Is There No Way to Win?

July 18, 2012 § 10 Comments

Stop the madness.

I would love to get Anne-Marie Slaughter and Marissa Mayer in a room together.  They could commiserate about how their personal life choices are the subject of such public scrutiny and criticism.  They could play a drinking game wherein every time someone cheers for them to succeed they take a shot.  Every time someone insists they’ll fail (or has already failed) they take two shots.  Before you know it, they’d be sitting back-to-back on the floor, totally blitzed and eating pizza and giggling at crazy cat videos on YouTube.

Need me to back up for a sec?  Okay.  I am talking about two women who have caused quite a stir in the last month or so:  Anne-Marie Slaughter, for leaving an extremely high-powered job in Washington, D.C. to be more present for her teen-aged sons and to return to her (merely) extremely demanding job as a full-time professor at Princeton; Marissa Mayer for taking an extremely high-powered job as Yahoo!’s CEO at the same time she announces she is pregnant.

These women can’t win for trying.  Anne-Marie Slaughter is honest and forthright about the toll such jobs take on a parent, and realistic about what is best for her family.  Marissa Mayer is brilliant and ambitious – much the way I imagine Slaughter was at the same age – and confident in her ability to manage an insane career with having a new baby (her first, by the way.)  Both are being cheered and jeered – just from opposite sides.

Prof. Slaughter faces criticism and condescension from her peers and fellow feminists for asserting that women can’t have it all.  She is being thanked by exhausted women who sacrifice for their kids, either by staying home with them or having a job, or both at the same time.

Ms. Mayer is criticized by women who are smugly saying “You think you’ll be back to work after 3 weeks?  You’ve NO earthly idea what is about to hit you,” and judgmentally saying “Fine, I guess if you never wanna see your baby and have him raised by strangers, go for it.”  She’s garnering praise from the same group criticizing Slaughter – “She’s the poster girl for having it all!  She’s the beneficiary of all we’ve worked for!  You GO, girl!”

Let me propose an alternative response to each.

To Anne-Marie Slaughter, I’d say, “You are a brilliant, incredibly accomplished woman.  You’ve shined a bright light on some of the real problems even successful working women face.  You’ve politely and respectfully asked millions of woman to step back and evaluate their choices and paths, without being judgmental of others who choose differently.  You should be supported and applauded as you make this transition out of public service and back into private education and a closer family life.  Use your considerable power for Good.”

To Marissa Mayer, I’d say, “You are a brilliant, incredibly accomplished woman.  You’ve shattered the glass ceiling in the heavily male field of technological innovation.  You’re about to have a baby.  You should be supported and applauded as you try to forge a workable balance between career and new motherhood.  Use your considerable power for Good.  (And if when the baby arrives, you decide you need more than three weeks of maternity leave, I hope you allow yourself the flexibility to take it.  I hope the those on Yahoo!’s Board of Directors collectively chuckle and say, ‘We thought you might need more than three weeks.  Take as much as you need and your job will still be there for you.’)”

To Yahoo!, I’d say, “Great job hiring the best person for the job, even though you knew she is pregnant.  Now’s your chance to make a high-profile and meaningful change to improve the lives of working mothers in your company, and set a real example.  Like my new friend at Lizrael Update insightfully advocates, help her show the world that Corporate America thrives when its families do.  You can do it.  Be like this guy, who pays his employees $7,500 to take their vacation time, and use it to really get away from it all.  Take care of your own.  Because seriously, people, today’s workplace culture and economic climate are not exactly cutting it.

Understandably, cries of classism permeate the discussion of both women.  For Prof. Slaughter, it’s “Sure – she has a CHOICE of picking the job that lets her spend more time with her kids.  Must be NICE.”  For Ms. Mayer, it’s “Sure, she can stay at her job – she’s a BAZILLIONAIRE, and can have nannies out the wazoo.  Must be NICE.”  No matter how justified the resentment, this attitude is toxic and counterproductive.  I wish it would stop.

