"There's an assumption that there must be something wrong with us, that we're secretly miserable and that we outsource our children."
Maura Monaghan, partner at Debevoise & Plimpton
They can't stop yakking about it. No, it's not about Fifty Shades of Grey (though I hear it's the rage at some law firms), but that article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic ("Why Women Still Can't Have It All"). You know the one—where Slaughter recounts her decision to quit a big State Department job to spend more time with her kids.
I already told you my views on it (I thought the article was "regressive, deflating, and infuriating"). But how do those on the front lines feel—particularly women who hold prestigious, pressured jobs? I decided to check in with some female law partners to get their take. After all, the article is in many ways directed at them.
In fact, early in her article, Slaughter talks about how younger female lawyers have a hard time relating to women partners. She describes her conversation with two young women:
When I told them I was writing this article, one young lawyer said, “I look for role models and can’t find any.” She said the women in her firm who had become partners and taken on management positions had made tremendous sacrifices, “many of which they don’t even seem to realize. . . . They take two years off when their kids are young but then work like crazy to get back on track professionally, which means that they see their kids when they are toddlers but not teenagers, or really barely at all.”
So how tough is the work/life balance equation for women partners? And what do they make of Slaughter's article? As you might guess, there was no shortage of opinions. Several requested anonymity for this post, but just as many wanted to go on the record, including (pictured from left to right) Debevoise & Plimpton's My Chi To and Maura Monaghan; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett's Marissa Wesely; and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr's Molly Boast.
Here are some themes that ran in our discussion:
Having it all:
Wesely: "We have to drop this 'having it all' discussion—what man or woman in the workplace has it ALL? . . . If one can look at one’s life from time to time and feel basically happy with the way one is dealing with work, spouse, kids, friends, self—that is a huge success."
Monaghan: "Slaughter did have it all: She had a public policy job, even though she didn't stay. She's got tenure at Princeton. She has a loving relationship with her husband. She has a family. . . . If you look at her actions, and not her words, she does have it all."
The kids are all right: All the women took umbrage with the notion that their kids are raised by nannies. That said, they also sympathized deeply with Slaughter's problems on the homefront, particularly Boast, who served as a director at the Federal Trade Commission in the Clinton administration and, more recently, as a deputy assistant attorney general under President Obama.
Boast: "When I went to the FTC, my child was 12. I lived in D.C. and my husband and child lived in New York. There were painful moments. My daughter said to me, 'I know how much you love your work, but I really miss you.' . . . The guilt piece is something you have to get used to. . . . My daughter was not damaged, but she did become very close to my husband, which is positive."
Partner #1 at Am Law 100 firm: "Junior associates think women partners have it worse than we do. We don't always tell them that we're going to school events and how much time we spend with our kids. We don't want anyone to think we're not committed to our jobs. . . . We are happy with our personal lives."
There are high-powered jobs, and there are ridiculously high-powered jobs. The consensus is that Slaughter didn't really know what she was getting into.
Boast: "Slaughter is incredibly accomplished but probably didn't realize how much autonomy she had [at Princeton]. . . . She was a policy person who's not used to front-line diplomacy and bureaucracy. The work model in Washington is very different."
Monaghan: "She was trying to do the absolute hardest of the hard. She's away from home; she can't unwind at the end of the day. She's in a job that's all-consuming. It's more like being in the military."
Partner #1 at Am Law 100 firm: "Her job at the State Department sounds like hell. It would break anybody. I don't know how anyone can spend an entire week away from their family. She must have had no sense of control."
The personal is not universal.
Wesely: "It's dangerous to take one’s personal experience and derive general principles about the way the world works from it. . . . To be honest, we all do that a bit—[Facebook COO] Sheryl [Sandberg] translates her success into what every woman needs to do to succeed. . . . But only some of us have the platform from which to preach our view."
Partner #2 at Am Law 100 firm: "I think there were other factors [in Slaughter's decision]. She's my age, and when you hit 50, and you realize half your life is over, your priorities shift."
Slaughter's article is furthering the discussion—maybe not.
To: "It's good to have the conversation, but this is not a helpful voice. . . I feel women with children and families should be leading by example. Things aren't going to change if people like us aren't showing that it's possible. . . . I was very discouraged by her message that you have to make these irreconciliable choices. . . . She's entitled to make her decisions, but she seems to be saying that women have to set their sights lower. That's the wrong message."
What do you think? Is it possible to have a reasonable life at a big firm? Or are these women just tuning out what Slaughter is saying?
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