June 26, 2012
When my copy of The Atlantic came in the mail this week, I was a bit bemused to see that the cover story featured Anne-Marie Slaughter explaining “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
In her piece, Slaughter — whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting professionally and interacted with on Twitter — explores the epiphany she had while holding her dream job as director of policy planning at the State Department. After years of building an enormously successful academic career and raising two sons, she realized in Washington that she did not, in fact, have it all. That, by holding her State Department job and doing it well, she was sacrificing time with her oldest son at a critical stage in his life.
When she left government to return to the more flexible schedule of academia, she found that her female peers viewed her with a mixture of pity and condescension. This infuriated her until she realized that she had previously reacted the same way to women who put their careers on hold in favor of work-life balance.
Now, Slaughter is part of the first generation of women for whom it was widely possible to even try to “have it all.” And there’s no doubt that there are unique pressures on women. Although women are approaching something like equality in the workforce, biology still puts the burden of childbirth on women and gives them a limited window in which to do it. So women are often pressured to make sacrifices at a critical point in their careers, whereas men are not. Relatedly, society holds mothers more accountable than fathers for the well-being of their children. And yet, as Slaughter’s story illustrates, superstar women are judged more harshly than their male peers when they choose to put family ahead of career.
That said, men can’t have it all, either. At least, not by the standard Slaughter outlines, and which I happen to think is spot on.
Once upon a time, it was the norm for a successful man to have a wife who gave up her career, if she had one to begin with, to take care of the children. Nowadays, most professional men are married to women with careers of their own. An increasing number of men are less successful than their wives, in terms of income or job title. That’s true of many of my contemporaries, especially those who went into academia and public policy while their wives went on to law school or business.
Until recently, that was my situation. My wife was the chief operating officer of a major political polling firm, having worked her way up from the bottom over 15 years with the company. I’d chosen the less lucrative path of teaching college and, eventually, working in a foreign policy think tank.
She died suddenly last November, leaving me alone with two young daughters, then not quite 3 years and 5 months old.
While I married and had children relatively late, I’d long valued a flexibility schedule and work I found rewarding over long hours and big money. Now, that flexibility of schedule is a necessity rather than a preference.
Not long after my wife’s passing, I was offered a promotion that would have helped bridge the loss of her income but would have required much more time at the office. Professionally, it was a good move. It also made sense financially, even though it would have meant paying for a few more hours of childcare. I nonetheless declined because my daughters needed me to spend that time with them. And, frankly, I needed to spend that time with them, too.
The fact is that life is full of trade-offs. It’s not possible to “have it all.” It never was. And never will be. For women or for men.
MUST SOCIETY CHANGE?
Slaughter calls for changing the workplace culture to eliminate “the need to travel constantly to succeed, the conflicts between school schedules and work schedules, the insistence that work be done in the office.” While I join her in wishing for that evolution, I don’t see how it’s possible.
All things being equal, those willing to put 90 hours a week into their careers are going to get ahead of those willing to put in 60, much less 40. While there is any number of studies showing that working too many hours is actually counterproductive from an efficiency standpoint, there nonetheless is a rare breed of cat who can keep up a frenetic work schedule for years on end. And those workaholics are simply more valuable to the company, agency, or organization than those who clock out at 5. That means that those of us who choose to prioritize our children are going to get out-hustled by those without children, or those willing to let their children spend longer hours with a partner or childcare provider.
Slaughter writes, “Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family.” Again, I fully agree in principle. In practice, however, it’s easier said than done. Could Slaughter have done her job at State in 40 hours a week? In 60? It’s hard to see how. Aside from the pressures put on her by bosses who worked absurd hours, there’s just not enough time for all the reading and writing, the constant travel, and the real work that gets done at after-hours dinners and cocktail parties.
Indeed, she admits as much, though she points to institutions — such as the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office — that are embracing modern technologies and allowing their employees to do more of their work outside the office.
NOT A ‘WOMEN’S PROBLEM’, BUT OUR PROBLEM
But the most intriguing part of Slaughter’s article is the conclusion, in which she argues that, even more than changing workplace culture, we must rethink our attitudes about the career arc. Given longer lifespans and the tendency to postpone marriage and childbirth, it no longer makes sense for women to get on the work treadmill and keep going. Rather, she writes, they should achieve plateaus, take breaks for children, and then continue their ascents.
But why wouldn’t it make sense for men to do the same thing? Obviously, we haven’t repealed biology; until we do, women are going to continue to do one hundred percent of the childbearing. And to the extent that nursing is advantageous over formula feeding, women will continue to have a unique role in that department, too. Still, there’s no reason men can’t take breaks in their careers — even just dialing it back a few notches and working from home — while their wives get back into career mode.
Amusingly, many of the examples Slaughter gives of family-friendly workplace innovations were introduced by men, like Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. These men are facing essentially the same sorts of choices that Slaughter continues to insist are unique to women.
I’m less optimistic than Slaughter that we’ll ever create a culture that values family time as much as work time — much less one where those who run our government and businesses will do so. But we’ll come much closer if we stop looking at this as a “women’s problem” and instead see it as a societal problem.