Why Are Women’s Groups Protesting Elizabeth Vargas’ Work+Life Choices?

This past week three of the country’s most high-profile women’s advocacy groups—National Organization for Women, Feminist Majority Foundation, and the National Council of Women’s Organizations—made headlines by announcing their plans to publicly protest the departure of Elizabeth Vargas from the anchor position of ABC’s “World News Tonight.” They sent a letter to ABC News President, David Westin, calling the move a “clear demotion,” and a “dispiriting return to the days of discrimination against women that we thought were behind us.” (Washington Post 5/29/06)

Every situation can be interpreted many different ways. And, as a woman, I appreciate the efforts of these committed organizations to safe guard opportunities and fairness for women in the workplace. However, in this particular situation, I think it’s important to step back at look at how this protest may actually make it more difficult for women. It reinforces some of the less obvious, but very powerful reasons high-achieving professional women, like Elizabeth Vargas, struggle to combine meaningful work with their personal interests and responsibilities, such as:

  • Forgetting That Having “It All” Has Countless Definitions Because Everyone’s Realities are Unique
  • Not Redefining Success So You Feel Good About Your Work+Life Choice
  • Blaming the Company for Not Being Supportive

Forgetting That Having “It All” Has Countless Definitions Because Everyone’s Realities are Unique

When asked about the protest, Kim Gandy of NOW was quoted as saying, “If she can’t have it all, who among us could?” The problem is that we all have a different definition of having “it all.” Including Elizabeth Vargas. If having “it all,” means working while also being a mother of two small children, then she’s achieved that—she plans on continuing to anchor the weekly news program 20/20.

However, if having “it all” means anchoring a five night a week news program that is still struggling to find its footing, and that requires international travel to remote and often dangerous locations, while you have two small children at home, maybe not. And, that’s okay.

We keep thinking the objective is “balance,” when the goal is a dynamic and ever-changing “fit” based upon our unique work and personal realities at the time. Everyone’s realities are different therefore the “fit” that works at a particular time will be completely different. And it will change as that person’s realities change, which was the case with Elizabeth Vargas.

When she started as the co-anchor with Bob Woodruff, she had one set of realities, but within a year both her personal and work situation had changed radically. Therefore, she needed to adjust her “fit” accordingly. And, she did. It’s simple math. And, I think we should applaud her efforts.

For example, we all only have 100% of our time and energy to give. In Elizabeth Vargas’s case, when she accepted the role of co-anchor, she had found a “fit” that worked given her realities at the time. Then things changed.

Her work realities changed when her co-anchor, Bob Woodruff was gravely injured in Iraq. Therefore, the sole responsibility for the program fell to her. Translation: unexpectedly more time and energy was demanded at work. Add to that the pressure of building momentum for a show that had faced a number of uncertainties and hurdles over the past year. This is a difficult and time consuming task for anyone no matter what their circumstances. Translation: even more time and energy required by work.

Then, her personal realities changed in a big way: she found out she was pregnant with her second child. It doesn’t take much to realize that the birth of a child requires additional time and energy on the part of the parent.

So, from a simple math perspective: A lot more time and energy is now required at work as well as in her personal life. All of a sudden what was 100% now becomes 160% and it can’t be humanly done. As she says, “I don’t think there are a lot of lessons to be drawn from my example because this is a unique job. You can’t leave the audience wondering who’s in charge for weeks or months, and you can’t not give 150 percent to a staff and a team who are so enormously dedicated.”

This is where Elizabeth Vargas is actually a role model for women and men. She worked with her employer to create a “fit” that met her new personal needs as well as the needs of the business. She stepped down from her position anchoring a program five days a week to continue hosting 20/20 a program airing once a week.

She didn’t quit working. She readjusted the boundary around work so that it once again “fit” into her life as a whole. Instead of being publicly challenged and questioned, I wish we would commend her for proactively doing what she needed to do so that she can continue to do meaningful work that she obviously loves, while also taking care of her expanding family.

Bottom line: She did what all of us need to do—actively and strategically manage and adjust the boundaries around our work and life as our realities change. Good news is that her situation could be very different even a year from now, which would allow her to consider another work+life fit scenario. As she said, “For now, for this year, I need to be a good mother.”

