“Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter

My July/August issue of The Atlantic came today, and it features an article so incredible that I can’t wait until it’s posted online to share it (The full article is now available online).  Anne-Marie Slaughter intelligently, and finally, steps outside the harmful, foolhardy assumption that a woman’s success is entirely a function of her own ambition, and confronts the hard truths that our society is structured in a fashion that is not conducive to “having it all.”  It’s time to move beyond blame (both of self and of others) for not “having it all,” and work on fixing those social roadblocks that make it so damn near impossible.

While I clearly can’t reproduce the whole article here, here are some amazing excerpts:

But precisely thanks to [the progress of women now in their 60s, 70s and 80s], a different kind of conversation is now possible.  It is time for women in leadership positions to recognize that although we are still blazing trails and breaking ceilings, many of us are also reinforcing a falsehood: that “having it all” is, more than anything, a function of personal determination.  As Kerry Rubin and Lia Macko, the authors of Midlife Crisis at 30, their cri de couer for Gen-X and Gen-Y women put it: “What we discovered in our research is that while the empowerment part of the equation has been loudly celebrated, there has been very little honest discussion among women of our age about the real barriers and flaws that still exist in the system despite the opportunities we inherited.”…And although women as a group have made substantial gains in wages, educational attainment, and prestige over the past three decades, the economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson have shown that women are less happy today than their predecessors were in 1972, both in absolute terms, and relative to men.

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Yet instead of chiding, perhaps we should face some basic facts.  Very few women reach leadership positions.  The pool of female candidate for any top job is small, and will only grow smaller if the women who come after us decide to take time out, or drop out of professional competition altogether, to raise children.  That is exactly what has Sheryl Sandburg so upset, and rightly so.  In her words, “Women are not making it to the top.  A hundred and ninety heads of state; nine are women.  Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women.  In the corporate sector, [the share of] women at the top– C-level jobs, board seats– tops out at 15, 16 percent.”

Can “insufficient commitment” even plausibly explain these numbers? To be sure, the women who do make it to the top are highly committed to their profession.  On closer examination, however, it turns out that most of them have something else in common: they are genuine superwomen.  Consider the number of women recently in the top ranks in Washington– Susan Rice, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Michelle Gavin, Nancy-Ann Min DeParle– who are Rhodes Scholars.  Samantha Power, another senior White House official, won a Pulitzer Prize at age 32.  Or consider Sandberg herself, who graduated with the prize given to Harvard’s top student of economics.  These women cannot possibly be the standard against which even talented professional women should measure themselves.  Such a standard sets up most women for failure.

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These “mundane” issues– the need to travel constantly to succeed, the conflicts between school schedules and work schedules, the insistence that work be done in the office– cannot be solved by exhortations to close the ambition gap.  I would hope to see commencement speeches that finger America’s social and business policies, rather than women’s ambition, in explaining the dearth of women at the top.  But changing these policies requires much more than speeches.  It means fighting the mundane battles– every day, every year– in individual workplaces, in legislatures, and the media.

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The flip side of my realization is captured in Macko and Rubin’s ruminations on the importance of bringing the different parts of their lives together as 30-year-old-women:

“If we didn’t start to learn how to integrate our personal, social, and professional lives, we were about five years away from morphing into the angry woman on the other side of a mahogany desk who questions her staff’s work ethic after standard 12- hour workdays, before heading home to eat moo shoo pork in her lonely apartment.”

Women have contributed to the fetish of the one-dimensional life, albeit by necessity.  The pioneer generation of feminists walled of their personal lives from their professional personas to ensure that they could never be discriminated against for a lack of commitment to their work.  When I was a law student in the 1980s, many women who were then climbing the legal hierarchy in New York firms told me that they never admitted to taking time out for a child’s doctor appointment or school performance, but instead invented a much more neutral excuse.

Ok, enough of my quoting the article.  Go out and pick it up.

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