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To Have and to Have Not

Vivia Chen

June 22, 2012

TheAtlanticCoverSo what do I really think of Anne-Marie Slaughter's article ("Why Women Still Can't Have It All") in The Atlantic? As you've undoubtedly heard by now, Slaughter's piece is about how she decided to leave a dream job as the first female director of policy planning for the State Department to tend to her responsibilites on the home front.

Yes, it is another cautionary tale about a well-trodden subject: the difficulty (or is it impossibility?) of work/life balance. But what gives Slaughter's tale punch is that it comes from someone who made the tough climb to the top only to retreat after two years on the job. Plus, she is brutally honest about her decision to pull back.

In fact, she pretty much renounces the feminist package that she had bought into:

All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. . . . I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all. . . . Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

I like people who willfully step into a minefield. But back to my original question: How do I really feel about Slaughter's piece?

Well, it's complicated. First, I think it's important to point out that Slaughter didn't drop out of the workforce. She's back teaching at Princeton—hardly a pedestrian job. So she's not saying that women with families have to throw in the dish towel. What she is saying, though, is that having a highly pressured job in the way the economy and society "are currently structured" makes "having it all" very, very tough for working moms.

I don't think many people can disagree with that, but here's my quibble: Didn't she know that going into the job? Even more than law practice, heading policy for the State Department is inevitably highly stressful. The stakes are unimaginably high, and everything is an emergency. It is not the place to stake out work/life balance.

To be fair, Slaughter is trying to make a larger point beyond her own situation. To that end, she argues that we should rethink our work structures. (Among other things, she urges greater work flexibility, less emphasis on "face" time at the office, and more honesty talking about our home demands at work.) I think she's right that there must be institutional changes to achieve balance in our working lives.

Yet, even on this broader point, I find the article regressive, deflating, and infuriating. Let me tell you what jumps out at me.

1. Slaughter rebukes Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg for putting too much pressure on women to succeed. Remember Sandberg’s TED talk, in which she advised women not to “leave before you leave” (Sandberg says young women are so concerned about balancing work and family that they pull back from challenging work even from the get-go)? This is Slaughter's take:

Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach. We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: “What’s the matter with you?”

That's not the way I heard Sandberg. If anything, I thought Sandberg was extremely encouraging to women. Her message is that young women ought to go for the top while they are unencumbered by family demands. Is that so bad?

2. Slaughter assumes women have a greater biological need to "nurture" than men. Even though Slaughter had a supportive husband (also a Princeton professor) who took the "lion's share" of the child care responsibilities, she says that didn't alleviate her stress:

The proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case.

Though Slaughter admits, "I step onto treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes," I'm puzzled why she placed so much emphasis on how women are wired differently than men when it comes to kids. Certainly, this can't make it easier to argue that both parents should be engaged in caring for their children.

3. Slaughter oversells Michelle Obama as a role model. Slaughter notes that Michelle Obama "started out with the same resume as her husband," but made career decisions based on "the kind of parent she wanted to be." She adds:

We should celebrate her not only as a wife, mother, and champion of healthy eating, but also as a woman who has had the courage and judgment to invest in her daughters when they need her most. And we should expect a glittering career from her after she leaves the White House and her daughters leave for college.

I have two problems: Why does she assume that Mrs. Obama has to wait until her daughters are in college for a "glittering career"? And is being a stay-at-the-White-House-mom superior to being a working mom? Deep down, I wish we had a working first lady. Wouldn't that send an incredibly enpowering message to girls? Of course, I'm realistic enough to know that a working first lady would be political suicide for any presidential candidate.

I get the impression that Slaughter's personal circumstances tipped her decision. She mentions that her teenage son had been going through a difficult adolescence, and that she felt she had to be there to shepherd him. Indeed, Slaughter's pullback from the super-fast track is unusual, because women usually feel the pressure to be close to the homefront when the kids are much younger. By the time their kids are adolescents, working moms are back at work full-speed.

