Why women can’t have it all, how they’re not to blame, and how we can make it better

This is a great piece at The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter and everyone is talking about it.

“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” is long and jam-packed with excellent points; it is a sophisticated discussion of women’s lives and the problems we encounter balancing work and family.. and you almost never see a nuanced discussion like this in the public arena. I loved this article, of course I do, it is making many of the same arguments that myself and some other feminist bloggers have been making foreveeeeeeeeeer. And it is getting enormous mainstream attention and with that the opportunity for genuine public debate and change. Hooray.

Here’s the TL;DR version:

  • The backlash against women by other career women when those women ‘opt out’ or ‘slow down’ at work. Women are being blamed for not being able to combine a demanding job with family life by other women.
  • How the message has changed in the way it is delivered to young women (for better and worse) from ‘you can have it all’ to ‘you can’t have it all’.
  • This new message lets workplace change ‘off the hook’.
  • Women (and men) who have managed to ‘have it all’ are frequently never forced to confront how much of that achievement has been down to the fortune of having family-friendly working arrangements, elements that are missing from most other jobs in the USA.
  • High powered jobs may only be sustainable for parents for a maximum of two years and what cost is there for this loss of experience?
  • Women in leadership roles need to be more open to hearing the truth from younger women about the difficulties with combining work and family given the way workplaces are arranged. Less individualism, less personal blame.
  • All the unidentified advantages many women in leadership positions have over other mothers and being careful not to over-generalise their experiences.
  • The half-truths: it’s possible if you’re just committed enough; it’s possible if you marry the right person; and, it’s possible if you sequence it right.
  • How to fix this: changing the culture of face time; revaluing family values; redefining the arc of a successful career; rediscovering the pursuit of happiness; innovation nation; and, enlisting men; .

Like I said, everyone is talking about this article and here are some of the more interesting conversations:

“Why Does the Atlantic Hate Women?” at The American Prospect.

She’s right about this core truth: Being both a good parent and an all-out professional cannot be done the way we currently run our educational and work systems. When I talk to friends who’ve just had children, here’s what I tell them: Being a working parent in our society is structurally impossible. It can’t be done right, so don’t blame yourself when you’re failing. You’ll always be failing at something—as a spouse, as a parent, as a worker. Just get used to that feeling. Slaughter’s entire article is worth reading for her nuanced exploration of that alone. It’s true for people at the top; it’s even more true for people at the bottom, who have no sick leave, no choice in their shifts, no freedom to run over to the school if a child is sick.

“Anne-Marie Slaughter Looks at the Real (and Messy) Balance Between Motherhood and Feminism” at Balancing Jane.

And I know that so much of that earlier debate focused on how women’s “choices” can’t be at the heart of feminism, but I just don’t buy it. I think that it’s valid to want to be a valuable professional, and I think that it’s valid to want to be a competent parent. I don’t think that those choices and wants are somehow outside of the debate of feminism. I think that they are at the very core of that debate.

I also think it’s very important to pay attention to the way that Slaughter frames the importance of role models. Jill’s comment on Feministe was largely about how women need to be in those high-profile jobs to pave the way for the young feminists coming up behind them. But Slaughter’s experience suggest that simply being present in those jobs is not enough. The young women coming up behind her have, time and time again, expressed that they have no interest in following her unless there is a path that allows them a balance between family and work.

“Maybe It Would Help If We Called It Having A Life Instead Of ‘It All'” at Wandering Scientist.

This is why I think you should go read the article, even if it feels like rewarding the editors of The Atlantic for their mother-baiting. The quality of the article makes up for the obnoxiousness of its presentation. It is long, but it is worth the time. I liked seeing someone in a mainstream venue look at the work vs. family issues and conclude that the problem is with the work place, not the women. If there is anything I hate more than writing that inflames the “mommy wars” it is writing that refuses to contemplate the possibility that a work environment that is currently unfriendly to people who want a life outside of work could change without undermining the company involved.

