“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” – a response…

In the last few weeks the internet has been buzzing with responses to Anne-Marie Slaughters piece in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”  At last count there were 2238 comments, which has to be some kind of record.  It might also be the most read article they have ever published.  The dialogue has not only been online.  Every where I go women have been either talking about this article, “Shades of Grey,” or  “Magic Mike.” Quite the combination.  Although some have praised Slaughter for her honesty, many feminist critics have mixed reviews on the article, mainly by pointing out that Slaughter comes from a privileged background and her argument actually applies only to “white, educated, wealthy women who have high-powered jobs.” (bitchmagazine) Fair point and I run the same risk.  The vast majority of women who work, and women are the majority of people who do work, do not have the options that Ms. Slaughter or I have. So why are women so fired up about this article? Is it really saying anything we don’t already know? What nerve was hit by this article?

Clearly the title of the article makes a lot of people nuts, including me.  I too went through most of my professional life with the idea that if I did not have a great career, a big bank account, a successful husband, perfect kids, nice house, size 6 body (I am exhausted just typing this list) I was not going to be happy.  I have since let go of the concept of ‘having it all,’ or that new phrase ‘having it all but not at the same time,’ or any of those other phrases that give me a reason to beat myself up or keep me so living for the future that I forget to live in the present.  We all need to.  This negative framing that sets everyone, and I mean everyone, up for failure has just got to end.  This was not the promise of the ‘feminist movement’ and it also makes me crazy that so many seem to think it was. So can you all just say this with me?  ‘I cannot have it all and who knows what that means anyways. ”

Without that phrase what does this article become? For one it becomes the story of one woman who had a big job and who chose to leave it to spend more time with her family.  Good for her.  Hope you are happy Ms. Slaughter and glad you son is turning out ok. The other thing it becomes is a laundry list of tips on how the world has to change to enable women, and men I guess, to have a better balance between work and family.  Here she gets practical and she makes some great suggestions and reasons why it makes sense. Is any of this new? Nope not new and sadly is is unlikely that CEOs and HR professionals have since rushed to their offices to order increases in maternity leave and more flex-time options.  Will this change happen over time? Perhaps but lower your expectations when the unemployment rate is so high. People are working harder then ever, man or woman.

Here is what I hope it does not become. I hope it does not become a reason for women to say ‘see it’s not worth it.’ I am not going invest in my career because it will ultimately come at too great of a cost to my family life.  For countless women I know they are making great choices, or at least the best choices they can every single day, and that is awesome.  Men are not continually subjected to the either/or of career versus family.  It is time that we live in the world of both/and for women just as we do for men. As women we have to stop holding ourselves up to some impossible standard and ask that others, including the media, do the same.  For women who’s husbands make enough money so they do not have to work,  great if you choose to stay at home with the kids  but please do so in full knowledge that you are leaving your earning power behind should your life circumstance change.  (read The Feminine Mistake)

I also hope it does not become an excuse to not continue to focus on the real biases and barriers that still very much exist in the workplace that prevent women from moving up the corporate ladder.  Women are entering corporate America in equal, if not greater numbers then men only to find that despite their hard work and talent they do not get the same opportunities for advancement, in part because they are seen as more likely to leave and thus not worth the investment. Perhaps women will never be 50% of  Fortune 500 CEOs or C-Suite executives because they are less willing on average to work the hours required, but you cannot tell be that in the year 2012 they are only 6% and 15% respectfully  because of either a lack of ambition or their maternal calling. I would love to read an article in The Atlantic about how sexual discrimination is alive and well in the  American workplace and what we are finally going to do about it.  Where are the Ms. Slaughter’s of the world willing to come forward with those stories?

After a good hour of staring at my computer screen……

So what about his article is haunting me such that I cannot hit publish and go to bed? When I sat down to write this blog I thought I would have a lot more to say about this whole work/life thing but I find myself struggling to find the words, perhaps because my life circumstance has changed so much since I was in Ms. Slaughter’s shoes. She said much in her 7 pages and  10 years ago when I was leaving Goldman Sachs I would likley have written virtually the same article.  Now it all seems so dated. In part because it feels like it’s all been said before but I find myself searching for the new narrative and I can’t put my finger on what was missing. (Here I risk the same thing she was criticized for, talking from an extremely privileged position, but I am going there anyways.)

