who want to start their own businesses, a mentor, life coach or other professional can offer valuable support and practical guidance on getting what you want—whatever it is.

Work for the right company. If work/life balance is your goal, you’ll make the mission a whole lot easier by choosing to work for a company that honors it. The list of local companies offering flextime and other family-friendly perks (such as onsite day care) is growing, notes Sydney Coatsworth, vice president of EDAW, Inc. in Sacramento, where options include telecommuting, part-time hours and a compressed workweek. “We’ve found at EDAW that it’s not that big a deal to provide these kinds of options to our employees and that the benefits swing both ways,” she says. “The employees are happier, and our turnover rates are low.” Franklin Templeton Investments and UC Davis Extension are just a few other local businesses that put work/life balance policies into practice.

Dare to Dream. “That’s where it all begins,” Stafford says. “Most people don’t even allow themselves to dream.” Dreaming is risky, but settling for less is even riskier. “Figure out what you want to do, what would bring joy to your heart and give your life meaning, and find a way to do it.” Stafford says.