By Robin Madell (San Francisco)
The cover story of this month’s issue of The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” went viral in the first week after its publication. In the controversial article, Princeton University professor and former high-level State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter reignites a decades-old debate about whether women can have both a successful career and a family.
Slaughter asks if women of her own demographic—“highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place”—can successfully “have it all” as both parents and professionals. The author’s premise is that “the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.” In other words, the article suggests that the answer to the often-asked question, “Can women have it all?” is a clear “No” for most women under normal circumstances.
The explosion of media response to this story reveals what women in every position and life situation already knew: that the “having it all” debate is far from over. The Glass Hammer surveyed some of the varied responses to the story to bring you up to speed on the issues.
From Pillar to Post…
In The Boston Globe, Cathy Minehan, dean of Simmons School of Management, weighed in. (Simmons is the only business school in the U.S. designed for women.) Minehan notes that the topic of “having it all” arises frequently among women of all levels. The challenges touch both their students—who are already starting to feel the pressure of the job/family juggle—as well as those who participate in the college’s corporate women’s leadership programs.
Yet despite the pervasive nature of work-life issues touching wide ranks of women, Minehan suggests that it’s those further down the ladder who actually suffer from the imbalance the most. While much of the discussion in the wake of Slaughter’s article has revolved around executive women, Minehan points out that it’s often those not in senior management roles who feel greater strain from layoffs and high unemployment rates.
Lynne Sarikas, director of Northeastern University’s MBA Career Center, agrees that it’s important to consider those lower on the ladder as well. “This article is by a very well-educated, well-compensated individual with a supportive spouse,” she says. “If it is difficult for her to ‘have it all,’ then what are the chances for middle income or even lower income women to even have a chance?” Sarikas emphasizes that women who lack proper education will have more limited options and fewer choices—and will often have to work harder and longer hours just to make ends meet.
…But One at a Time
Trying to have it all can be exhausting and stressful. Sarikas notes that it is not safe to assume all women (or men) dream of being in senior management. “I was tired reading the article just thinking about the weekly commute from New Jersey to DC, working long hours all week in DC with a lot of travel, and then cramming all the other aspects of normal life into the weekends at home,” admits Sarikas. She notes that some women will make career decisions that offer them more predictable and flexible schedules to balance their work-life responsibilities.
Minehan says she believes the concept of “having it all” is misplaced. “If you define ‘having it all’ to include a vibrant family and personal life outside of work as a successful professional, I doubt that anyone has it all, male or female—that is, all at the same time,” says Minehan. Yet Elle Kaplan, CEO and founding partner of Lexion Capital Management LLC, believes Slaughter’s premise that only rich superhumans can have it all is self-defeating. “If you tell yourself you can’t ‘have it all,’ frankly, you never will,” says Kaplan.
Minehan explains that she thinks of her life as having four compartments: work, family, community, and personal. Her goal is to try to occupy one compartment or another fully at any point in time—but move from one compartment to another as necessary. “I often find that when things in one compartment are particularly troubling and require more time, things in the other compartments are relatively calm, though blow-ups in two or three simultaneously can be very trying,” she admits.
As she’s moved from one career to another, Minehan says she can see in retrospect that given a long and healthy life, one can achieve career success in multiple areas and still have had the joy of a family. But she acknowledges that some of this simply comes with time. “Trying to force it all at the same time does not work in my estimation,” she says.
A related question in the context of the challenges that Slaughter describes is whether a woman can achieve the pinnacle of success in business, government, or academia while having anything left for life and family outside of work. Minehan suggests that this depends on prioritization (for example, whether a woman waits until she has a solid reputation before having children), and on organization of one’s personal life (for example, by having good household help and/or an accommodating spouse).
However, Kaplan suggests that the necessary adaptations should not come entirely from women—they should come from companies and their policies. “The change on the corporate end is much too slow,” says Kaplan. “Workplace policies need to evolve, and women must begin to expect and demand that these things change to fit the economic realities of life in 2012 for working women and mothers.”
Leveling the playing field may take large shifts not just in personal decisions and corporate policies, but in societal norms as well. Karen Mallia, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina, notes that the ambitious, perfectionist woman is set up for failure when she cannot be a “perfect” wife and mother as well.
Mallia points to another recent controversial cover story—Time magazine’s “Are You Mom Enough?” which shows a three-year-old breastfeeding—as an example of this. “If the ‘perfect’ mother must grow her own organic vegetables, make her own baby food, and breastfeed a child till she’s three, she can’t be an executive with a 70-hour work week full of meetings, decision-making, and business travel,” explains Mallia. “If ‘having it all’ is possible, it is only for the woman who has a household income big enough to hire a ‘wife’—someone to take primary responsibility for the children, the home, and having a healthy dinner ready when you get home,” says Mallia. “That is a luxury for a very small minority.”
Mallia emphasizes that many women walk away from career opportunities because they know their physical and emotional limits, thus limiting their career progression—which often bears the additional consequence of stunting their family’s financial resources. “Women often turn down promotions that require heavy travel or relocation based on the needs of their families,” adds Sarikas. “Financial well-being affords more choices than workers struggling to make ends meet will have. Often those in most need of some flexibility or support are the ones who can’t afford it.”
Statistics show that women as a group compared to men do 70–80 percent of all household work, and Mallia notes that most married women in the U.S. who work full-time still do the majority of the other work it takes to run a family. “They have primary responsibility for getting kids to school and activities, for shopping, cooking, and cleaning,” she says. “It’s impossible to do two full-time jobs well.”
So can women have it all? It’s 2012, and the jury is still out on the debate that began 40 years ago, when the feminist movement first started gaining strength.
Sarikas suggests that women who perpetuate the myth that you can have it all if you just work hard enough do a disservice to all women. “Young women need to hear a more realistic report from successful women who have worked hard to manage both a successful career and a family,” says Sarikas. “Women need to acknowledge the trade-offs they have made for success in all aspects of their lives. It is only by being honest that we can prepare younger women for their own success, however they define it.”
Amid all of the controversy, until work-life solutions become more universally institutionalized, there is yet some hope—not that everyone can do everything, but that in some cases, there may be answers for individuals who seek them. “I think that there is a degree of perfectionism that is the enemy of rational solutions to balancing the demands of life and work,” says Minehan. “Things will not be perfect all the time; they can’t be. But if you try to be in the moment—the compartment, if you will—and focused on the task whether it be at home, at work, in your community, or at the gym, I think that success is possible.”