Balancing Act’s Formula for Driving Institutional Change

A small group of working mothers pioneered putting work-life balance on the agenda at the State Department. Here’s their story.


Balancing Act

Founding Members

  • Amy Coletta Kirshner
  • Anne Coleman-Honn
  • Lesley Ziman
  • Lillian Wahl-Tuco
  • Carol Volk
  • Margot Carrington
  • Kristin Dowley

Former and Current Board Members

  • Asha Beh, current co-chair
  • Andrea Donnally, current co-chair
  • Nicole Otallah
  • Rob Hollister
  • Brian Gillespie
  • Isabella Rioja-Scott
  • Anne Benjaminson
  • Sharlina Hussain-Morgan
  • Emilie Bruchon
  • Miriam Murray Awad
  • Manuel Medrano
  • Cheryl Harris
  • Michelle Bernier-Toth
  • Lillian Wahl-Tuco
  • Jay Raman

For more information or to join Balancing Act, find them on Facebook at “Balancing Act at State and USAID.” Email to receive the monthly membership email.

Nine years ago, seven frustrated Civil and Foreign Service women sat around a table in Foggy Bottom to discuss their struggle to balance work and life responsibilities over coffee. One of us who was pregnant said, “There must be a better way. Why do I feel like Eve having Abel at State?” Another colleague said, “Why is this balance so hard to strike, and does it have to be?”

All of us were working mothers who shared a passion for our work but were struck by the lack of flexible policies and support for working parents at State compared with other government agencies. We vented about inflexible policies, supervisors and offices; shared challenges in arranging leave for pregnancies or nursing between meetings and language classes; and discussed the lack of institutional focus on modernizing State’s policies in these areas. Indeed, the policies, or lack thereof, still seemed to reflect a 1950s organization, not one designed to recruit and retain a diverse 21st-century workforce.

Even worse, when we would raise these issues individually with management or the Bureau of Human Resources (now the Bureau for Global Talent Management), we were mostly dismissed— either told that the Foreign Affairs Manual didn’t allow flexibility on an issue or that “there’s nothing we can do.” Occasionally, a sympathetic boss or HR staffer would share our frustrations, too; but few advised on how to advocate for real change.

Doing nothing was not an option as we watched countless colleagues struggle so much that many ultimately chose to leave the State Department. Nevertheless, we persevered, discovering viable approaches and solutions as we worked to bring about change. Here, presented in terms of lessons learned, is our story.

Lesson 1
Band together. Find allies to collectively advocate.

Given the stonewalling that routinely met individual requests for flexibility, we knew we had to expand our forces. We also felt that there was a gender dynamic at play because many of these issues disproportionately affect women and mothers, though we recognized that men and fathers struggled, too. In addition, many of our single colleagues felt that their work-life priorities were ignored or being sacrificed due to a lack of adequate backup support for parents taking leave. We decided that it would be more difficult for leadership and HR to dismiss a larger group who sought change.

Six months later—in early 2012—we formally launched Balancing Act at State, as an employee organization under the leadership of Amy Coletta Kirshner and Anne Coleman-Honn, and we’ve never looked back. With more than 1,300 members today and countless advocacy wins for workplace flexibilities, Balancing Act put work-life balance on the map at State. The group was the engine and driving force behind the creation of the voluntary leave bank, the emergency backup-care program, the pregnancy/adoption guide, centralized job shares and numerous FAM changes such as allowing employees to telework on medevac.

But how did we get from seven to 1,300, and how did we get HR to support our ideas and asks?

Lesson 2
Crunch the numbers. Use data to make the business case … and get senior buy-in.

First, as a group we got smart on all FAM and Office of Management and Budget policies related to the human resources issues we struggled with. These included telework, leave, lactation and childcare, among others. Each of us became a subject matter expert (SME) on one of these topics so we could divide and conquer the various problem sets. We built a close relationship with the work-life division in HR’s employee relations office; they were supportive of the new energy we brought, yet also skeptical of how much change senior leadership would entertain.

Knowing how our top-down bureaucracy operated, we also agreed that we needed senior leaders to help guide and champion our efforts to get buy-in from the seventh floor. We approached senior leaders we admired and respected, asking them to support our work. We called them senior advocates (SAs), and they became our most trusted mentors and champions of Balancing Act. Early SAs were strategic-thinking, seasoned leaders such as Dana Shell Smith, Pam Quanrud, Rob Goldberg, Ann Ganzer, Marie Yovanovitch, Mark Pekala and Roberta Jacobson who had access to the most senior principals in the department like the under secretary for management (M), the Deputy Secretary (D) and even the Secretary of State (S).

We would secure annual meetings with these top officials, invite them to the federal Work-Life Month events each October in tandem with HR and lobby them for smart policy changes. We knew we were gaining traction when the bureau used the white papers we drafted on our recommendations in their own internal papers. But as we researched the issues, we quickly uncovered a bigger problem at State: There was a significant lack of data or none available on, for instance, the number of employees who asked to telework, or who took leave after the birth of a child (and how much leave) or who quit over work-life issues.