Not Redefining Success So You Feel Good About Your Work+Life Choice

In everything I’ve read about her decision (NYT, 5/24/06) , she very candidly admits that this was not an easy decision to make. Anchoring an evening news show was a crowning achievement for her as a journalist. But, “she’s at peace with her decision…” In other words, she took the important next step after adjusting her fit and redefined success to feel good, or “at peace.”.
Unfortunately, too many high-achieving women and men think they have two choices—fast lane or stop at the side of the road. They don’t realize they can allow themselves to pull over into the “slower” lane for period of time, even though others will continue to pass them in the fast lane. And, it makes this difficult task of redefining success even harder when other people challenge and criticize what you are doing—friends, family members, colleagues, etc.

Elizabeth Vargas proves that if work is part of your personal vision for your life and your realities change, it’s better to pull over into the slower lane for awhile. It’s easier to get back into the fast lane from the slower lane, then from a stop at the side of the road.

Look at Meredith Viera. She is a perfect example of someone who adjusted her “fit,” and pulled into the slower lane when she stepped down from 60 Minutes ten years ago. Her arrival as co-host of the Today Show in September marks her return to the fast lane, now that her children are older and her realities support that new fit. Was it hard for her to co-host of The View (a great job, by the way) while her hard news colleagues anchored more “prestigious” programs? Perhaps. But, she found a way to stay in the game, do work that she loved while raising her family and a caring for a sick husband.

Bottom line: When you are a high-achiever, it is difficult enough to let yourself comfortably pull over into the slower lane and feel good about it without experiencing judgment from others. It only serves to enhance the pressure that individual is already feeling and risks pushing them to give up working altogether. This is unfortunately what I see more often than not, and it would be better if we supported every woman’s unique work+life “fit” choices so she can feel good about what she needs to do. Not guilty. There’s enough of that pressure from within us.

Blaming the Company for Not Being Supportive

Given the work that I do with organizations, I will be the first one to admit that some companies “get it” and others don’t. But from everything I’ve read about this situation, it seems like ABC News met Ms. Vargas half-way in helping to craft a mutually-beneficial fit.

The key word there is “mutually beneficial.” At the end of the day, ABC News has a business to run. A year ago, it presented a team—Ms. Vargas, and Mr. Woodruff—that they thought would take World News Tonight into the future. But, things changed as noted above. As a proven and valued member of their news team, I’m sure they wanted to retain Ms. Vargas, but they also needed to improve the performance of a very important asset in their line-up. Ratings equal dollars and dollars equals jobs.

So, they worked together to allow Ms. Vargas to stay on in a key role (again, anchoring 20/20 is a very good job—Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs did it for years and no one accused them of being second string), and they also found someone who could devote the time and energy to the program that it needed, Charlie Gibson.

The topic of managing work and life is so fraught with emotion on all sides—individually, organizationally and politically. But much of that emotion would be eliminated if we stopped judging the choices of others as being right or wrong. It only makes the challenging process of making difficult work+life choices even more overwhelming.

I can appreciate the position from which the women’s groups presented their protest; however, I also think it’s important to point out how Elizabeth Vargas is a role model, and to support the choice she’s made. She, along with Meredith Viera, Katie Couric, and other high profile professional mothers are examples of how strategically managing your unique realties helps you stay “in the game.”

Summer Blogging Schedule: Starting the week of June 13th, the Work+Life Fit Blog will post every two weeks for the summer, resuming weekly publication in September. Happy Summer!

4 thoughts on “Why Are Women’s Groups Protesting Elizabeth Vargas’ Work+Life Choices?

  1. Has it really come to this? Not so long ago, it took courage for a women to try to acheive at the highest levels -she had to fight society’s expectations and the ’old boy’ network to get anywhere. Now, it takes courage for a woman to step back from her achievements, even a little – she has to fight misguided women’s organizations. This is progress?

  2. I agree Cali, I think these well-intentioned womens groups could use alittle
    “work life fit” . It is no longer black and white
    Keep up the great work!!!!!

  3. I already sent you a personal e-mail. What great insight you have! I totally agree with you!

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