I can only assume that things were very dicey at Slaughter's home. As a parent, I totally sympathize. But I wonder if she would have left the State Department if her son weren't going through this rough patch.

Slaughter suggests that the demands at home made her rethink her priorities, that ultimately she realized she just wanted to go home and smell the flowers:

I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults. But also irreplaceable years for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals.

The article concludes with a call to arms for everyone—men and women—to put more balance in their lives. But I'm not sure what the takeaway is. Is Slaughter suggesting that the tugs of motherhood make taking up a demanding career impossible, or that it is indeed possible, if only the right systems were in place? (She talks wistfully about how having a female president would change things.)

If she's saying that the stars have to be perfectly aligned before we see genuine progress, then women will have a long, long wait.


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One commenter asked, "what do women want?" I'll answer for myself. I'm a 2006 (T5) law grad. I worked at a law firm, then clerked, then joined a different (BigLaw) firm. I've also had 3 kids since graduation. I'm smart, competitive, like the challenges of litigation, and am good at my job for my level. But, I want to, and do, work significantly less than the male associates. Do I get paid less? Yes, and I think that's fair. Will I make partner when they do? Not a chance. But what I want is to not be "mommy tracked." I want to be given good experiences, and thus far, I have. I'm meeting with a GC tomorrow. I'm fine getting paid less, I'm fine if it takes me 14 years to make partner instead of 7. But, I don't want to be pushed out of the game. Less compensation and slower promotions are reasonable sacrifices for me to spend the time raising my kids (and I think it's fair to those who put in the grueling hours). Feeling like work and motherhood is an either-or proposition is not what I want. The difference comes down to work-place culture. I could never be a good mom at my old firm, already being de facto pushed out from the day I announced my pregnancy. I worked until I had my baby and never looked back. My new firm, with a flexible, telecommuting culture, totally rocks, and is why I'm still in the game. (Being in a small city, sattelite office is no small factor either). I'm truly grateful, but there's no reason all firms can't be like this. My rate is now $530/hr, so they're making plenty of money off of me, and I produce quality work product. My 3 kids under 5 have substantial mommy time every day. Win, win, win. But, I don't "have it all." I do nothing, literally nothing, except work and childcare, borrowing some time most days to get on my home elliptical machine. Hobbies, social life, volunteering, and "me" time will probably not exist in my world until my kids are older.

Re: the "biological need to nurture." As my kids get older, I am realizing that it's not my need to nurture my kids that is at issue; it's my kids' need for me to nurture them. My situation is not so far removed from Slaughter's--I have an adolescent son (and one younger) who is going off the rails as I work obscene hours building my practice. I am absolutely fine with the hours I work, but what I have come to realize is that my kids are not fine.

My husband "speaks fluent carpool" in the words of the New York Times. He works part time, mostly from home. He supervises homework and shuttles the kids to doctors' appointments, meetings, etc. We have no nanny (live in or otherwise). My kids love their father, but they need me to be around, too. They accept (albeit grudgingly) that my job requires a lot of my time and travel. But they would far prefer to have me working at home on the weekend than working at the office.

I think it is long past time that we stop focusing on women's views of "having it all," as though we are the only part of the equation that matters. As a parent, my first obligation is to my children's well being, not to my personal feelings about "balance."

Thanks for the post...two small points. You suggest that women feel the need to stay at home when their children are younger and then are back in the workforce full force by the time their children are adolescents. In talking to parents of adolescents, they say that they realize the opposite is true. When their kids were young and their needs were mostly physical (i.e., feeding, diapering), it was ok to have a caretaker or nanny do that. But when their kids are older and have lots of sports/activities, may be newly exposed to drugs/alcohol and other adolescent perils, and have more emotional stresses as they mature, it is actually more important for the parents to be around during those years to provide guidance.

Separately, my issue with Sandberg's comments are that she implies the ultimate goal is always getting to the top, being CEO, etc. I think that's short-sighted and not always what women WANT. Studies show that women are less happy now than they were in the early 70s. The beginning of one's career should be about discovering one's passions, gaining skills, experimenting. If you have a singular focus on getting to the top, you might get to the top of a profession you care nothing about. I think the goal should be women (and men) deciding what's right for them and owning their choices.