People, you want these women to meet with success in whichever path they choose.  Here’s why.  We NEED women in high-power positions to succeed.  We NEED them to run for office.  We NEED them to have a seat at the table so they can advocate for a supportive workplace culture.  We want them to thrive so that they can put in place innovative policies that TRULY support a work/family balance that works for BOTH genders.  So they can fight for fairness in health care and family leave, and fight against discrimination in the workplace.  So that every woman, every family, can have at least a few healthy and fulfilling life options to pursue.  THAT would be true choice, would it not?

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Women CAN’T have it all. Neither Can Men.

June 28, 2012 § 12 Comments

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first female director of policy at the State Department, wrote a very powerful piece in The Atlantic about the pain and conflict experienced by women who were raised being promised the falsehood that “You can have it all!  Career!  Family!  Balance!  Health!  And if you don’t, we’ll be sooooo disappointed in you!”  In “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,”  she gratefully acknowledges the incredible sacrifices of her forebears, which made her amazing career a possibility.  She’s also relieved, however, to hear women of my generation and younger asking thoughtful questions about that platitude.

She writes of the reactions ranging from disappointed to condescending when she decided to go back to her work at Princeton instead of staying on with Secretary Clinton.  She points out how “leaving to spend time with my family” was, in Washington, D.C. a euphemism for “I’ve been fired,” and how  incredibly hypocritical that is in a country claiming to support “family values.”  Yet, she still believes “that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). 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.”  We just need equal representation in government.  No kidding.

I’ve dealt with condescension and misplaced disappointment of my peers and elders.  People told me that if I became a teacher, I’d be wasting my education. That was patently absurd, and I became a teacher.  There was pressure to continue my career once I had children.  I saw that for the unhappiness it would cause me, and stayed home with my children.  I was lucky I had a choice, and continue to be grateful for that on a daily basis.

If I wanted a job/career, I think could make the necessary adjustments to the family life to make it work.  If I needed a job, I could (and would have to) make it work.  In no way do I intend to denigrate or chastise those who are voluntarily balancing families and careers.  Nor do I mean to disregard the fact that many people are in desperate economic situations, struggling in a way I never have had to in order to keep their families fed, clothed, sheltered, and safe.

I speak only for myself, and to the fact that for me, the hours per day it took to be the history teacher I wanted to be plus the hours per day it took to be the parent I wanted to be simply added up to more than 24.  And the last time I checked, there were still only twenty-four hours in a day.  Until some smart guy comes up with a way to increase the number of hours in a day, or decrease the amount of sleep our bodies really need, there is STILL only so much that can be done in a day.

So here is where I fully expect to infuriate feminists and liberals all around the world.  (Or at least the couple of dozens who read my stuff.)  Maybe the question, “Who will raise the kids?” was a good one.  Maybe, “Who will do what needs doing around the house?” was valid.  It’s all about how they were asked.  Asking questions like these as a means to shut down a woman’s dreams – as in, “There is no way in hell I’m going to allow my wife to work!” – is unacceptable.  Asking them as a means to help a woman fulfill her dreams – as in, “How can I support you and help this happen?” – is quite another story.

Professor Slaughter quoted Mary Matalin, who wrote: “Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.”  Take it a step further, and add men to that sentence.  Ideally, in order for one spouse to have true flexibility in and control over his or her scheduling, the other spouse would have it, too.  Because for every mother I know who needs flexibility to support her career, I know a father who needs flexibility to support his family life.  For every mother who needs control over her schedule so she can present a case in court or put on a hard hat and climb into the sewers, there is a father who needs flexibility to leave work early to coach his daughter’s softball team or make dinner while the mother is making closing arguments.

Frankly, I never believed ANY woman or man could (or should!) have it all.  The road to gender equality and personal fulfillment, though, might be much less bumpy if we drew softer lines around what is expected of both men AND women when it comes to their careers and families.

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