The most unintentionally funny part of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic, the latest in the “mommies-can’t-have-it-all” genre, comes when she describes her supersonic version of the Mommy Track.
“I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women,” writes Slaughter, who downsized from a top policymaking job at the State Department to resume her tenured professorship at Princeton. “I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book.”
Whew. Just reading about Slaughter’s pared-down, family-friendlier schedule left me exhausted. This hardly seems proof, as the headline claims, of “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
Actually, it seems like proof that Women Can Have Really, Really a Lot.
At the State Department, where she was the first woman to head the prestigious Office of Policy Planning, Slaughter worked punishing hours while her husband, an academic, stayed back home in Princeton with their adolescent sons. It’s safe to say that George Kennan, the job’s first occupant, never worried about whether his difficult 14-year-old was failing math or about being summoned with frantic calls to take the next train home, “invariably on the day of an important meeting.”
That Slaughter found this arrangement untenable for longer than two years is no surprise. Who wouldn’t, male or female? Yet Slaughter is brave enough to say flat-out that she thinks mommies feel the pang of this frenetic juggling more acutely than daddies, and I agree.
Men, she writes, “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.” Again, this seems less like proof that women still can’t have it all than that women, more wisely, tend to decide that having it all isn’t actually worth the price.
The real surprise is that Slaughter found herself so surprised by “how unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be, at a demanding time for my children.”
I’m no policy planner, but, really, this hadn’t occurred to Slaughter before she took a job that had her leaving home for the week at 4:20 a.m. every Monday?
Slaughter acknowledges that she is writing for an elite demographic privileged to be agonizing over work vs. family rather than worrying about how to afford day care or to pay the mortgage.
Her policy prescriptions are sensible if not earth-shatteringly innovative, more an earnest plea for rethinking assumptions than instantaneous solutions.
She writes of “changing the culture of face time” to let more parents work more often from home; “redefining the arc of a successful career” to understand that women will have many productive work years once their children have grown; “revaluing family values” to understand that the discipline required of a working mother is as impressive as that of, say, a marathon runner.
Fine, but no amount of economic and societal restructuring, as Slaughter would have it, is going to change the clashing imperatives she confronted.
If Slaughter’s article furthers the national conversation about accommodating women in the workplace, great. She makes the important — and painful — observation that nearly all the high-ranking women leaving the Obama administration have been replaced by men.
But where I fear Slaughter does the cause an unintentional disservice is in the implication that women can generalize from her State Department experience.
Slaughter did not find herself, as she puts it, “in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule.” She was in a distinctly atypical job, at the tippy-top of the government elite.
And the risk of her article is that it will dissuade women far from that pinnacle. They will, to quote Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, choose to “lean back,” preemptively opting out or scaling back before that choice actually confronts them.
“Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision,” Sandberg advised in a 2011 Barnard commencement speech. “That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.”
Like whether you should stay in your job at the State Department, or scale back to a mere 50 speeches a year.