College Tells Women Healthy Balance Is Key

A business class at George Washington University aims to teach young women how to balance their careers with their personal lives. Adjunct Professor Kathy Korman Frey and Alicia Buford, a senior business major at the university, is joined by regular parenting contributor Leslie Morgan Steiner, to discuss women and work-life balance.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their comments and some savvy parenting advice.

Today, that whole work-life balance thing. If the whole subject gives you a headache, you are not alone. It seems as though the conversation is all filled with clichés. It's either an elite women's conversation or something nice to do but easy to ignore in a tough economy.

But what if one could actually add some rigor to the conversations? What if there are concrete tools to balance work and family life? Can it be taught?

That's the idea behind a new class at George Washington University called Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership. Kathy Korman Frey, an MBA, an entrepreneur and wife and mom, started the class after she noticed just how many of her students were coming to her for just that kind of advice.

Aside from teaching the class, she's also the managing director of Vision Forward Consulting Firm. She is with us now in our Washington, D.C., studio. And we are also joined by one of her students, Alicia Buford. She's a senior business major at GW. And also joining us is TELL ME MORE regular contributor, Leslie Morgan Steiner, who edited the book "Mommy Wars" and until recently edited the work-life blog at WashingtonPost.com. Welcome ladies, everybody.

Ms. KATHY KORMAN FREY (Teacher, George Washington University): Wonderful to be here.

Ms. ALICIA BUFORD (Student, George Washington University): Thank you so much.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Kathy, tell us a little bit more about how and why you started this class. This is the first academic year you're teaching it, correct?

Ms. FREY: This is the first academic year I'm teaching it. The class has been in existence for a few years at GW. It's an award-winning class. It's been very well-received by academia. And then what I did this year was tried to say hey, how can we plug in a little bit more of real life into this class? Because as Leslie and you and everybody listening out there knows, it becomes a real entrepreneurial experience sort of balancing work life and family.

MARTIN: Tell me this one story that persuaded you that this was necessary. You said there was a woman, a young woman who approached you in the stairwell, I think it was, and she was almost in tears.

Ms. FREY: She was. Yeah, she was.

MARTIN: Why?

Ms. FREY: Well, I think I was a little bit naïve to this, but the truth is that young women today are under an incredible amount of pressure. They, especially high-achieving women who have high goals for themselves. And there's nothing that we've got for them in academia.

And I'm an adjunct professor. I'm not a quote-unquote "real professor" on the tenure track. I'm sort of the barnacle of academic society, but as such, I can take a lot of risks that others can't take.

So I thought, let's try to plug in something, which is an academic case about a woman who leaves the office at six, and she encounters a whole 'nother job when she walks out of there. And how does she deal with that?

MARTIN: And part of what you're trying to say is this is about - it's not a head story, it's both a head and heart story. This is the way it is in real life. This stuff really works. Alicia, why did you want to take the class?

Ms. BUFORD: Well, what I thought was interesting about the class and something that Kathy emphasizes a lot is that it builds a strong support network. And from my other classes, what I don't get is there's a wall between me and the other classmates.

But from this class, I know about the struggles that everyone else is going through, and I feel like I'm not alone. And I feel a little bit more confident in my efforts. And it's definitely something that has helped me to figure out who I am.

MARTIN: You don't have kids yet.

Ms. BUFORD: I don't have kids.

MARTIN: Kids - I'm sorry, most of the students don't have children.

Ms. FREY: No, none of them do.

MARTIN: So is this more that they're projecting ahead to what they think their lives might be like in the future, or is this an issue for them right now? Kathy, what do you think?

Ms. FREY: It's an issue right now. And that was surprising to me. It shouldn't have been, but it was. And I continue to be surprised by what I hear from the students and how many responsibilities they're taking on.

It's the internships. It's the classes. It's the seminar classes. It's the right graduate schools. Some of them are MBAs, they're married, they're separated right now from - geographically from their spouse. There's a lot going on in their lives.

MARTIN: Leslie, you're a mom of three. You are also an MBA. First I wanted to ask you, when you were thinking about your future career trajectory, did you think about work and family life balance? Was that something that was part of your structured thinking?

STEINER: I did think a lot about it. In fact, my second year of business school which was in the early 90s, I conducted a panel called "Striking the Right Balance." And I had three working moms on the panel and one working dad. And I will never forget some of the advice I got there and I really do believe that you can teach this. Because one of the moms on the panel said, you know one of the most important things that matters to your kids is that the mom is happy. And you might be happy staying home. You might be happy working. You might be happy doing something in between but don't lose sight of that. And that was news to me.

MARTIN: It might be news to the kids too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEINER: I think that so much of work life balance is really practical and so it makes it highly teachable and…

MARTIN: Give me an example.

