Saturday, June 23, 2012

Slaughter is Mostly Wrong About Women Having it All

Anne-Marie Slaughter's cover story in the current Atlantic Monthly is an argument that even ideal conditions for a woman "having it all" aren't enough.  I found it a very frustrating article.

Slaughter was a tenured dean at Princeton, married to another tenured Princeton professor who was a very involved father, with a full-time housekeeper to help care for their home and two adolescent children.  She got her dream job in the Obama administration. But after two years she decided to leave that job and go back to Princeton to spend more time with her family.

The way she put the choice to herself was to ask whether she was indispensable to her job or indispensable to her children.  Put that way, the choice seemed obvious.  She went home.

She was asked in an interview if the answer to that question isn't obvious for everyone? She dodged the question.  Yet, if those are the choices, the answer is obvious to every parent.  By that standard, no parents, fathers or mothers, would ever go to work.

My wife is a highly educated attorney with an important career.  When we speak as a couple to my "Family Life" class on this exact subject - Can women have it all? - the answer she gives is "yes, but not all at once." You can marry and have your kids and even start a career when you are young.  As your kids get more self-sufficient, you can devote more time and effort to your career, and really hit your stride in late middle life.  For healthy middle class people these days, life is long enough for most women to do all of these things.

Slaughter says that for older women that might be fine, but that these days marrying young and having kids early has "fallen out of fashion." (She is the same age as Mrs. G. and me.)

She says that women today need to fully start their careers, and then pause to marry and have kids in their late 30s or early 40s.  They can pick up their careers a decade later and head to a peak a decade after that. She also wants a woman president, 50 women senators, and equal representation of women in corporate and judicial leadership, who will remake work and social life so women like her can have it all.

This plan strikes me as unrealistic. It would require massive social engineering, not to mention rewriting biology. 

I am also stuck on her dismissal of the "having it all, but not at once" plan as "out of fashion." The best researcher in how highly educated women can have it all, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, concluded from her empirical studies that this is the most likely plan to work in the world that actually exists.  In fact, Slaughter reveals in the interview, though not the article, she herself first married in her early twenties to a fellow professional. She then divorced and married again at 35, and only then had children. So her social engineering looks more like special pleading for her own case than a necessity for all elite women.  And there is still that pesky biological clock to work with.

There are some elements of Slaughter's article that I think are very good, especially her critique of the "cult of face-time" in office work.

But on her main points I found her argument wrong-headed and ungrateful for her fantastic opportunities.


charlotte said...

The Atlantic has had some rather lame articles lately. (Remember the one on whether Facebook is making us lonely?) I think the next featured article should be about whether men can have it all.
I think that the problem for women all along has been that the elite work world was designed around the idea of a man whose home and family were taken care of by others-- whose breakfast was served to him, whose laundry was done, whose golf time was considered part of his work life etc. Anybody, male or female, who assumes that active and involved parenting is part of "all" is going to have some juggling or postponing to do.
In the meantime, articulate whining is still whining.

Jay Garmon said...

It perhaps very extreme ends of the bell curve, you can't have it all. For most academics, I'd wager a tenured Princeton position would be the dream job. For Slaughter, she wanted to work in a high-level public policy position -- a pretty rarified ambition -- which requires that the political head of office be amenable to your policy goals and willing to install you in said policy position. That window comes maybe once in a lifetime -- analogous to the opportunity to be a professional athlete or movie star. That this one-time chance for Slaughter did not perfectly line up with the needs of her family does mean she "can't have it all" -- if your definition of "have it all" is a dream job that comes along once in a lifetime. That's an unrealistically narrow definition of "having it all" but I suspect it's also why so mean elite achievers have (anecdotally at least) so mean strained or unconventional family situations.

Susan Perkins Weston said...

The extreme issue jumped out to me, too. It's true, and painfully true, that some very high ranking jobs can't be done well while being a dedicated and engaged parent. But the whole story starts from being able to be Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School and a fulfilled mom...which means the list of impossibles is pretty darned small. It also means that the claim to be writing about "women" in a broad sense is kind of dubious.