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July 2012


“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”


by Anne-Marie Slaughter (The Atlantic, July/August 2012)


What are the big take-aways?


In this substantial article, the former (and first woman) director of policy planning at the State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter, makes the case that there is much that needs to change if women are to have opportunities equal to men in getting – and staying in – the world’s most powerful leadership jobs. Noting elsewhere that “[t]he line of high-level women appointees in the Obama administration is one woman deep,” she writes: “I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”


With candor and precision, Slaughter describes the untenable situation she found herself in as a woman holding an extraordinarily demanding job at the same time when her family life also happened to become particularly demanding. She left her “dream job” government post after only two years in order to resume her tenured professorship in Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and help her husband raise their two sons (one of whom was “experiencing a rocky adolescence”). Slaughter is persuasive – albeit not terribly original – when she asserts:


The best hope for improving the lot of all women [not just “highly-educated, well-off” elites like herself]…is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.


Why did I like it?


I like the article’s ultimate message, which I took to be this: the problem of achieving “work-family balance” throughout all demographics in American society is a parents’ issue, not a women’s issue, and the solutions are obvious and available. Despite its title, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” is not a complaint, but a thoughtful and articulate call-to-action.


I also like that Slaughter takes a different approach to the conundrum than Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, another elite woman who has given voice to her demographic’s lament over the dearth of women in high-level power positions. (For examples, check out online videos of Sandberg’s TED Talk on “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders” and/or her Barnard College commencement speech in 2011.) I agree with Slaughter and like-minded pundits who note that Sandberg seems to place primary responsibility on individual women for addressing the problem, and instead suggest it’s time for society to adapt itself to women’s realities rather than the other way around.


Finally, I like Slaughter’s analytical style and the reasonableness of her proposed solutions, some of which offer fresh spins on what are otherwise decades-old themes. First, without a hint of self-righteousness, she identifies a raft of “half-truths we hold dear” which are holding both men and women back from bridging the gender gap in high-level leadership. Then, Slaughter provides a strong, comprehensive and do-able list of recommendations: (1) changing the culture away from emphasizing “face time” toward more mobility and schedule flexibility; (2) placing a higher societal value on employees’ caregiving for families; (3) redefining the “arc” of a successful career from a seamless upward trajectory to one with plateaus (which Slaughter calls “investment intervals”); (4) re-prioritizing happiness in life in general, and particularly family as a source of joy; (5) focusing on work habits that promote imagination, creativity and innovation rather than sticking to rigid traditions just for their own sake; and (6) building on the burgeoning trend of men who are also looking for more work flexibility and more fulfilling family lives.


In what situations would this be useful?


If you are a man or woman leader struggling with the conflicting requirements of parenthood and work – regardless of your income bracket – Slaughter’s article will give you evidence and talking points to advocate for change in your own workplace and beyond. I am not a parent myself (by choice), but if I were, I imagine this article would be eye-opening, validating and encouraging.


If you are a high-ranking leader in any industry, Slaughter’s article is a useful resource to you as well, regardless of whether you’re a parent. Take heed of what it says, for I believe Slaughter’s article is a rallying-cry for the inevitable, and you may as well get out ahead of the changes that are coming – and take credit for doing so.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


One place to start is by researching the references cited in the article, itself (e.g., the study by economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stephenson especially caught my eye).


In addition to contrasting Slaughter’s analysis of the women-in-top-leadership conundrum to Sheryl Sandberg’s, as I suggest above, you might also want to ferret out any opinions on this subject that you can find by these women currently serving in power positions: Susan Rice (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations), Virginia Rometty (CEO of IBM), Indra Nooyi (CEO of PepsiCo), Oprah Winfrey (CEO of Harpo Productions), Christine Lagarde (Director of the International Monetary Fund), Dilma Rousseff (President of Brazil) and Angela Merkel (Chancellor of Germany). There are also the three women presently sitting as Associate Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court: Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And of course there is always Slaughter’s former boss, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.


In the Leadership Library, I recommend Bossypants by Tina Fey for a laugh-out-loud and simultaneously very poignant account of balancing work and parenthood from a successful television executive.


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