The conversation about whether or not women can have “it” all is an old one. As a matter of fact, a group of us sat around and debated the topic almost thirty years ago when I was a senior year at Smith College (an all women’s school). I find it to be frustrating, sad, interesting, and even amusing that the discussion still rages on today.
For years now there have been vicious debates between the “stay-at-home mom” and “working mom” camps. Vocal advocates on both sides of the thresholds consistently talk about the potential effects on marriages, children, parenting decisions, finances, social circles, etc. that naturally occur as a result of these choices. Each faction looks down its nose at those who don’t share in its position; judging the conceivable long-term negative impact on all those involved in the equation and placing responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the woman. Why all this venom? I don’t know… maybe guilt, insecurity, fear, or just the need for some people to be “right.”
Earlier this summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter changed the tone of the argument with her piece in The Atlantic entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” (Silly me…and I thought I did have it all!) In her article, she writes about the “rigid bureaucracy” and inflexibility of her government service job, which resulted in “a set of very frank reflections on 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.” These sentiments caused her to willingly leave her post. She therefore concludes with, “I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.” (I’m still wondering why she didn’t know these opposing demands would be hard to manage…)
As you might imagine, Slaughter’s piece – coming from a woman who was perceived to be a successful role model – sparked numerous comments from men and women alike across the age spectrum. Bryce Covert, for example, wrote a response in The Nation where she declares, “Why Can’t Women Have It All? It’s Not You—It’s Discrimination.” She concludes that it’s time “to put the spotlight on the structural barriers that women continue to face in politics and in the workplace.” Covert believes that the nature of the workplace itself discriminates against women.
The icing on the cake, however, came in the form of this week’s announcement that Yahoo’s new thirty-seven-year-old CEO, Marissa Mayer, is pregnant. This departure from the norm certainly challenges Slaughter’s misgivings. But, instead of being encouraged by this bold “first,” proud of Yahoo, or supportive of Mayer, critics have launched a maternity debate that truly is nobody’s business but Mayer’s. Am I surprised by this negativity? No, it’s par for the course.
Here’s what’s bugging me about all of this… First of all, one must define “It.” What does it mean to “have It all”?
The way I see it, “It” commonly includes striving for accomplishments in the areas of marriage, children, career (or the pursuit of meaningful endeavors), education, personal wealth, mental and physical health, and food and shelter. But as we all know, these things are relative; they are not imperatives for everyone. Also, if these things are pursued, they may take years to achieve and don’t necessarily occur simultaneously. In addition, most of us (for a variety of reasons) cannot be wildly successful in each of these undertakings. The bottom line, however, is that women, with the appropriate perspective and support, can choose and strive to make these things happen for themselves.
Secondly, I take an exception with the mere question, “can women have it all?” What about men? Do men have “It” all? How many men work long hours, do well in their careers, make decent money, and are miserable because they actually hate their jobs, have lousy marriages and don’t even know their own kids? How many men die young from heart attacks, have high blood pressure, or are overweight due to the stress levels that they carry on a daily basis? Ms. Slaughter, many men find it “unexpectedly hard…to do the kind of job [they] wanted to do…and be the kind of parent [they] wanted to be” too!
Finally, there is a basic fact that inequalities between men and women still exist in the workplace (i.e. position and pay), especially in the not-for-profit world. In the Jewish community, for example, 70% of the workforce is female. Unfortunately, only 12% of the executive leadership in these communal organizations is female. And, while I can’t speak in general about the women who represent this 12%, my community claims only one woman in a Chief Executive role. Clearly, these situations need to change.
I believe – as do many others – that men and women both strive to “have It all,” albeit in their own ways and according to their own priorities. When the business world evolves to include more female leaders and executives who demand and institute more accommodations for family needs, men and women – in the workplace and in the home – will equally benefit. It’ll take time, but it’ll be worth the struggle and wait.
So, where am I in all of this? I don’t have a billion dollars in the bank and I still have to lose six pounds to hit my goal weight. My kids seem healthy (physically and emotionally) and I’m still married to my high school sweetheart. With short maternity breaks and time spent in graduate school, I’ve worked outside the home for over twenty-five years. I’ve never hired a nanny, fulltime housekeeper or au pair. Through my career, I worked for a large high-tech company, ran my own training and consulting firm, and now work in the Jewish community. Somehow, I managed to balance and juggle, and didn’t get too banged up in the process. Was it “unexpectedly hard”? Hell, YES IT WAS HARD! But, creativity, perseverance, emotional support, the willingness to compromise, and a healthy perspective on what’s truly important make it all work. I think I have “It” all — and THAT’S what’s important.