First, from a male perspective, Slaughter's article, Chen's analysis, and the comments are hard to reconcile. What do women want? Second, many men make work-life balance choices that allow them to spend more time with family. For example, I am an equity partner at a BigLaw firm who took paternity leave in the early 1990's, after suggestions that doing so would hurt my chances in the upcoming partnership vote. More women make such choices, though, and have more pressure on them to make choices. Third, while some changes might make improvements, my thought is that we should be celebrating that today women and men usually have a choice to make.

I am disappointed in your reaction to this article. Like the first commenter, I thought Slaughter was refreshingly honest and open, and her story is very pertinent to scores of working women today (particularly lawyers). My constant thought when reading the article was "Finally!! Someone in a position of power finally has the guts to admit that the 'work life balance' is very difficult for women to achieve in our modern world."

I am in my late thirties and have worked as a lawyer for the last 11 years. I currently work at a medium sized law firm (I worked for big law for a few years, and I also worked as a corporate paralegal at a large law firm before going to law school). In all my years of experience, I have yet to find a powerful woman lawyer who "has it all." The 75-attorney office of the firm where I worked as a paralegal had ONE woman partner, who was single in her late 50's and never had any children. She went on vacations with her sister, but otherwise she was married to the firm. The most senior associate at that firm who would go on to become an equity partner was in her 40's, had never had any children, and was just getting married the year she became partner. At my big law firm, 5 out of the 6 women equity partners in the office had slept their way to the top in one way or another. (I am not joking about this - all of them had some type of affair with a senior partner at the firm when they were associates, and then (shocker!), became partners either after the affairs were over, or after they went on to marry the senior partners with whom they had the affairs). The ones who had kids had live-in nannies and only saw their kids awake for a couple hours on the weekends. At my current firm, there is only one female equity partner. She is completely uninterested in talking to female associates about work-life balance. She had one child right out of college, was home with the baby during law school, and after that, it was up to the nannies. So those are my role models. All of these women have told me, in no uncertain terms, that if I wanted to be a powerful lawyer, there was no way I could also have a good family life, and that I would essentially have to be married to my job. They had no, and I mean zero, sympathy for those women who try to achieve some sort of work life balance, whether with kids, a spouse who has medical issues, aging grandparents, etc. I tried to emulate these women, looking down on female associates who took less prestigious jobs just to have more control of their schedules in order to spend more time with their families. Luckily, my husband has always been supportive of my being the breadwinner in the family and doesn't complain too much about my long hours.

Two years ago, however, we decided to have kids. When my son was born and I had to go back to work when he was still a tiny baby (breast pump in hand and rushing home every night to see him as early in the evening as possible), I finally understood what women were talking about when they wanted more flexible schedules to be able to spend time at home. There was something innate in me that woke up when my son was born. Similar to the way Slaughter describes her experience, it did not matter that our son was in perfectly good hands with our nanny and my husband. I just wanted to (and still do want to) be there for him as much as possible during his waking hours. Luckily my current job is somewhat more family-friendly than my biglaw firm, and no one looks at me askance when I sneak out at 6:00 to try to see my son before he goes to bed (and then inevitably, I log back on to do a couple more hours of work after he goes to bed). If I didn't have that flexibility, I think I would try to find another job, even if it resulted in a dramatic pay cut. It is just that important to me now that I'm a mother. I think that's why Slaughter's piece resonated with me (and possibly many other working women). If I had had mentors who showed me that it could be done, it would have made it a lot easier. But having women Slaughter's age who are totally unsupportive of relatively normal life choices (having kids should not be considered abnormal) makes it a lot more difficult when trying to forge ahead with that choice. I agree with Slaughter that if we had more women in positions of power (presumably ones like her, who understand what it means to have a work-life balance), it would be a lot easier for women my age and younger who are trying to make it work. It really is different for women, and it is time for employers who have valuable women workers to recognize that and try to do something about it.

