The Atlantic’s cover story about work-life balance for women in high-ranking government and professional jobs is reportedly breaking readership records on the magazine’s Web site and getting plenty of buzz. This is happening despite the fact that the article is more than 12,000 words long, or that the solutions offered in it — changing the face-time culture, normalizing “lattice” rather than “ladder” careers, getting men involved in the process — are not especially ground-breaking.
Rather, the story is making waves because of who wrote it. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first female director of policy planning at the State Department, is the former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, where she is currently a tenured professor. It’s reminiscent of the Internet’s collective freak-out when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg admitted that she leaves the office at 5:30 p.m.: We have far too few women leaders in the first place, and the few who are in top jobs often aren’t willing to speak openly about the problem.
Both women admit to being nervous about speaking out. In a video interview about her story, Slaughter says the hardest sentence in the story for her to write was the one where she said she actually wanted to be home with her kids. “In the first draft of the article it wasn’t there, it took me eight months to sort out that fundamentally even if I could make it work, I wanted to be home.” Similarly, Sandberg admits that it wasn’t until recently that she felt comfortable telling the world she leaves the office in time to see her kids. “It’s not until the last year, two years, that I’m brave enough to talk about it publicly,” she said in an interview.
If these women — who have reached pinnacle jobs in their careers — are still nervous about saying these things, where does that leave the woman in middle management who’s trying to make life reasonable for her team? Where does it leave the men in high-powered positions who would also like some semblance of balance in their lives but feel pressured by a clock-watching culture that isn’t forgiving for men who want to be involved with their families, either?
Not in a very good spot, I’d say. That’s why Slaughter’s suggestion for the “best hope for improving the lot of all women,” which she says is “to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders,” is really only part of the answer. Along the way, the women who are in those top roles (and their high-powered male peers who not only want to stop losing some of their best talent, but who want to have more time at home as well) must speak out about their families and their obligations to them.
One of my favorite anecdotes in Slaughter’s story is that every time she gives a lecture or speech, she requires the person to mention that she has two sons when introducing her. “It seems odd to me to list degrees, awards, positions, and interests and not include the dimension of my life that is most important to me — and takes an enormous amount of my time,” she writes. Unfortunately, too many women and men try to hide their family life or obligations: One reader of a New York Times piece about Slaughter’s article remarked that “men often handle family differently than women but if you pay attention you’ll realize that meeting out of the office every Tuesday at 4pm is to coach his daughter’s soccer team.”
Leadership on this issue, in other words, is not just about getting more women into high-ranking jobs, though that part is critical. It’s also about women (and men) showing leadership in these roles: that means being more open about the time they spend with their families, no longer sneaking out the back door at 5:30, and being just as proud of their accomplishments at home as at the office.
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