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.

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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.

In the most extreme cases, these women leave their children and their home countries behind to go work in oftentimes risky domestic environments. The few hundred dollars they send home every month feeds their families and allows their kids to go to school. These women don't get to see their children grow up, don't get to hug and kiss them goodnight, and don't get to be there for the proud milestones in their lives. But they have made a trade-off, one that most of us reading the Atlantic article could never even fathom. They trade dire poverty for a job opportunity that takes them far away from their families.

Adjusted for purchasing power parity, an income of more than 45,000 USD a year makes you one of wealthiest of the world's 7 billion people (approximately in the top 1 percent worldwide). Put in this context, the conversation about how to "have it all" in family and career balance begins to seem a little small. If the discussion is about women and families, it really should span the globe.

It should not only include the domestic help coming to the Arab World, but also the women in India and Bangladesh who still do all the manual labor in their homes, as well as all the child-rearing, and still find ways to make a small income with microfinance loans. It should include the single mother in America who works two or three jobs just to make ends meet. It should include the widow in Brazil who has sold herself to a life of prostitution to feed her children.

The women who clean the bathrooms in our offices, the women who take our lunch orders on the go during a busy day at work, the women who might be raising our children or watching our elderly parents. These women are a vital part of the conversation about work/life balance.

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 global justice and equality for women everywhere. It is not just the global 1 percent who need fair policies about work; all these women need fair wages and working hours, family friendly policies, good health care, sick time, vacation days, and education for their children.

One of my career role models, David Haskell, who works in sustainable development in what he calls "hard places," is often heard quoting the poem Outwitted, by Edwin Markham, when speaking about how inclusiveness can further the goals of development:

He drew a circle that shut me out --
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

At the end of her article, Slaughter suggests that recreating policy and even having a female president of the United States will help all women. I hope that my own reflections on "all women" may serve as a gentle reminder that the world is bigger than our microcosms and the fight for justice and equality is truly just beginning for most women. While I certainly recognize that I have only begun my own journey as a career woman and a mother, I think these observations will inform my lifelong journey to have it all and to help other women around the world to do the same.