Ms. STEINER: Okay in "Mommy Wars," you know, most of the people who wrote in "Mommy Wars," including myself, we had two major problems. One was finding and keeping good childcare or daycare. And that is something that you can learn a tremendous amount about long before you have kids. And also sharing childcare responsibilities with your husband. And that is something that never occurred to me until we had a kicking and screaming baby who was sick on a day that I had an important presentation and my husband had an important presentation and my husband assumed that I was going to be the one to stay home.

And I think that raising people's awareness about this - I think it should be male students too. And also I'm not surprised at all that Alicia, who is 22 and doesn't have kids, is concerned about this. Because in writing "Mommy Wars" and talking to people about it - I talked to teenagers who had watched their moms struggle and they were really concerned about it too. I mean it's really - I think you should be teaching this in high school and it should definitely be part of premarital counseling.

MARTIN: Kathy, why aren't there any men in your class? Have there ever been any men in your class?

Ms. FREY: You know, I used to teach the second level of this course for post startup and we did have a guy take this class. But there aren't any men, although they are welcome to take the class. And I think, men are not as accustomed, frankly, to delving into a majority-female environment as we are accustomed to delving into a male-dominated environment. And so there is not too much of a precedent for that.

MARTIN: But the title of the course is "Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership"…

Ms. FREY: That's right.

MARTIN:…and it's part of a - the basis of it is that the traditional business school model, the traditional work model does not work well for women. Is that the issue? Is women the issue or is family the issue? Why isn't it work-life balance, I don't know. Leslie maybe you have a thought about this.

Ms. STEINER: My thought, my observation is that there's a generational factor at play here. And I speak on business school campuses a lot and what I've noticed is that people who are more roughly my age, and I'm in my 40s, its much more of a woman's issue. And especially as you deal with the most ambitious, well-educated cohorts of society, it tends to be very strongly women. But if you get younger, you know, say men who are in college or early in business school, I find that they are incredibly interested.

And the most recent time that I spoke at Wharton Business School, I lost a bet with the professor who was hosting it because he said that he thought the audience would be 50 percent male and I said there's not a chance. And he won it. There were as many young men there as women because they want work-life balance themselves too. You know, as much as motherhood has changed, you know, particularly for well-educated white women in the last generation, it's changed much more dramatically for dads, because dads are so much more involved with their children's lives. And they want that. They want a kind of balance too and they also want to support their loved ones' careers. And I bet if the title were different, of the course, if it were gender neutral, I'm sure that a lot more male students would show up.

MARTIN: Kathy, what do you think?

Ms. FREY: And that's what happened up at Myra Hurt's class at Harvard Business School. Ten years ago, she launched the first women building business class and that's exactly what happened, Leslie, is that she had to open it up because just like you said, men want the same things. It's just a question of how.

I constantly talk to my husband about ways to just think in a simplified structured top three way. And he really helps me with that. And so I think relying on each other and recognizing each other's strengths, and ultimately, like Leslie said opening the class up and having dual gender would be great. Because what we're all united around is that common goal. We all want to make this work.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you?

Ms. STEINER: Right, I think that's true. And we all in some way want to improve upon the generation that went before us. And I would add, in addition to women learning from men, I think that women of different cultures definitely face different challenges and that we can learn a lot from each other. I'm lucky that I grew up in Washington, and most of my career has been here in D.C. at The Washington Post and other places, where I've been surrounded by, mostly by African-American and white female colleagues. And the experiences are really different.

I know when I was writing "Mommy Wars" there were so many of my black female friends who are like, what are you talking about that you feel so guilty for working full time? And they would say, you know, I would actually feel a lot more guilty if I stayed home.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are talking about work-life balance and can it be taught? Kathy talk to me a little bit more about how one would teach this. When I was thinking about this conversation, I was thinking about, okay, what is the model for this? On the one hand, I'm thinking about the traditional home economics classes where the basics of housekeeping, keeping a home tidy and wholesome were taught primarily to women. On the other hand, I think I can see where a lot of people would think, oh, please.

Ms. FREY: I know, I mean, I was always waiting for, oh, please. But what this really is - I have to be honest and say that the way that I first approached this was sneaking in lessons about life to traditional business curricula. And I thought, well, look at the Hot Mommas Project. The Hot Mommas Project is the case-writing project. And so women can come online and tell their stories. And we use that as business curricula in classes. And so in terms of thinking about the economics of this as an entrepreneurial venture, I made it into a case.

So the students were reading about it. They got it. They were connected with the project and then also in the other part of the case, I talked about having a kid and how I did it. I wrote my schedule as an appendix. One of the discussion questions is, find an extra hour in the day. And actually, Alicia, right, you just went through this last week, where that was the time management exercise. And they had to go through and make an extra hour in their day and how did they do that.

MARTIN: Alicia, I hope you don't mind my pointing out that you are African-American.

Ms. BUFORD: Yes.

