Why Women Still Can’t Have It All

It’s time to stop fooling ourselves, says a woman who left a position of power: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, here’s what has to change.
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Consider some of the responses of women interviewed by Zenko about why “women are significantly underrepresented in foreign policy and national security positions in government, academia, and think tanks.” Juliette Kayyem, who served as an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2011 and now writes a foreign-policy and national-security column for The Boston Globe, told Zenko that among other reasons,

the basic truth is also this: the travel sucks. As my youngest of three children is now 6, I can look back at the years when they were all young and realize just how disruptive all the travel was. There were also trips I couldn’t take because I was pregnant or on leave, the conferences I couldn’t attend because (note to conference organizers: weekends are a bad choice) kids would be home from school, and the various excursions that were offered but just couldn’t be managed.

Jolynn Shoemaker, the director of Women in International Security, agreed: “Inflexible schedules, unrelenting travel, and constant pressure to be in the office are common features of these jobs.”

These “mundane” issues—the need to travel constantly to succeed, the conflicts between school schedules and work schedules, the insistence that work be done in the office—cannot be solved by exhortations to close the ambition gap. I would hope to see commencement speeches that finger America’s social and business policies, rather than women’s level of ambition, in explaining the dearth of women at the top. But changing these policies requires much more than speeches. It means fighting the mundane battles—every day, every year—in individual workplaces, in legislatures, and in the media.

It’s possible if you marry the right person.

Sandberg’s second message in her Barnard commencement address was: “The most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is.” Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, recently drove that message home to an audience of Princeton students and alumni gathered to hear her acceptance speech for the James Madison Medal. During the Q&A session, an audience member asked her how she managed her career and her family. She laughed and pointed to her husband in the front row, saying: “There’s my work-life balance.” I could never have had the career I have had without my husband, Andrew Moravcsik, who is a tenured professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton. Andy has spent more time with our sons than I have, not only on homework, but also on baseball, music lessons, photography, card games, and more. When each of them had to bring in a foreign dish for his fourth-grade class dinner, Andy made his grandmother’s Hungarian palacsinta; when our older son needed to memorize his lines for a lead role in a school play, he turned to Andy for help.

Still, the proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case.

Here I step onto treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes. From years of conversations and observations, however, I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.

Many factors determine this choice, of course. Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.

Men and women also seem to frame the choice differently. In Midlife Crisis at 30, Mary Matalin recalls her days working as President Bush’s assistant and Vice President Cheney’s counselor:

Even when the stress was overwhelming—those days when I’d cry in the car on the way to work, asking myself “Why am I doing this??”—I always knew the answer to that question: I believe in this president.

But Matalin goes on to describe her choice to leave in words that are again uncannily similar to the explanation I have given so many people since leaving the State Department:

I finally asked myself, “Who needs me more?” And that’s when I realized, it’s somebody else’s turn to do this job. I’m indispensable to my kids, but I’m not close to indispensable to the White House.

To many men, however, the choice to spend more time with their children, instead of working long hours on issues that affect many lives, seems selfish. Male leaders are routinely praised for having sacrificed their personal life on the altar of public or corporate service. That sacrifice, of course, typically involves their family. Yet their children, too, are trained to value public service over private responsibility. At the diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s memorial service, one of his sons told the audience that when he was a child, his father was often gone, not around to teach him to throw a ball or to watch his games. But as he grew older, he said, he realized that Holbrooke’s absence was the price of saving people around the world—a price worth paying.

It is not clear to me that this ethical framework makes sense for society. Why should we want leaders who fall short on personal responsibilities? Perhaps leaders who invested time in their own families would be more keenly aware of the toll their public choices—on issues from war to welfare—take on private lives. (Kati Marton, Holbrooke’s widow and a noted author, says that although Holbrooke adored his children, he came to appreciate the full importance of family only in his 50s, at which point he became a very present parent and grandparent, while continuing to pursue an extraordinary public career.) Regardless, it is clear which set of choices society values more today. Workers who put their careers first are typically rewarded; workers who choose their families are overlooked, disbelieved, or accused of unprofessionalism.

In sum, having a supportive mate may well be a necessary condition if women are to have it all, but it is not sufficient. If women feel deeply that turning down a promotion that would involve more travel, for instance, is the right thing to do, then they will continue to do that. Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier.

It’s possible if you sequence it right.

Young women should be wary of the assertion “You can have it all; you just can’t have it all at once.” This 21st-century addendum to the original line is now proffered by many senior women to their younger mentees. To the extent that it means, in the words of one working mother, “I’m going to do my best and I’m going to keep the long term in mind and know that it’s not always going to be this hard to balance,” it is sound advice. But to the extent that it means that women can have it all if they just find the right sequence of career and family, it’s cheerfully wrong.

The most important sequencing issue is when to have children. Many of the top women leaders of the generation just ahead of me—Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor, Patricia Wald, Nannerl Keohane—had their children in their 20s and early 30s, as was the norm in the 1950s through the 1970s. A child born when his mother is 25 will finish high school when his mother is 43, an age at which, with full-time immersion in a career, she still has plenty of time and energy for advancement.

Yet this sequence has fallen out of favor with many high-potential women, and understandably so. People tend to marry later now, and anyway, if you have children earlier, you may have difficulty getting a graduate degree, a good first job, and opportunities for advancement in the crucial early years of your career. Making matters worse, you will also have less income while raising your children, and hence less ability to hire the help that can be indispensable to your juggling act.

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Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president of the New America Foundation and the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. She was previously the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department and the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. More

From 2009-2011, Slaughter served as Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, the first woman to hold that position. After leaving the State Department, she received the Secretary's Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor conferred by the State Department, for her work leading the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. She also received a Meritorious Honor Award from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Prior to her government service, Slaughter was the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from 2002-2009. She has written or edited six books, including A New World Order (2004) and The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (2007). From 1994-2002, Slaughter was the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law and director of the International Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. She received a B.A. from Princeton, an M.Phil and D.Phil in international relations from Oxford, where she was a Daniel M. Sachs Scholar, and a J.D. from Harvard.
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