Is ‘work-life balance’ a useful aim or is it a convenient way to mask other important discussions? Amanda Kolson Hurley argues that it is time to talk bluntly about women and money.

“Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?”

So asked the poet Philip Larkin in 1954. Since then, the notion that work and life are more or less antithetical – that work interferes with our enjoyment of “real”, personal or family life – has become entrenched. It has also come to be associated with women, especially mothers. “Work-life balance”, a term coined in the 1970s and popularized in the 80s and 90s, is now assumed to be the ideal to which all working mothers aspire.

I have problems with “work-life balance”. The first, which I won’t dwell on but will simply point out, is that it’s a fallacy: Work can’t be weighed against life, because it’s such a big part of it.

Also, contra Larkin, work is not mere drudgery. At least in affluent countries, many of us regard our work as purposeful and our working selves as our authentic, even our best, selves. We would not necessarily prefer to be at home, with its own drudgery of patching drywall and changing diapers.

But my main criticism of “work-life balance” is how feel-good it is, which I suspect is the reason for its popularity. The image it brings to mind is a woman in Lotus pose, eyes squeezed shut, omm-ing her competing desires into equilibrium. This pursuit of inner balance is seen as properly feminine and therefore unthreatening.

What “work-life balance” obscures is what people never like to associate with women, and that is the open pursuit of money. Even for those of us who like and find meaning in our jobs, work boils down to the same ratio: money earned relative to time spent earning it. Yes, there are a host of factors – like autonomy, responsibility and office culture – that contribute to how much we enjoy or dislike our jobs. But the basic earnings-to-hours ratio still holds.

In architecture, the profession I write about, that ratio is usually unsatisfying. Early-career architects may work 60 or more hours per week for middling pay and gloomy prospects. The profession has been so roiled by the economic crisis, and job security is so low, that deferring goals for 10 or 20 years (“I’ll make good money one day”) seems naive.

In this context, discussion of “work-life balance” is sometimes a convenient dodge. What are we really talking about when we invoke it?

Do we only mean that we want more personal and family time as we pursue our careers? Or do we really mean that we aren’t getting paid enough to justify the time we put into work? That our salaries don’t stretch far enough to fix the car, or pay down debts, or hire a babysitter once in a while – the things that would make us feel less annoyed at having to bring work home every weekend? (Yes, these are all first-world problems; but hear me out.)

Many women do happily trade some, or all, of their income for more time to spend with their families. Others don’t want to, or simply can’t. And our hesitation to call a dollar a dollar is self-defeating for all of us. In the U.S., women earn only 77 percent of what men take home. In Australia, a new study has found, women in architecture and building get paid 17 percent less than their male colleagues from the moment they leave university.

The rhetoric of “balance” and “flexibility” risks letting employers off the hook. “Haven’t had a raise for three years? Well, you can work from home on Fridays!” Creative fulfillment drives designers (and writers), and it might sway us to settle for this kind of deal. But men don’t, by and large, and women shouldn’t either.

It’s no mystery why we default to balance-speak: Men don’t like it when women talk money. Studies have found that women negotiating for a raise are seen as aggressive, unfeminine. Afraid of making a misstep and being punished for it, we accept cost-neutral perks instead of holding out for cash. This reinforces the widely-held assumption that women care more about “soft benefits” than getting a raise. So we’re passed over for promotion, and the cycle continues.

In the States, there’s a worrying attrition of women in their 20s and 30s from architecture. Theories have been floated as to why women leave: the long slog toward licensure (registration in Australia); the coincidence of this slog with the years that many women are starting families. In fact, these theories are both variations on the ratio: cost (in time and/or childcare fees) vs. reward.

It takes an average of 8.5 years after college to become a registered architect in America. Once you have, you’ll likely continue to work long hours, and can expect a salary of about US $60,000. (Deduct a few thousand for being a woman.) It’s not terrible. But is it worth it?

Clearly, many women are deciding it’s not. If they could get a decent raise, who knows what would happen? Firm leaders are now concerned about a future architect shortage – paying women employees more is an obvious way to fend it off at the pass, and get us closer to true balance.