The 'Having It All' Debate Should Include Women Who Have Nothing

It is our responsibility as educated career women to understand more comprehensively what the quest to "have it all" really means. It means that we need to fight for women's equality everywhere.

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I am not a remarkable career woman, nor a remarkable mother. I just gave birth to my first child one year ago and graduated with my MBA this past June. I do, however, have some reflections that I believe have something valuable to add to the conversation about Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent cover story in The Atlantic.

A debate on career and family See full coverage

Having recently earned my professional degree from the American University of Beirut, I have spent the last two years of my life as an American woman, starting my family and my career in a developing country context. This has forced me to confront some rather pesky realities facing women around the globe.

Let me start with an illustrative story. I recently attended a presentation by a brilliant, mid-career professional woman in a senior post at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group. Her achievements were all the more impressive in a region that unfortunately boasts the lowest female engagement in the workforce, just ranking above Sub-Saharan Africa. While her speech was about monetary policy, the Arab Spring, and the role of the International Finance Corporation in development, I couldn't help but ponder other important subjects.

So when the Q&A was almost finished, I asked this high-achieving Egyptian woman exactly what was on my mind: "How does a woman -- an Arab woman, no less -- manage a brilliant career and a family?"

She laughed and began by telling me that she has five kids. Having revealed something about her age earlier, I quickly did the math and realized that she had built both her large family and impressive career in a matter of 20 short years. Furthermore, her kids were still young and at home as she was climbing the ranks of success in her career.

So how do you do it? She gave a rather pat answer about a choosing a supportive husband and supportive bosses. While this is crucial advice for young women getting started on the family/career journey, I felt her answer disappointing, and felt that it missed a very large part of this important conversation.


In the Arab World, domestic help is easy to come by. Even in Lebanon, where the GDP is only about $14,000 per capita, households can commonly afford a live-in maid. It takes as little as $150 a month to hire women flocking to the region from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and various places in Africa. For the most part, rich and poor families alike throughout the Arab World have the luxury of inexpensive, readily available domestic help. I felt it was an unfortunate oversight on the part of the presenter to have ignored the fact that she more than likely has several maids and nannies doing her cleaning and laundry, preparing her family's food, and taking care of her children.

At that moment, I vowed to always be honest about the fact that I would spend the next decades of my life building my family and career on the backs of other women who were simply looking for ways to help their families survive. The women who were then helping me care for my infant while I earned my degree didn't have the luxury of debating which career path best suited their ambitions or family commitments.

Presented by

Amy Walburn is an international development professional living in Lebanon.

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