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Jun 22 2012

Women Can’t Have it All, So Now What?

By at 2:14 pm

Work life balanceThe same year I finished college, I also attended my friend’s graduation at Barnard College. While the commencement speech that year at the University of Michigan had been sort of lackluster, I expected that at Barnard I would be inspired. That perhaps I would be talked into a more ambitious plan than following a boyfriend to New Mexico to live in an adobe hut and work at a clothing store (CP Shades to be more specific and the indignity more acute).

Instead, the speaker at Barnard was Joyce Purnick, a longtime columnist for the New York Times and the first woman to head the Metro section at the paper. That day she addressed the lawn full of wide-eyed young women about to enter the work force and told them:

“I am absolutely convinced that I would not be Metro editor of the times if I had had a family,” she said. “With rare exceptions–in nearly all competitive professions–women who have children get off the track and lose ground. I see it all the time in my business. There is no way in an all-consuming profession like journalism that a woman with children can devote as much time and energy as a man can.”

It would be another 13 years until Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg would stand at the same podium encouraging women not to “leave before you leave.” She chastised women who check out of their careers because they anticipate that it will be difficult to balance work and children. Neither message, mind you, is entirely helpful.

Though I haven’t necessarily pushed through my career thinking about this–children were not really on my mind until I landed in my 30s without them–I did quickly understand that the whole “you can have it all” thing was sort of a crock. Our mothers fought for the right to work, but what I witnessed was a mother who then both worked full-time and rushed home to make dinner, plan our lunches, and make sure the household ran smoothly. When we were born she took a four- day work week and chose a job that was close to the house.

So really, was it such a great shock to read the cover story in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter–the director of policy planning at the State Department under Hillary Rodham Clinton from 2009 to 2011–exhorting how we women cannot, wait for it… meet the demands of both a high-powered job and our responsibilities to our children at home. I suppose what makes it news is that it’s coming from an extremely high-powered women who was seeming to do it all. (And the piece is, like, really long. And really smart.)

To be clear, while Slaughter left her post in Washington after two years to be closer to home and specifically to her teenage son who was falling to pieces, she’s hardly a slacker. She is still a full-time professor at Princeton, writes regularly for many publications, and gives by her own account 40 to 50 speeches a year in addition to appearing regularly on TV and radio. Oh, and she’s writing a new book.

The piece was born out of a speech Slaughter gave to a roomful of ambitious women at Oxford who were expecting a “you can have it all” pep talk. Slaughter instead found herself saying just the opposite.

In the article, she also names at least three other women who have left high-profile government jobs to be closer to home, and by that I mean, they actually wanted to be closer to home, as opposed to men in Washington who say the same thing after photos are published online of them with a mistress.

(It’s also of note that while all the male Supreme Court Justices have families, two of the three female justices are single without children.)

What Slaughter argues in the piece–which was reported about on the front page of the New York Times this morning–and what we’ve been talking about this week here on Kveller, is that until there’s a greater societal shift in the American workplace (like as Jordana Horn and Slaughter point out, dealing with billable hours at law firms), women–nor men–will be able to have it all. And according to Slaughter, that might not happen until we put a woman in the White House.

I, however, cannot wait that long. I’m off to pick up my kid. Shhh, don’t tell my boss.

Go here for a full slideshow of terrible stock photos depicting women and work-life balance.

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on Kveller are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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