It’s been almost 10 years since seven women launched a group at the State Department aimed at improving work-life balance at the agency. Today, that group has 3,000 members and has redefined how the department operates. It also has a lot more work to do.
Balancing Act@State got its start when the women — new or expectant moms — decided in 2011 there had to be a better way. At the time, telework was not an option and there was no support for parental or elder care leave. This caused not only frustration among employees, but also forced some to leave altogether, depriving the agency of talent.
“It was like a 1960s setup for a modern workforce,” said Lillian Wahl-Tuco, deputy spokesperson for State’s European and Eurasian Bureau and a cofounder of the group. “That just didn’t work.”
They formed an employee group, complete with a charter and elected board. Then they got support from carefully selected senior leaders in influential positions, including human resources. The women understood that they’d need to appeal to more than supervisors’ emotions, however, so they put together business cases, working with a colleague in economics to quantify how much money the State Department loses when someone can’t access backup child care or elder care when a babysitter is sick or a daycare center closes. The answer was $1 million a year.
“Sympathy and empathy do not go very far in a resource-strapped organization,” said Wahl-Tuco, a mother of two who has worked at State for 15 years. “To be in a meeting and be able to tell a seventh-floor secretary — at the time it was Pat Kennedy — ‘This is what you’re losing and by the way you can fix this by paying for a $212,000 contract for backup care,’ he said yes on the spot. That was the first time we said, ‘We’ve got something really good in this business case.’”
The emergency backup care initiative remains in place and was expanded when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year. State employees have 10 days covered annually per dependent.
Another success story was the expansion of telework. “In COVID time, this is hilarious,” Wahl-Tuco said, but before the public health crisis, requests to telework while serving as a caregiver received a “resounding no.”
COVID helped accelerate some of the issues Balancing Act has pushed, particularly the normalization of telework. With 1 million women in America leaving their jobs since February 2020 to handle child care, Wahl-Tuco doesn’t want to see those gains go away with the health threat.
“During COVID, we really paused to focus on the even more struggling working parents and people with elder issues, but now that we’re hopefully seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, we’re just going to hopefully keep the policies in place on telework and maximum telework,” she said. “We’re seeing that it just doesn’t make sense to maybe work in the office five days a week any more if you don’t have to.”
But Balancing Act is not solely for women, she emphasized: “We didn’t want to make the world better just for parents. We made a point of saying we want work-life balance and smart policy for anyone — single, childless, with children, with elder care issues. We wanted work-life policy that made sense for a modern workforce full stop, not just one category.”
For example, Balancing Act helped bring about the creation of an anonymous leave bank.
“A lot of other agencies have a shared leave bank, and what that means is you have hundreds of hours you can’t use … and so you donate leave,” Wahl-Tuco said. State had what she called a “cumbersome, archaic process” in which employees would apply for leave and the Bureau of Human Resources (now called the Bureau of Global Talent Management) would send an organization-wide email stating who needs help. The reason? HR said its software couldn’t accommodate the hours in its payroll system.
“It was humiliating for people” to have their need for help made public, she said. “We put a man on the moon. I’m sure we can figure out how to accommodate hours of leave in a software … in the years 2000s. It took two more years to get the leave bank approved, and it was under Secretary [John] Kerry.”
Now the leave bank is anonymous, and people can take from it and give back if and when they can.
Other wins Balancing Act helped bring about include State’s New Parent Guide, which gives information to Foreign Service employees and family members about pregnancy-related questions such as payment for medical expenses, types of leave, obstetrical medivacs and obtaining a diplomatic passport and visa for children.
The group also makes it a point to share key information that may otherwise be hard to find in HR websites and manuals.
Diversity, equity and inclusion to support retaining, not just recruiting, employees is another top priority for the organization. Employee loss at the midlevel career point is huge, Wahl-Tuco said. “We are really laser focused now on making sure people understand why these policies matter.”
Balancing Act is easy to join, requiring someone to contact the group with a State Department email address to be added to the listserv, but Wahl-Tuco attributes the group’s growth and success to four main factors.
The first two are getting strategic advocates and making a business case. Before, there was no solid data on, for instance, the number of employees who asked to telework, or who took leave after the birth of a child or who quit over work-life issues. So the group collects its own data, using SurveyMonkey to conduct informal surveys, and presents the data points to HR. It typically takes about two years for Balancing Act to usher policy through, Wahl-Tuco noted.
“We didn’t go to any single meeting without saying, ‘Here’s how you can fix this,’” she told us.
The third factor is tying asks to broader goals. For instance, the group invited top officials to federal Work/Life Month events every October and lobbied them for policy change. To garner support for its initiatives, Balancing Act sends monthly membership emails and hosts meetings, which builds the constituency. More people means more leverage when pushing for change.
The fourth element is persistence. The founding seven members worked hard to get the organization going, spending six to 10 hours a month initially. Now that she’s in an advisory role to the board, Wahl-Tuco said she still spends two to three hours on it each month.
“We’re not heroes. This is something we’re enjoying and we’re good at. We like it,” she said, likening it to the Japanese concept of ikigai, or reason for being. “You find what you love and if the world can pay you for it and it’s a good thing, then you’ve found your ikigai.”
Before the emails and what’s now a strong Facebook presence, Balancing Act started out the old-fashioned way — with fliers. They worked with someone in the marketing department who made simple but effective fliers that spurred people to join. For instance, one had a picture of a sad child and a man sitting at his work desk, and it read, “Did you miss your son’s soccer game again?” Another focused on elder care and getting home to help with medication administration, while another showed a dog that needed to be walked.
“Everyone needs a balance,” Wahl-Tuco said. “We discovered that men struggled more quietly because it was even more taboo for them to ask for 12 weeks of [parental] leave. It really broke a lot of gender stereotypes and parenting stereotypes to get them involved, and then it became really obvious that we had something really special when the men starting joining our board.”
Today, Balancing Act is a common part of State. It is invited to brief every incoming A-100 — or orientation — class. Wahl-Tuco also recalls when former Undersecretary for Management Brian Bulatao mentioned the organization in a department-wide email. “I thought, ‘You know you’ve arrived when the undersecretary knows who you are,’” she said.
Other government agencies are taking notice, too. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for instance, recently started Balancing Act@USAID.
Additionally, Wahl-Tuco won the 2019 Swanee Hunt Award for Advancing Women in Foreign Policy for her work with Balancing Act, and Anne Coleman-Honn, another cofounder, won it in 2020.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.