My feelings on the female condition wax and wane like the moon. Sometimes I am so charmed with womanhood, in all its creative, sensitive, wonderful glory, that I could cry. Other times, I am so angry about the injustices women around the world face that a man interrupting me makes me want to burn down a building.
I was in one of my feminist ragey phases a few months ago when a new annoyance came onto my radar — the cult-like obsession our society has developed with “work-life balance.” Think pieces, podcasts and books abound on this subject, and the message often goes like this: “Hey, working person. Prioritizing your work and tying your self-worth to your career is a mistake. Readjust your life or you will regret it.”
Before I get branded a hypocrite (which wouldn’t be totally unfair — I did, in fact, write an entire piece on avoiding burnout), allow me to explain my frustration. I am not opposed to people striking a balance between their personal and professional lives. It’s something I desire for myself, as well. What bothers me is the judgment that feels inherent in conversations about work-life balance: working over 40 hours a week is bad, and you’re missing out on something better if you’re doing it.
“Balance” also seems, frankly, like bad math, especially for women. Because, here’s the thing: when you demand that a woman find balance, none of the other demands she already faces disappear. I would find conversations about balance much more compelling if they were accompanied by some discussion of how women’s lives could be made easier to achieve this holy grail. Tell me how we’re going to guarantee women equal pay, alleviate the costs and burden they bear doing the majority of child and home care, remove the pressure on them to invest serious time and money in their appearance and allow them to set boundaries without being seen as “a bitch.” Then I’ll talk about work-life balance with you till the cows come home.
In a world where those constraints still exist for women, attaining balance often feels like another unachievable item on a long to-do list. Not to mention the gendered and classist nature of the work-life balance campaign. We don’t chastise men who are dedicated to their careers, and a lot of people don’t have the luxury of slowing down.
The skeptic in me also sees the work-life balance movement as the most recent way to capitalize on female shame and our societal fixation on optimization. (Hold on while I order another expensive wrinkle-defying face cream made of roses and free range baby lamb tears while balancing on an elliptical machine.) Perhaps this is why stories of women who happily live their lives outside of unrealistic gender norms are so rare. There’s no money to be made off of well-adjusted, shame-free women.
In the midst of my frustrated phase a few months ago, I met a woman whose story was like a breath of fresh air. Angela Archon, former chief operating officer of IBM Watson Health, prioritized her career over other parts of her life, achieved an incredible amount of success and has zero regrets. In her words, “I don’t believe in work-life balance.” Angela’s life wasn’t the perfect mix of professional and personal, and yet she and the amazing daughter she raised are doing just fine. Radical!
“I chose to pursue professional success.”
Angela believes that people choose which parts of their life to prioritize and recognizes that she often put work before other things. Though it wasn’t easy and there were times when she had second thoughts, today she has no regrets. “Everything comes with a price, but you weigh those and you move forward,” she says. “I chose to pursue professional success.”
Her daughter, Whitney, supports this choice. “I knew I was priority 1.5,” she says, “but I got to spend plenty of time with my mother and I’m fine; I turned out OK! My mom was a single mom and did what she needed to do to support the two of us. Plus, I got to travel the world on business trips with her.” If Angela had to travel for a week, she’d collect Whitney’s school assignments and bring her on the trip. Whitney fondly remembers doing homework by the pool in amazing places.
Here’s how Angela managed the giant ups and downs of work and life and what life is like now that she’s retired.
I’m an engineer, not your barista.
Growing up in Orange, Texas, Angela showed strong drive from a young age. In college, she studied chemical engineering — something she saw as a good alternative to her original plan of studying medicine. After getting her bachelor’s degree, she got a job at IBM Corp. right away and her drive paid off quickly — at 27, she was managing her own department. But things weren’t easy. In a field dominated by white men, she was often the only woman and only black person in meetings. It wasn’t uncommon for people to ask her to get them coffee. She remembers a meeting where she arrived and the group told her they were “waiting for Angela.” They couldn’t picture a black, female engineering manager.
Despite these challenges, Angela excelled and was promoted every few years. She also quickly got involved in employee inclusion groups for women and minorities. Shortly after she married and had a daughter, new work responsibilities required her to travel back and forth between her home in Austin and her team’s office in New York.
Angela’s husband at the time also worked at IBM, and when he was offered a two-year assignment in New York he took it and the family moved. The transition was hard — they both had very intense careers, along with the demands of raising their 6-year old child, Whitney. As her husband’s assignment in New York came to an end, Angela’s career was just taking off. Excited by the opportunities ahead, she made the difficult decision of not returning to Texas with her husband. So, here Angela was, alone in New York, with a first-grader and no family or support structure.
Adjusting to life as a single working mother
Angela leaned on her church community as she recovered from the deep disappointment and heartbreak of her marriage ending. She made friends with other women at church, most of whom didn’t work. On nights when Angela had to work late, her friends picked Whitney up from school and cooked her dinner. They would even keep Whitney for a few nights if Angela needed to travel for work. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have made it,” she says.
During this time, Angela also doubled down on building support at work. Taking a job in the CEO’s office gave her exposure to senior executive leaders within the company, and she used the opportunity to network and find mentors. Soon after, Angela was appointed to the executive ranks at IBM. Now she faced a new challenge: instead of being asked to get coffee, people often ignored her in meetings. She remembers feeling defeated and crying when she got home every day. “I was miserable.”
It was during this rough period that Angela learned something important about herself — she had always excelled in roles interacting with others was a core part of her job, especially people external to the company. This realization led her back to the procurement department, where she’d worked previously as an engineer. This time, she was an executive.
Finally in a role that felt like the right fit, she doubled down on getting involved in negotiating deals. She even took golf lessons because she knew her male colleagues were making deals on the golf course and, in her words, “I was not going to let anything stop me from being included.”
The following years were a whirlwind of growth, including a promotion to VP, and subsequently, numerous key executive roles. What finally landed her the role of Chief Operating Officer of IBM Watson Health was simple — she asked for it!
“Life is good.”
In 2018, after 20 years in New York and 33 years with IBM, Angela retired early. She had worked for every division she was interested in and was ready for a change. “I felt good about my career, satisfied and fulfilled,” she reflects, “and was at a point where I could open up the next chapter of my life.”
So Angela moved back to Austin, a city she loves, and where Whitney lives. She has spent the last year enjoying quality time with her family, decorating her new home and pursuing new endeavors. But Angela hasn’t stopped working completely — she’s on the board of H&R Block and the University of Texas Department of Chemical Engineering. Board work has allowed Angela to remain engaged and continue contributing to the corporate world on a part-time basis. She’s also using her influence to increase opportunities for others by advocating for diversity and inclusion — something she’s been involved with throughout her entire career and still a great passion of hers. Angela sums up semi-retirement happily — “Life is good.”