“More Thoughts on Blogging” at Echidne of the Snakes.

That’s an old method of ruling: Telling people that they must all fight over the crumbs under the table of the actual rulers, that the enemy is that other person crawling there next to you, not the guys and gals sitting at the table. The mummy/mommy wars are real but they are also excellent devices to keep women divided and thus easier to control.

We should probably all get anger training. Some of us need to reign our anger in more, others need to let it out albeit in controlled ways. But the kind of anger Wurtzel’s piece provokes is not going to be used for any kind of constructive energy.

This is why I don’t want to join in the debates as such although the basic theoretical reasons why the debates exist need to be analyzed. And that is why I want the anger aimed at the real culprit: The system and its myths and how they manage us, not on other women.

“Elite Women Put A New Spin On An Old Debate” in The New York Times.

When Ms. Sandberg confessed in a recent interviewthat, contrary to her work-hound reputation, she leaves work at 5:30 p.m. to eat dinner with her children, and returns to a computer later, she earned yet another round of attention, and her words were taken as the working-mom equivalent of a papal ruling.

But her advice also spurred quiet skepticism: by putting even more pressure on women to succeed, was she, even unintentionally, blaming the victim if they did not?

Enter Ms. Slaughter’s article, posted Wednesday night, in which she described a life that looked like a feminist diorama from the outside (a mother and top policy adviser for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton) but was accompanied by domestic meltdown (workweeks spent in a different state than her family, a rebellious teenage son to whom she had little time to attend). As she questioned whether her job in Washington was doable and at what cost, she began hearing from younger women who complained about advice like Ms. Sandberg’s.

“Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic” at Bitch Magazine.

As a childfree young-ish person, I found Slaughter’s arguments both interesting and depressing. Slaughter herself mentions a generational shift she’s noticed in women’s expectations, and I have to anecdotally agree. Women of my generation don’t, in my experience, expect to “have it all” (which in this case means a successful career and kids) without making big sacrifices. The very notion of having “it all” sounds so ludicrous to me that I can’t help but put it in quotes.

And here’s a good interview with Anne-Marie Slaughter at the fabulous The Hairpin.

If Women’s Liberation meant anything, it meant giving women a full range of choices, so that if a woman thinks that that’s what she’s best at, and that’s what she’s happiest doing, then we absolutely need to validate that choice. And many women have written about that. About the importance of not buying into the idea that going to work is only done outside the home. At the same time, the whole reason there was a feminist movement in the first place was that overwhelming numbers of women found that they wanted to have more choices, so it’s not like we haven’t tried a world in which women stayed home. And I think some will, and great. I would go crazy. If I stayed home. I would go ab. Solutely. Crazy. I think my own mother, who became a professional artist, would have been happier in many ways if she’d had both a career and children when we were young, because she’s a very creative person and I think she needed an outlet other than in the house.

It’s a question of following your own instincts. But I’m pretty confident that given the right conditions, a huge number will choose to do both. But they’re not going to choose to do both if it keeps coming down to a choice between one or the other. And that’s what I meant by as long as you give me flexibility, I can do just abut anything. I can work and then go home to be with my kids, and then go back to work later, or take a business trip and work like crazy, but then spend a couple days being a mom. And many women — I think virtually all women — can manage that. The problem is where they work.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: crisis, economics, gender & feminism, parenting, relationships, work and family

Tags: ,

13 replies

  1. Thanks for rounding up those responses to the Slaughter article. Much food for thought there.

  2. Thanks for the comprehensive round-up, bluemilk. Not sure if you saw this Salon piece by Rebecca Traister?
    The structural problems with conventional, capitalist workplaces have consequences for individuals who are in any way different from the theoretical economic automatons (SWM) of a previous age.
    That said, those previous ages hid a great deal of the work of women in keeping the whole schebang on the road. (I’m not at home ATM, so can’t get the exact bit from this book, but Eisler has all the relevant data-bits on unpaid care work’s contribution to economic growth.)
    For those workplaces that are more open to the complexity of workers’ lives, is there then an inherent trade off in wages and status? Here, I’m thinking of the community/NFP sector vs merchant banking, for example. Or is that more a function of the type of work that is valued?
    Need more coffee for these big thinkings!!