Although I am no longer a GS Partner working in a corporate environment as a CEO of a non-profit I continue to work my butt off and turn away from my computer every day knowing there are 100 things left undone. I left Goldman to have better balance and now I find myself working almost  as hard.   If you want  or  have or need a career, and not just a job, there will always be more you can do. For me I don’t have to work for money, but I have to work.  It is who I am and acknowledging that to myself and to my loved ones is a scary thing, especially when it is not about the money. Our culture does not judge men and fathers in the same way it judges women and mothers for working because they choose to.  Worse we judge women harshly even when they are clearly working for economic reasons, often as the primary breadwinner. When men ‘sacrifice’ family for work we honor them for it, for women the opposite. The narrative goes something like this. ‘Though Joe rarely sees his family he is so successful and works so hard to provide a great life for them. What a great guy.’  For Jane it is ‘ can you believe she works when they don’t need the money? She is so selfish. Those poor kids are going to pay the price.”  Also our culture does not blame  men in the same way when something goes wrong, nor do we blame ourselves the same. Do you ever hear this? ‘Those kids are so messed up because their dad spent too much time at that office?’ The power of our patriarchal culture is huge.  I think this is key to why women, and especially successful women with children, whom have economic security,  leave their high-powered careers.

For Ms. Slaughter  her son not doing well and her feeling that it was BECAUSE of her work led her to opt out. If only she was home more everything would be ok.  Was her leaving her high powered job the key to her son getting back on track?  Who knows but this is the story she is telling us and this is both a compelling and dangerous narrative and clearly the dominant one for women.  It is compelling because every women I know wants the best for her children and if leaving one’s job ( given you even have the choice) would  result healthy well-adjusted children, then leaving or ‘leaning back’ is the right thing to do. Family trumps work.  We have a problem that has a solution.  Women if you can, don’t work.  If you need to or want to you are just going to have to suffer the guilt for it and live with the fact that you will likely punish yourself, and the culture will blame you, when your kids do  not turn out perfect or  likewise if your marriage falls apart.

The dangerous part is who knows what really makes the difference in any one person’s situation but for women,especially high-powered women,  if we are made to feel like the problem is us working, then we will almost always opt out and the implications for society as a whole are significant. Perhaps  her working was not the problem, nor not working the solution, and had she stayed  let’s imagine she then went on to become the world’s first woman President of the United States and a darn good one. Men are much more supported by their families and by our culture to stick with it and try to be all that they can be professionally. We worship  and celebrate professionally successful men and we all too often despise and doubt that same level of success in women.

Just two weeks ago I had one of those moments of crisis.  Someone really important to me sat me down and  told me ‘I was putting my work ahead of my family’ and BECAUSE of that things in my family were not as they could or should be. Though I calmly listened to what she was saying knowing it was coming from a loving place I was dying inside. I excused myself, went to the bathroom, and could not stop crying. Could she not see how hard I was trying?  Could she not see that I think about the well being of my family constantly and try so damn hard to balance that with my own needs and potential? Could she not see that my work was making a difference in the world? How could she not know that those words were unbearably harsh?   What came with those few words was all the ifs…. if I did this, if I did that, then….. I would have the perfect kids, the perfect marriage, the perfect everything.

This is where the personal turns political.

As working women, much more so then working men ( notice how that term does not slip off your tongue in quite the same way) we both have the guilt, and are made to feel the guilt, that if something is wrong with our family it is because of us working. How the world might be different if that were not the case. It is time to ask ourselves what is right because we are working?  We need to balance this narrative, or better yet counter this narrative that Ms. Slaughter put out there that mothers working is the problem, and not-working is the solution. Of course we need to spend quality time with our children and spouses, father or mother.  Every family needs to make the right decisions for them based on their financial and non-financial needs and work hard, very hard, to find the right balance so children don’t suffer due to absent parents. Corporate America should change because it is in their long term best interest to and when the economy gets better, that will start to matter again.   But we need to give women the benefit of the doubt and support them in their choices in the same way we do men.

It is past two am in the morning and it is time to hit publish knowing that this is a far from perfect post and I am not even sure at this point if  what I wrote makes any sense to anyone but me. There is a part of me that wants to hit the erase button as it is revealing something about myself that I have never truly acknowledged to anyone, maybe even myself . But after 5 hours of sitting here I might as well go all out so here it goes……

I love my children with all my heart and I want to be a great mother to them.  I love my husband with all my heart and want to be a great wife to him.  I ALSO love to work because it fulfills a deep need I have within myself to make a difference in this world. I try my best every single day to make the right choices and my fear is that the commitment I have to my work comes at some negative cost to my family. My hope is that is does not. My hope is that because I choose to work I am teaching my children about passion and purpose and making real to them the struggle, and the joy, that comes from a complex life built around one’s choices and trying to make it all work.

My dream is that as a society we stop being so damn hard on professional women and start supporting them like we support men in our culture.  What might help is to acknowledge that the VAST  majority of women are working out of economic necessity and beating them up all the time, and encouraging them to beat themselves up, is a giant waste of energy better used elsewhere. This is a huge shift and will not happen easily. But it needs to happen.  Only then will we know what women’s leadership and participation might mean for our world. Do I think that if this happens  the corporate world in general will become more work/life friendly? Do I think we will  be collectively better off for it?  I do, but you don’t have to believe that to support the concept. What you have to believe is that loving support and accountability is better than judgement and guilt. It is time to give women a break and change the dominant narrative – ‘Women just can’t have it all.’

