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.

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.

When I was the dean, the Woodrow Wilson School created a program called Pathways to Public Service, aimed at advising women whose children were almost grown about how to go into public service, and many women still ask me about the best “on-ramps” to careers in their mid-40s. Honestly, I’m not sure what to tell most of them. Unlike the pioneering women who entered the workforce after having children in the 1970s, these women are competing with their younger selves. Government and NGO jobs are an option, but many careers are effectively closed off. Personally, I have never seen a woman in her 40s enter the academic market successfully, or enter a law firm as a junior associate, Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife notwithstanding.

These considerations are why so many career women of my generation chose to establish themselves in their careers first and have children in their mid-to-late 30s. But that raises the possibility of spending long, stressful years and a small fortune trying to have a baby. I lived that nightmare: for three years, beginning at age 35, I did everything possible to conceive and was frantic at the thought that I had simply left having a biological child until it was too late.

And when everything does work out? I had my first child at 38 (and counted myself blessed) and my second at 40. That means I will be 58 when both of my children are out of the house. What’s more, it means that many peak career opportunities are coinciding precisely with their teenage years, when, experienced parents advise, being available as a parent is just as important as in the first years of a child’s life.

Many women of my generation have found themselves, in the prime of their careers, saying no to opportunities they once would have jumped at and hoping those chances come around again later. Many others who have decided to step back for a while, taking on consultant positions or part-time work that lets them spend more time with their children (or aging parents), are worrying about how long they can “stay out” before they lose the competitive edge they worked so hard to acquire.

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Anne-Marie Slaughter is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, and the mother of two teenage boys. She served as the director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011. 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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