I was totally loving Slaughter's article until she wrote that it was intended only for highly educated, fast-track women, and not to those loser "single moms" out there. Well, I know a lot of highly educated, very talented women who've had a change in their marital status and have had to make the same tough choices Slaughter made, in the interests of the family. I walked away from the story thinking, "what an arrogant shrew." Not to mention that it was yards too long.

You misunderstood the article. And yes, you cannot have it all. I am a husband to a wonderful woman who decided to change her career when the demands of her "part-time" job seemed to be almost the same as those of her previous full time (non law, but corporate) position. We didn't want nannies to raise our children. It didn't make sense to us financially or emotionally. I have a relatively high position in law. And yes, men cannot have it all also. Missed soccer games and other events. At times I have not seen the kids other than in the morning when I kissed them on the forehead before leaving for work and at night when I kissed them in the forehead after coming back from work. Wake up. Nobody can have it all. It is only a personal choice. We made ours and so did Mrs. Slaughter.

I don't agree with your negative take on this article. I thought Slaughter was refreshingly honest and open. My takeaway was that there are some jobs that women (or anyone) who wants to engage with his/her family just cannot do, and that there are still more jobs which COULD allow a healthy work-life balance but currently don't. There is nothing regressive about this message. This is the honest truth.

Great post and analysis of article and issues. But what did I really think of the article? It was brave and it did resonate with me for its honesty in depicting the challenging realities of high achieving working women with families. Maybe it's all about the fact that Slaughter did hear Sandberg as "reproachful" in her TED talk and does sugar coat Michelle Obama's non-career "choice" and does blame "feminism" for selling her a bill of goods, and does need to justify her choice to resign that position. Could it be that women's "greater biological need" to judge, feel guilty and apologize is at the heart of Slaughter's "having it all" conundrum? And do French women have the same biological need!? Slaughter is yet another highly credentialed and successful working woman with a family and a supportive husband who feels the need to defend, justify and apologize for her choices. She sees the world and her choices filtered through the judgment game - a game, unfortunately, played by women. And yes, I am now guilty of "piling on" along with the other working women posting and commenting (note: the ones getting paid to post are exempt from my reproach)! To be clear, there is still plenty of work to be done in Biglaw and corporate America and government to engender the culture, language, opportunity and resources to enable professional women to achieve their goals - whatever those goals and choices are. Equally important, working women raising families need to strive to re-define "having it all" as getting comfortable with the life-work balance they have chosen and achieved, recognize that it is a dynamic that changes daily (if not hourly) and stop apologizing!

I also agree with your analysis. The whole point of the Feminist Movement was to give women (and men) more freedom of choice so that their partnership can make healthy, real life sense. That mission has been warped over the years by regressive/devisive messages like this one.

I think you missed a few key points in the article. First, Slaughter states that she would have had to renounce her tenured position at Princeton if she'd stayed at State. I'd hesitate to give up that kind of job for a position that is essentially a political appointment with a built-in expiration date. Second, it is possible that one of Michelle Obama's children will already be in college by the time she leaves the White House which is when her career would presumably resume. Third, as a working mother/lawyer with teens, I can say that no one can really predict how your kids will respond to a change in your work schedule. When I recently changed jobs, my former placid, pleasant daughter, who had been totally supportive of my work choices, turned into a sulking, raving lunatic even though my husband rearranged his schedule to accommodate mine. Reason? I wasn't around as much as I was before. It didn't matter that she had started high school, made new friends, and had a new life of her own. She was upset because I wasn't home.

I don't think Slaughter is saying that it can't be done. I think she is saying that it can't always be done.

I agree with your interpretation of Sandberg's comments and actually found it discouraging that panels of women lawyers and women's law student events focus entirely on work-life balance and children. Aren't there other issues that women in the workplace, particularly law, face? Why is the conversation about balance only about motherhood, when women are often primary caregivers for their parents and other family members

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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