What Does “You Just Work It Out” Mean To You?

Last’s week’s Atlantic article,” Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter re-opened the discussion over whether women can have it all. Anne Marie Slaughter left her position as the first female director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department (and career topping chance to have a real impact on the world) to spend more time with her teenage sons. The decision prompted her to question her long held feminist beliefs as she came to the realization that “juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible.”

She rejoined the Princeton faculty as a professor of politics and international affairs. No slacker…while ‘scaling back’ she teaches a full course load; writes and speaks extensively on foreign policy, appear regularly on TV and radio; and is working on a new book.

Her journey led her to write this call-to-action to stop talking about whether women can have it all (not so much she opines) and start talking about the social and economic changes that need to take place to make having it all possible.

You can read the full article here. At almost 13,000 words I wanted to make sure I took it all in. In the process I created a cheat sheet (just over 1,600 words). It may lose some of the emotional impact and risk oversimplification… but it lays out some points I would love to get my readers perspective on from both the 20 and 40 side and everything in between.

Keep in mind, the article is written from the perspective of women who “are privileged enough to have choices in the first place.” as Mary-Anne states upfront. How are your choices different?

The Gist:

1. Older women perpetuate the myth that we can “have it all” …or “have it all but not all at once.” These are half-truths at best. By holding on to the feminist credo in an attempt to pass the flag to the next generation we are setting us all up for failure.

2. Younger women don’t buy it and believe they have to choose between having a family or a career as a top professional woman.

3. Younger professional women have no role models. They see women who faced sacrifices as they try to combine both or women who chose not to have children. As a result they cannot figure out how they could combine professional success and satisfaction with a real commitment to family.

4. Sheryl Sandberg’s much publicized talks about an ambition gap encourages women to dream big and not “leave before they leave”. This suggests that women aren’t committed enough…placing the onus only on women’s determination and suggesting they need to dream bigger. This belief is shared by some older women.

“Women are not committed enough to make the trade-offs and sacrifices that the women ahead of them made.” – Anne-Marie Slaughter commenting on the dismay so many older career women feel about the younger generation.

5.  But ambition is not the problem. The true culprit is the structure of American life from government and the workplace to social norms and values about work and family.  Women and men can “have it all” but not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.

The Discussion

Half Truth 1: Women aren’t committed enough

It is not about commitment but about obstacles presented by our workplace structures that derail our ambition. Our work “days” are based on a farming based, agricultural economy where stay at home moms were the norm, dad’s work didn’t take him far from home and work stopped when the sun went down.

Opportunity: Change the workday schedule to reflect the realities of today’s post industrial / global / information economy where time and travel don’t have any boundaries and are required to succeed.  Step one would be matching the work schedule to the school schedule/ and increasing acceptance of non “in-person” meetings, especially in the late afternoon after school hours. Despite the increasing ability to work from home, people often feel judged for it, particularly moms.

Half Truth 2: You just need the right partner,

It has less to do with having the right partner (a spouse or partner who are willing to share the work load equally or take on the primary caregiver role), and more to do with how we value work vs. family.

Several high level women have recently credited a supportive spouse as the key to their success. While the number of male primary caregivers is growing it is still small. Society still rewards the man who sacrifices family for “important” work…but women are not celebrated the same way.  Then there is still the nurturing instinct to deal with. For many women it’s not a question of whether their partner can do it but whether they can NOT do it. And then we have social expectations. Men who sacrifice family for work are often considered heroes. Women are villains.

Opportunity: Society must start to value choices to put family ahead of work for all. Then to hire and retain the best people, organizations would do everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time and the choices would get a lot easier.

Half Truth 3: You can have it all if you sequence it right.

There is no right order.

This point is based on the reality that you need more work flexibility when raising your children (perhaps as much in their teen years as their first years). Current wisdom says that having a stronghold in your career first will afford you the income to hire help on a practical level as well as provide you the value of skills and a position that will allow you to be welcomed back full-on when you are ready.

But women have found there are downsides to sequencing (or the “you can have it all but not all at once” theory). You are turning down promotions or taking time off in an increasingly competitive market based on the hope that there will still be offers when you are ready. And then there is the whole issue of fertility.

Yet having a child first also puts you at risk of losing a competitive edge. You would be trying to build your career or perhaps get a graduate degree at the same time you need the most flexibility. When you can fully immerse in your 40s, you would be competing with your younger self.

For more women it may be a meeting in the middle –try to have kids before 35. There was not so much an opportunity here other than to realize that trade-offs exist either way. Also to set up the rest of the article which focused more on what needs to be true for man and women to have it all.

Point 1: Changing the Arc of a Successful Career

We need to change the success paradigm from “climbing the ladder” the fastest to managing career plateaus and valleys. Today’s career path is less linear, especially as we live and work longer.

Opportunity: The paradigm should be stair steps with periodic plateaus and dips (delay promotions, leave high-powered jobs to spend a year or two at home, reduced schedules; or switching to freelance / consulting project-based work).  Institutions can promote this change by celebrating new role models of career women who stay active but do take a pause (e.g. Michelle Obama).

