Having It All: Anne-Marie Slaughter Responds to Readers

The author of this month's controversial cover story says the public reaction to her piece has changed how she thinks about work-life balance.

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Since the publication of her cover story in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," Anne-Marie Slaughter's provocative ideas have journeyed to the center of the Internet's maw, whose writers eagerly dissected and decried the piece. 

On Friday morning, readers had the chance to direct their frustration and appreciation to the person who orchestrated all of this in the first place: Slaughter herself. As she took questions from readers during an Atlantic live chat, the Princeton professor tackled criticisms of her piece and discussed how she has recalibrated her own views over the past week.

A debate on career and family See full coverage

A few interrogators brought to the fore a predominant criticism of Slaughter's piece: its air of unrealistic entitlement, its childish fantasy of "having it all" (a phrase that has become a part of the media-vernacular -- and its own Twitter hashtag -- since the story's release). In response, Slaughter said that her definition of "having it all" is not "having everything I want in the world" (an expectation she called "ridiculous"), but rather a scenario in which women have the same choices as men do when it comes to balancing careers and family.

"I now see much more clearly than I did a week ago that it is the wrong framework," Slaughter said of the "having it all"-premise of her piece. "All I meant was the promise that my generation of women grew up with -- that due to the feminist movement and the amazing women a generation ahead of me, we could have careers and families too, just as men did. That phrase resonates very differently to many people now, so we need a new frame -- one that we should all participate in defining."

Slaughter acknowledged that the tension between motherhood and career is not the only framework that calls into question harmful work cultures: one reader discussed having to take care of a sick parent, and another described reducing work hours to spend time with a partner and friends. 

"Work-life balance is for EVERYONE," Slaughter agreed. "Valuing results out over time in, e.g., getting rid of what I call 'time macho,' would make us all better off." 

She cautioned against the inextricability of self-worth from professional advancement -- feeling like a "former achiever" for having made choices based on values that exist outside of the workplace. 

"SO MUCH OF THIS IS ABOUT WHAT WE FEEL, or rather WHAT WE ARE MADE TO FEEL by the reactions of those around us," Slaughter said. "No one could be more committed to her career or prouder of what I have accomplished than I am. I think I made the RIGHT choice and a choice that society should be valuing ... I don't think I 'failed' in the least -- I think I succeeded in investing in something that I know will pay off over the longer term."

To help create the kind of change envisioned in her piece, Slaughter urged employers and employees to engage in open dialogue about work-life balance. She encouraged working mothers and fathers to be "open and indeed proud" when they leave early or defer a task in the office for children-related reasons, and to ask employers -- despite the possibility of rejection -- for any adjustment that would help them balance professional and family duties (Slaughter noted that many women she has spoken with have already begun implementing these suggestions). 

"If they want burnt out, stressed, uni-dimensional people that represent a relatively small fraction of the population, then they should pay no attention to the lived reality of more and more of their workers' lives," Slaughter said of employers. "But if they want a talented, happy, productive workforce, they need to start listening and changing."


Find the whole transcript of the livechat here.

Presented by

Esther Yi is a journalist living in Berlin.

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