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Why Does Having It All Mean Working for Others All The Time?

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This month’s issue of the Atlantic brings yet another voice in the endless, evolving discussion of  Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, and what can we do about it?  Although I appreciated the honesty of the piece, I don’t understand why people as smart as the author, Ann Marie Slaughter, a former honcho in the State Department currently “slumming” as a professor at Princeton University so that she can spend more time with her teenage boys, are so myopic in their view of what constitutes success and having it all.

Both Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg, whose TED Talk  on the lack of women leaders in the tech world is frequently referenced throughout her piece, seem to think that women will “have it all” only when they’re partners at big law or sit on the board of Fortune 500 Companies.  In doing so, they slight the achievements of many of my female colleagues in my solo and online communities, many of whom are parents or caretakers. They may not have it all in Slaughter’s and Sandberg’s view because they don’t head huge organizations, but they nevertheless, have worked just as hard to carve out a niche for themselves (I don’t want to name names because I’ll leave at least a dozen off the list, but you women know who you are!).  I’m not saying that we need a personal shout out, but once in a while, it would be nice for women lawyers who who run their own practices to be included in one of these having it all articles.

The absence of solos from the work life balance debates is a personal peeve though. What really gets me about Slaughter and Sandberg is that rather than encourage women to create and build a structure where we can succeed, instead, they seem to suggest that change must come from others.  Slaughter, for example, writes that she encourages women to participate in her classes and suggests that other professors do the same.  Why?  I can’t imagine that any of the women who I know online or who speak on the circuit or forums like Ignite are timid about speaking up.  Do we want to perpetuate the dangerous stereotype that women are shrinking violets who need extra protection? 

As for Sandberg, her proposals for women to advance in the tech world is for women to act more assertively or not to “leave until it’s time to leave.” (meaning that women shouldn’t stop taking first-rate projects just because they’re merely thinking about getting pregnant and eventually going out on maternity leave) That’s good advice, but quite honestly, doesn’t it make more sense for women to get to the top the way that Larry and Sergei and Mark Zuckerberg did — not by working or waiting for promotions, but inventing something amazing?

In any event, I’ve long ago given up on trying to change institutions — not because I’m a quitter but because I just don’t think it’s possible. As I grow older, I realize that the world doesn’t really change much, but we do.  

The same is true even more so for work-life balance, which at its core is a deeply personal issue, with our views molded by our unique personal experience. When my daughters were young, the topic of work-life balance consumed me, either because I was jugglingwork and 4 pm pick-up or obsessing over whether I was doing a good enough job.  Now, I just don’t think about these issues as much. It’s not because at 12 and 15, my daughters need less time — kudos to Slaughter for reminding us that child-rearing doesn’t end when we send kids to school and that many of us parents want to spend time with our teens, even if they can be sullen and obstinate much of the time and would rather not spend time with us. Instead, I’ve just learned that so many of these things have a way of working themselves out or else, we grow more adept at figuring out how to make them work.  Eventually we realize that our time home with our kids is much shorter as it winds down towards college than it ever seems in the middle – and as Slaughter wisely points out, women can hit their peak in their 50s and 60s anyway. We do live longer!

My point is that the workplace is always the workplace.  It doesn’t change. To advance in the workplace, men and women have to abide by the stupid rites of passage (like missing a personal event to finish a memo for an arrogant partner or sucking up to a moron senior associate to get ahead).  You can’t fire the arrogant partner or the moron associate, or even make others see them for what they are. 

At the same time, there are some things that are innate or deeply engrained or biological imperatives. Women get pregnant and give birth, and due to nature or nurture, more women are driven to do the hands-on work of child-rearing (though again, that’s not always the case). The work-place and human nature can’t be changed any more than we can alter gravity. But what you can do is to start from scratch and build an environment and a life for yourself where you are the best in the world

Isn’t  that the real lesson we should be teaching women…and men?

  • Alison Gross

    Yes!  Thank you Carolyn, for putting so eloque

  • Traci Riccitello

    Great article, Carolyn! I left big law and opened my own practice about a year ago. I have always believed, like you, that personal success and having it all does not necessarily mean being a partner at big law, being a top government official, or sitting on the board of a Fortune 500 Company. But Ms. Slaughter’s article got me thinking.  If those positions continue to be held by people (women or men) who hold different work/life values than I do – then you are right – things will never change and the ‘workplace will always be the workplace.’  On the other hand, if we do our part to attempt to implement some of Ms. Slaughter’s suggestions (changing the culture of face time, revaluing family values, etc.), then perhaps more women (and men) with work/life values more aligned with ours will fill those leadership roles.  And then – slowly – things may begin to change.  I completely agree with you that work/life balance is a deeply personal issue – and that we can and should build an environment and life for ourselves where we are the best in the world.  But Ms. Slaughter’s article reminded me of the bigger picture – that we can and should continue to do our part to help those who value work/life balance to nevertheless obtain leadership roles.   By doing so, we can begin to create a better place for our children to live and work. 

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