MARTIN: As am I, and - for those who don't know. And one of the things about these conversations that interests me is that this conversation, at least in the sort of general-media narrative, has been very much focused on elite and advantaged women. And I'm wondering how that strikes you. Because, you know, my mother worked. I don't know if your mother worked. And I don't remember anybody being particularly interested in her work-life balance. Do you see yourself as a potential person - worker, entrepreneur, balancing work, family and life issues in a way that's different from the way your mother did it?

Ms. BUFORD: My mom wasn't home a lot. She did put us with a nanny. So I didn't see very much of her. And I always wondered whether it was because she valued success so much or whether it was because she just couldn't figure out a way to stay home and to have that success at the same time. So I tried to figure out just by taking this class how I can do that - be better than what my mom did because she does resent the fact that she wasn't in our lives a lot of the time. And I…

MARTIN: Do you resent it?

Ms. BUFORD: I don't resent it and I tell her that day in and day out, that you know, I don't resent the way that you raised me and my sister. But I do want to be able to be in my kids' lives but also have that successful career.

MARTIN: Kathy, how typical a story is that?

Ms. FREY: It is very typical in the sense that we're the different-better generation and how can we make it different and better? How can we improve? And thinking entrepreneurially, which is something that frankly we just really try to get through the students' heads during this course, can be applied to a lot of different situations. You could go to your boss and negotiate a better situation where you work at home every other Friday because you're a great producer. You are an excellent employee so why not ask for that and make the business case for that?

That affects both work and life. And so the applications for thinking entrepreneurially and - is something that I just don't see as much in the generation before us. Thinking about my own mom, she did what the job description said.

MARTIN: Alicia, what's the most important thing you've learned from this class?

Ms. BUFORD: Building a strong female support network I think is so important. But also not to discredit what you're capable of in life. I've done that for so many years, and I think, finally within the past couple of weeks, I've realized that I'm far much more capable than I gave myself credit for. And I definitely started to build up my confidence and realize that those things that I've dreamed of doing, but I never realized how. And I know that now it's me that's stopping myself from doing these things and that I can be successful. It's just I need to kind of let my guard down and let myself do what I know I'm capable of.

MARTIN: Can you give me an example? I have a hard time believing you thought yourself incapable of doing anything.

Ms. BUFORD: Well, I often call my mom up with ideas, like big ideas of entrepreneurial dreams that I have. And she'll kind of say, you know, well that's great, do it. And I kind of just never realized that it was that easy. I've always wanted to be an entrepreneur but I never really realized how to take myself to the next step and how to make that all happen.

MARTIN: Leslie, what would have been helpful for you to know, if there had been a class like this when you were at Harvard getting your MBA?

Ms. STEINER: Well, I wish that I had done something that still makes me laugh because I'm so far away from doing it, is to actually talk to my husband about these things in advance. And I actually, I have some friends who - they have a manual that they came up with as a married couple for who would stay home with a sick child and how they would negotiate career moves, et cetera. And I wish so much that I had talked more.

And I also have a friend who, she even talked to people who she was going on dates with about it. And it's not the most romantic thing but if you really want true work-life balance I think you got to put these things on the table early on. And it's what I would say to Alicia and it's the advice I would give to my own daughters who, they're only 10 and 6 so they're not facing this yet. But they will face it in their lifetime. I'm sure of that.

Ms. FREY: Look at Ken. Is Ken really supportive of Barbie? Really?

MARTIN: I want to give you the last word and I know we're not paying the rather large tuition at GW. But I was hoping you could give us some nugget to take away about what you've learned from teaching this class and what you're teaching about how to manage work-life balance.

Ms. FREY: Well, I think I have to echo Leslie's point about putting this on the table with a spouse early on. I did not think about that when I was younger. And when we did research for the Hot Mammas Project which is the curriculum initiative that goes along with the class, I was shocked. I mean, the number one factor in terms of support for doing things in work and in life is the spouse. Number two is the workplace. This seems so commonsense. But to have it validated was just sort of fascinating to me. So that is important.

It's really, really important. And then the second thing is, think entrepreneurially about your work and your life. Be your own advocate. Ask, go out there. Think about what the corporation wants, what you want. What does your family want, what do you want? And use that great brain of yours to make your life what you want it to be.

MARTIN: Kathy Korman Frey teaches Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership at George Washington University. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Alicia Buford who is a senior business major at GW and a student in the class. Leslie Morgan Steiner is a regular contributor to our parenting roundtable. Her latest book "Crazy Love" is available now. It's a New York Times bestseller. They were all kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C studios. Ladies, thank you.

Ms. BUFORD: Thank you.

Ms. STEINER: Thank you.

Ms. FREY: It was great.

MARTIN: Now you've just heard from our moms about finding a balance between work and family and now we want to hear from you. What's the best advice you have received for keeping both your home and professional life happy and productive? What kind of support have you gotten from your workplace, your spouse, family, and friends that made a difference? To tell us more please call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again that's 202-842-3522 or you can go to our Web site, the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org and blog it out. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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