So when we struggled finding this information, we began collecting our own data in membership surveys we designed that became a critical annual endeavor for Balancing Act. We then analyzed the data and presented it in membership reports.

Our HR contacts came to rely on this data, too, and requested more information on our proposed solutions as a result. We weaponized the data to make the business case for our asks because we realized that no one was going to agree to the asks for reasons of morale alone. At one meeting with a former M, we showed the data on how much money State loses (more than $1 million dollars a year) by not having an emergency backup-care program in place, as other agencies do, for employees who have a sudden lapse in childcare or eldercare. M said yes on the spot, and every employee now has five days of coverage a year per dependent for emergency backup care. It was a huge early victory for Balancing Act, and we knew that in making the business case for smart solutions we had found a successful formula.

Lesson 3
Be strategic in your asks. Tie them to broader goals.

“There are two things I don’t accept as answers: ‘It’s too hard’ and ‘It’s never been done.’” This is what a former M said to us when we presented the leave bank idea that had originally met stiff resistance to him. Balancing Act agreed. We also felt that much of the bureaucratic inertia that resisted our innovative mindset stemmed from a lack of understanding of the importance of getting workplace flexibilities right. So our BA board members sought the advice of academics in the work-life modernization space.

We contacted academics like Stew Friedman at The Wharton School who championed the idea that if you offer employees flexible work options, you not only increase productivity, but also help recruit and retain a more diverse pool of employees. This concept intrigued us, and we invited Friedman to State to meet D staff and give a talk at an event during one October National Work and Family Month. The event was a huge hit, and Friedman was able to tie employee productivity and retention to having flexible workplace tools in place like telework, job shares and alternate schedules.

Armed with this new information, we leveraged these points when advocating for a new employee leave bank—an idea from our own board members who learned that other agencies had this incredible tool in place. When we first approached HR, we were told it would be too difficult to implement because of a software issue in the time and attendance system. Luckily, M agreed with us again that this shouldn’t be a good reason not to attempt to create a program that would become such a critical tool for employees needing hours covered for a host of medical or personal reasons.

Balancing Act also realized in our advocacy efforts that in many cases there was information “out there” for employees on certain policies, but no one could find it. It was too hard to find on HR websites, or buried in department literature and cables. BA helped to serve an information-sharing role at the grassroots level through our monthly membership emails and meetings, which also helped build the organization and the constituency.

Lesson 4
Keep at it. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

It’s now nearly a decade since Balancing Act started, and we have learned that change takes time—and change in a bureaucracy this size takes even more time. One appeal to senior leadership is rarely enough. We have learned that if you don’t get the response you want right away, keep coming back, and do it collectively, strategically and consistently. For the past few years, Balancing Act has been invited to brief every new A-100 class that comes in. At the “work-life lunch” session, we discuss the programs that are offered for workplace flexibility, and why our new colleagues should embrace having a good work-life balance in an organization that has not traditionally been known to foster such balance.

They, of course, don’t know the journey Balancing Act has been on or how long it took for each BA “ask” to be approved (about two years each). But what they will know is a department that has entered the 21st century with a more modern toolbox of workplace flexibilities. They will experience a department that has paid parental leave (another early BA ask that finally came to fruition this year). They will experience a department that allows you to telework while on medevac and allows your spouse or partner to work remotely in a domestic employee teleworking overseas (DETO) arrangement. They will know a department that is trying to change a culture where productivity is measured by the hours at your desk and not what you actually accomplished, or where you arrive at a new post and work the very next day as opposed to having a day or two to arrange your personal life. These are changes that our new Director General, Carol Perez, is championing— changes reflecting the needs of a modern workforce that BA fully supports.

When I look back at all that Balancing Act has accomplished, it gives me an immense sense of pride. The original founding members get together once a year, and we still vent and share stories, but now we also smile, laugh and reminisce at the path we’ve forged. Anne Coleman-Honn and I like to joke to family and friends that Balancing Act is “our other baby,” because we’ve had a hand in creating it, raising it and watching it grow over the years. And like any good parent, we want to see it continue to thrive and succeed.

As we look ahead, there is still much more to be done. We want to see a one-stop platform with options for supervisors to help fill gaps when an employee is out on extended medical or parental leave. We want more lactation rooms and childcare options. We want more DETO opportunities across all bureaus. And we want travel covered for the birth or adoption of a child for the non–birth parent or partner. We are confident we will get there because at the end of the day, we are the State Department, each of us—individually doing our best and collectively working on these goals to change the culture and embrace the future.

Lillian Wahl-Tuco joined the Foreign Service in 2006 and currently serves as the public diplomacy desk officer for Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. Her previous assignments include Paris, Skopje and Sarajevo, and in Washington, D.C., on the Czech desk and on Capitol Hill as a Pearson Fellow on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A 2019 recipient of the Swanee Hunt Award for Advancing Women in Foreign Policy, she is a co-founder of Balancing Act and a current board member. She is currently serving on the AFSA Governing Board, which she also served on from 2012 to 2014. Part of a Foreign Service–Civil Service tandem, she is the mother of two children.