To read what others have written about this article clink on the links below.

An interview in The Atlantic with Anne Marie Slaughter where she responded to her critics.
Jezebel‘s take on the article.
Another article in the The Week on five reasons Slaughter missed the mark with this piece.
An interesting response from The New York Times

The Washington Post wrote a response to not having “anything close to it all.”

An article in the The Huffington Post giving her credit for the bold article.

The article in Inside Story says women can having it all, on one condition.


5 thoughts on ““Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” – a response…

  1. Speak it, sister! I am not a mother or a wife and I feel I contribute to the world in meaningful ways. For me, this happy little globe is my family. I’ll do my best every day to step up for them. Thank you for writing this piece.

  2. It reminded me of a speech I gave in 2006. Here is an excerpt from it.

    “Socially Responsible businesses, seeded by these basic human values and nurtured by an unchanging code of ethics are often started by women. Usually when they discover, working in traditional management systems, they are wearing personal and emotional lives 2 sizes too small.

    Let’s face it; the world at large is not a Female Friendly place. Women are finding, if they want to succeed, but not at all costs; they must invent their own workplace to match the landscape of their lives: One that provides food for the table and gives social and emotional meaning to their personal life.

    And they are on the right track; According to the United Nations, if women continue to advance at their current rate it will be 500 years before women have managerial status equal to men. After that, it will be 475 more years – that’s 975 years in total – before women hold equal political and economic status in the world. I’m 54. I can’t wait that long.

    To me it’s obvious. If you want to feed your soul, as well as your child, you can’t get there from “here”. Stop hitting your head on the top bunk. Your success is going to knock the spiritual stuffing right out of you if you try to come at it from traditional angles. Once you understand it’s not you that’s crazy, it’s the system, you begin to understand how to be a successful sane woman and that work can become a joyous expression for your soul no matter what industry you’re in.

    And then I ended the speech with this story.

    Once upon a time, in a land not far away, a beautiful independent, self-assured princess sat on the shores of a beautiful river, on a lush embankment, near her castle. She was contemplating ecological issues, and happened upon a frog.

    The frog hopped into the princess’s lap and surprisingly said “Beautiful lady, I was once a handsome Investment Banker from Toronto, until an evil witch cast a spell upon me. One kiss from you and I will turn back into the dapper young titan I once was. And then, my sweet, we can marry and set up housekeeping -in your magnificent castle…with my mother, where you can prepare my meals, clean my clothes, bear my children and forever feel grateful and happy doing so.

    That night…dining on a fine meal of lightly sautéed frog legs… in white wine sauce, she chuckled to herself and thought “I don’t fucking think so”.
    -Margot Franssen

  3. I feel touched by the personal of this post. For me it emphasises the fact that our personal lives and feelings are political. I have experienced and observed gender discrimination both at the Most Important Bank in the Universe and in many smaller businesses and even NGOs. Why does it always seem as if only women have children? The phrase ‘having it all’ is very loaded. It sounds immature and greedy, and of course nobody ‘has it all’ in this life.
    Less privileged women don’t have it all but we often have to ‘do it all’.

  4. Dear Jacki

    You are amazing. I love the authenticity in your words, and your willingness to speak out on these matters. Your blog post makes it clear that there are no easy solutions that can be wrapped into any one sound bite. One of the issues with the “women’s issue” is that it is extremely broad and complex, and when we try to tackle it at EVERY level we dissipate the energy over too many aspects of it. In my mind, each one of us has to choose an issue, and go for it…. HARD. Not spread ourselves too thin. As you know, at Golden Seeds we have chosen to focus on creating more successful women entrepreneurs, as more women at the top FROM THE BEGINNING will create corporate cultures that have a female influence. We recognize that the impact of our work will take decades to filter through. But decades are small when put in the context of centuries of male dominance of society and business. Perhaps the only way to speed this up would be to galvanize another women’s revolution so as to make it a man’s issue as well. When I talk to influential men in the business world they do not even know about the buzz around the Facebook board, which galvanized as much solidarity amongst women in business than I have seen for many years. They are simply not participating in this conversation.

    In the meantime, each of us IS making a huge difference, you in particular Jacki. Wipe away those tears, stay out of the bathroom, and remain strong in your quest to change the world. You ARE changing the world. Your kids are not going to be perfect regardless, and they will love and respect you for the difference you are making. Even the advice of loved ones should be ignored on occasion.

    Thank you for your support of Golden Seeds and women in general.
    Stephanie Newby
    Managing Director
    Golden Seeds

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