The latest controversy has a new twist. This time the debate doesn’t center on young feminists fretting about being unable to have a career while raising a family. No, the latest concern is over the plight of successful women, executives who are at the height of their careers, yet unable to meet the demands of business while keeping abreast of family obligations.
Kicking off the discussion was Anne-Marie Slaughter, an Obama administration official who resigned her job at the State Department out of frustration with being unable to manage conflicting demands. Slaughter returned to family and academia and wrote a highly personal article for The Atlantic lamenting the existence of a gender gap in executive suites.
Notably, Slaughter took issue with two conventional prescriptions for women who struggle to have a work-family balance: first, the one espoused by Facebook executive Sherry Sandberg, who urges women to just stick with it and try harder; and, second, the notion that, yes, it’s possible to have it all, but maybe not all at once.
Slaughter argues that Sandberg’s try-harder solution views women as victims, blaming them if they cannot achieve the ideal balance. The other idea – having it all is possible at different times – doesn’t resonate with those who view the “we can have it eventually” approach as a cop-out.
So what’s the solution? Slaughter advocates more latitude for women to work at home, opportunities for career breaks, matching work and school schedules, help from spouses and repair of other flaws in the system. Without fixes, she fears, we will lose much. She observed that already many executive-level women in the Obama administration are leaving and being replaced by men.
Naturally, I tend to view this dilemma through the lens of my own career. I am a post depression-era child, born in the 1930s. Raised by enlightened parents of the era; I was, nevertheless, taught that women had limits to their expectations. Marriage and family were a goal, even though there might be opportunity for a career if one didn’t expect too much. As a service brat, I attended 16 schools before accepting a journalism scholarship at Northwestern University’s Medill School. I dreamed of becoming a reporter, although my college advisor warned that “women would never be allowed in the newsroom” and said I should plan on working on “the woman’s page” or in the business department.
To hedge my bets, I signed up for accounting and sewing. Given clumsy fingers, I quickly dropped sewing, but kept studying accounting. When the time came to find a job, I lucked into an editorship at a community newspaper in my family’s new home in Seattle. I’d meant to only spend the summer, but stayed on because my younger brother was off to college, and the expense of two in college was too much for my parents. Besides, they said, I’d probably only marry and waste a degree.
And, true to predictions, I met a commercial artist at the paper, married, had one son, then another, and retired to raise babies, write freelance articles, keep my husband’s books and work on community projects. It would be a dozen years before I would return to finish school and get a job at a daily newspaper. At the time, I was told dismissively that the paper already had two women in the newsroom: one to cover education, the other social issues.
Landing at the paper at that time (the 1970s) was a stroke of luck. I was only on the job for a few weeks when my artist husband was diagnosed with rapidly progressing multiple sclerosis. With his disability, I was to become the sole family breadwinner, homemaker and caregiver.
My sons were in high school at the time and, I confess, there were moments when, just like Anne-Marie Slaughter, I was lost in a haze of guilt. Guilty when I was at work, spending too much time away from family. Guilty at home for not devoting more time to an ever more challenging newspaper job.
There were many days when I suffered the strain of balancing work and family. There were family struggles, especially as my husband’s health became more precarious (he succumbed in 1985) and as our sons went through difficult teenage years. But I was most fortunate in my work, being sought after by the rival daily paper and, finally in the 1990s, moving my four-times-a-week column to the Seattle Times.
In 2003, after some years of covering the city, I received a press release from a city councilmember who bragged about raising $45,000 for her campaign in a single month. When I checked on the elections reporting site, I found the funds had mostly come through a notorious strip club owner, someone whom the councilmember had helped obtain a rezone. Outrage over the ethical breach led me to quit my job, file for office and enter the race, facing an incumbent and five male opponents. It was a quixotic move but, with help from savvy political friends, a mere 100 days later I was elected to office.
Do I believe, after all of this, that one can have it all? I do, for I don’t think myself untypical or extraordinary and yet I have had incredible jobs, a matchless opportunity to shape public policy and been fortunate enough to have a memorable family life, sons and grandsons.
In other words, I’ve had it all. Do I think it’s possible for highly-placed women to balance work and family? Yes, I do – though I know it’s seldom easy. Still, like those who have been lamenting the gender gap, I think the subject merits continued debate. How can we make it easier for women to balance work and family? How can we create a business culture that promotes and values a healthy work-life balance?
We will be better for having engaged in that conversation, especially if it produces changes to make us all more effective. And the changes, I’m confident, will come. For all our sakes, I hope it’s sooner rather than later.
I am reminded that the late Nora Ephron addressed the having-it-all question in her 1996 Wellesley commencement address. She said, “Of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands.”