Point 2: Changing the Value of Face Time

Yes we can work from home (thank you technology) but we often don’t as we feel guilty or feel in-person leads to greater success. To make “having it all” possible organizations need to set precedents that make working from home accepted. Working harder, staying later and putting in more hours in the office are still the benchmarks for success more often than not.

Opportunity: Change the “default rules” that govern office work for both parents and non-parents —the baseline expectations about when, where, and how work will be done. For example:  If an organization made it a policy to schedule in-person meetings during the hours of the school day—it may normalize call-ins for meetings held after school rather than induce guilt.

Point 3. Revaluing Family Values

Childcare is not valued as much as other outside activities that require time and dedication due to subtle workplace assumptions that make it harder for a primary caregiver to get ahead.  A man who gets up at pre-dawn hours to train for a marathon despite working long days is seen as disciplined, organized and driven. A woman who gets up as early to spend hours caring for children and home before work is not seen in the same light.

Another example was The Orthodox Jew who leaves work early on Friday to be home in time for Sabbath with his family is seen as a committed father and thus committed hard-worker. Slaughter suggests that a woman taking time off on Friday to have time with her kids would not be seen just as committed.

Opportunity: It’s time to change our own assumptions. And we could take a lesson from the Sabbath—whether Jewish or Christian—in that it carves out a mandatory setting-aside of work for family rituals.

Point 3: Reclaiming Happiness

Being able to spend time with our children makes us happier and thus more productive at work and home. No one wishes they worked more. The 2011 book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying lists the #2 regret reported was “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”

Slaughter had to come to terms that deep down she wanted to go home and valued the happiness parenting brought her.

“I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the … crucial years for their development …but also for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals.”

Opportunity: In the past women had to separate the personal and professional in order to be taken seriously at work. We can change this now by not being afraid to talk about their family at home and setting examples (e.g. leaving the office in time for dinner even if they go back to work after), making family references routine and normal in professional life and not apologizing when you are late because it is your turn to drive the kids to school.

Point 4: Innovation Nation

The perception is that flexible working hours, investment intervals, and family-comes-first management are not a reality for women, particularly in a bad economy.

Opportunity: increasingly it will become in the self interest of companies as more studies and practices show that family friendly policies and flexibility benefit the talent pool, ROI, employee retention and training and creativity. It must become more about good business.

Point 5. Enlisting Men

Men have become much more involved parents over the past couple of decades and today’s young me aspire to actively achieving work-life balance, suggesting broad support for big changes in the way we balance work and family.  But to truly change this we need to reject current male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal….and accept motherhood and the feminine aspects of who you are.

Opportunity: To be empowered you shouldn’t have to downplay motherhood or your femininity.  We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us.

(The end)

Call for Perspective

Part of my mission in starting 40:20 Vision is to give visibility and provide an honest voice to the different choices women have made so that the next generation can make the decisions that are right for them. I would love to hear from real women who are in the trenches and have made decisions about work and family.

What were your trade-offs and strategies? Do you agree with the half-truths that Slaughter brings up? What points from the article ring true for you? Which don’t?  As an older woman, what is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew then about work-life balance? As a younger women, what is your biggest question about work-life balance?

My first reaction was that the article seemed dated in some ways. I can’t argue with the changes Slaughter proposes in terms of making our world less of a man’s world…but the talk about women perpetuating the having it all myth didn’t ring true for me.

Most women I speak don’t buy into the idea of “having it all” any more. Many do talk about the idea that you can “do it all but not at the same time” but they mean it in a different way than the author suggests as in delayed gratification. It is more about fluidity…finding ways to fit it all in and making choices about what is “good enough” so you can do what is important. Or doing the best you can and not trying to control the rest.

I also think we already know that climbing the career ladder doesn’t exist any more. Women of all ages are getting creative and creating flexibility and starting their own businesses and starting over at 20 and 40 alike.

Lastly, I’m surprised at the lack of reference to men in the article. It is all “society” or are there real men out there both helping or holding back women too?

Looking forward, I suspect that 20-somethings today will make huge inroads and innovations in work-life balance. They embrace multi-dimensionality and are damn good multi-taskers. Many of the 20-somethings I interview are holding down a full time job, then maybe getting a graduate degree or writing a blog or doing some social media consulting or starting a company or social movement on the side. They have a “traditional” job and then their “own thing”. So in many ways…they already have their own “baby”.

They do still have questions on how to do it all and make time for relationships. And they can’t imagine with all they do now…how they would fit in a family. They do want our perspective on how it “all just works out.”

Some women get angry when asked about work life balance as a mom. Their issue is that we’ve been doing it for a while so it’s not something new …and why don’t successful men get asked about it all the time. But when it is still all ahead of you it is a unknown…uncertainty is scary. It is so helpful to hear what other women have learned.

Thanks for any responses though the comments, answer or tell your own story sections on this site. I will share them all.

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