The Atlantic is nuts for women this week, but it can’t decide whether we should engage in lunatic screeds or talk seriously about women, work, and motherhood. Either way, I sense that the magazine is in this game for the traffic, not the issues. That’s too bad because we seem to be increasingly telling women that 1) they should aspire to having it all, and 2) they can’t have it all. It’s enough to make a girl ask “why bother”?
Take Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All. It’s serious, but framed in a way that is so inflammatory, it’s difficult to parse the good from the bad. Consider the descriptive copy at the top of the piece (not, I think, written by Slaughter):
It’s time to stop fooling ourselves, says a woman who left a position of power: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.
Excuse me, Atlantic, are you talking to me? Who is “fooling themselves”? Do you think those of us in the corporate world are unaware that there are trade-offs and choices to be made every day? Furthermore, you do not have to be “superhuman, rich, or self-employed” to be a “top professional” (whatever that means). I think we could find hundreds of thousands of women who consider themselves top in their game, but do not define as any of these.
The narrative opens with Slaughter referencing her troubled teen, suggesting that his challenges are a result of her absence during the week. This may be true. Or it may not. There’s no real evidence that there’s causality here, but by framing her choice in this way, Slaughter delivers an implicit indictment of mothers with demanding jobs. All of the points she makes in her piece could have been make equally well without this bit of color designed to provide linkbait for those who suggest that kids suffer in two-career parent families.
This opening was also profoundly unsettling because I’m a professional. My children are young, and I can’t know how they will “turn out”. I can’t know whether if I gave up my career tomorrow they would be more successful than they would if I stayed in the game. I can’t know whether my income will give them opportunities that they wouldn’t have had, or whether my husband’s presence in their lives 50% of the time is any less valuable than mine would be. But Slaughter’s frame in this piece leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that I might be doing something drastically wrong. But no hard evidence. Not a shred real of data. So how seriously do I take this threat that seems to hang over my home?
And yet there are some gem moments in the piece, particularly the section titled “Revaluing Family Values” that points out the tremendous double standard women face when they talk about caring for children in their non-working hours versus their peers who talk about training for a marathon. Slaughter tells the story of a male Orthodox colleague who negotiated a Sabbath-observant work schedule, and rightly notes that the same negotiation based on “family time” versus religious observance would damage a woman’s credibility. Slaughter highlights this effectively, though I wish she would have been more forthright in pointing out that’s it is nothing less than sexism.
Still, I was disappointed. Slaughter purports to identify half-truths and cliches like “It’s possible if you’re committed enough,” “It’s possible if you marry the right person”, and “It’s possible if you sequence it right”. Slaughter may think these are myths to bust; in point of fact they are all true. Not for everyone, not always, and perhaps not in exactly the same way (there is never a “right” time to have children). But they are good tactics to setting up an environment that allows for women’s success. These are messages we should be giving women, just as we give at least the first two to men.
Then she goes on to talk about how she believes our culture must change to allow women (not men, although they would also benefit from many of her suggestions) to have work-family “balance” and career success. Most of these ideas seem stale to me. Many large companies already allow working from home at least part of the time, and certainly technology has been an enormous boost for working parents. We do need to revisit the school schedule, for many reasons, not the least of which that there is compelling evidence that our children might do better academically. Family leave policies that affect both men and women would be helpful, though a year would likely mean that parents would simply not move ahead as quickly as their childless peers.
But okay, all of these are valid. However, I don’t think Slaughter cracks this nut in any meaningful way. She doesn’t directly address the two major changes that would need to happen: first, that rethinking the way we integrate work and family needs to become an “everyone” issue. Even for Slaughter, it’s primarily dominated by women, and as much as I hate to write it, “women’s issues” are not highly valued.
Second, we need to address workplace discrimination faced by mothers head on. Because lurking behind all of Slaughter commentary is an enormous double-standard for women and men. The problem is not that women are stepping off the career track; the problem is that the track is re-routed as soon as they have kids, whether they like it or not. And this means that women languish in unrewarding middle management positions with little autonomy versus senior roles that would allow them to stretch their wings professionally and call their own shots.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Slaughter’s State Department role is not, as she claims, “typical for the vast majority of working women”. While many of us work long hours on corporate schedules, few of us work the kind of schedule Slaughter had in her government role. I’d hate to think that young women are dissuaded from aspiring to high positions based on this outline: in truth there are many “top management” roles that allow you to control your time.
But the biggest secret? Time isn’t everything. It’s about loving what you do too. For too long women have lowered their expectations to achieve “work life balance”. The whole conversation needs an update, not more of the same tired thinking couched in rhetoric designed to polarize.