  3. Aargh! Can the mods please fix my HTML fail?! Thanks a million!
    [Done! ~tt]

  4. When Ms. Sandberg confessed in a recent interviewthat, contrary to her work-hound reputation, she leaves work at 5:30 p.m. to eat dinner with her children, and returns to a computer later, she earned yet another round of attention, and her words were taken as the working-mom equivalent of a papal ruling.

    I think this is actually really common in the tech industry amongst both men and women. Perhaps because its generally a lot easier compared to other industries for these people to work from home. Also see people wake up very early in the morning, work for a couple of hours and then take a break to get their kids ready and do the childcare/school dropoff before heading off to the office themselves.
    I think the “have-it-all” (especially at the same time) is a myth for both men and women. Unless by having it all you mean just meeting society’s expectations of what it means to be a mother or a father. For example, very very few really successful men have ever had as much family involvement as women are expected to have as mothers. Those men who have managed it usually do the career first and then cruise when the have a family, which is much easier for men to do by having much younger partners.
    As a father I really don’t see how it is possible for me to both push the career envelope at the same time as spending as much time with my daughter as I think would be optimal for her. There’s simply not enough hours in the day to do that – you have to compromise somewhere and decide where you’re most comfortable. For some that means compromising on career progression, for others its sacrificing family time (the default and societal expectation for men).

  5. Perhaps we need to stop treating being at the office all hours to gain career progression as the norm? I wonder if people started to work assorted hours to suit their needs (whether caring, pursuing other interests or relaxing on the lounge) and signed up for X no. of hours per day (capped at 8) if after an initial transition period people discovered that in fact productivity didn’t go down and that things actually could run reasonably smoothly with a bit of organisation.

  6. Apart from the fact that study after study shows that longer hours do not improve productivity (exhaustion counterbalances any productivity from time at work and workers tend to get distracted more easily when tired so spend their time on HAT and not doing their actual job), there are lots of reasons beyond improving family life that might make reducing the hours spent at work a good idea. For starters, it builds into a system of continual growth (we work longer to produce more quicker) that has an unsustainable environmental impact, and (if the work really needs to be done in this time frame) we take jobs from other people, which is particularly relevant in Europe and the US where unemployment is huge at the moment. Longer hours are also worse for health and wellbeing, increasing stress and stress-related diseases that have an economic cost through work absence and pressure on the healthcare system.

  7. Mindy that might work for some jobs, but wouldn’t work for jobs like mine, where part of the requirement is being in the office the same hours as the boss in case they need something, and being on call at other times.

  8. See that’s what I get for commenting when hungry. You are absolutely correct. Some jobs would suit various hours, others not so much. I guess the other thing is that the cost of replicating all the systems at work here to my computer at home would just be horrendous. Then there is the stuff that you can work on remotely but you have to upload before you download from another computer or you lose all the work you have just done etc etc. Why isn’t there a simple solution goddammit!

  9. My work laptop just gets me straight into the work systems – I have the same desktop, file system etc that we do at work.

  10. I think that is probably because you are very busy and important Rebekka 😛

  11. Well, obviously ;-P, but I was just pointing it out as the “simple solution”!
    Seriously though, jobs like mine are not compatible with “having it all” as women. I couldn’t have young children and do this job. And having children would have a serious detrimental effect on my career.
    To my mind, that largely has nothing to do with how ‘family friendly’ our workplace is (it isn’t, but that’s because of the nature of the job), but to do with how much of the caring responsibility still falls on women’s shoulders. To be fair this job is pretty hard on blokes with kids too, but they can do it because they have women at home doing that work. We’re away from home about half the time, apart from anything else. It takes a pretty understanding partner, of either gender, to deal with that, let alone deal with kids in our absence.

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