By Happy Worker via Flickr
An article in The Atlantic sparks a heated debate: should women expect to have successful careers and active family lives, and what’s keeping them from doing so?
While climbing the ladder in time-consuming jobs and also making time for her children, Anne-Marie Slaughter—like most women—agonized over the tension between job and family. For the July/August issue of The Atlantic, Slaughter wrote an article entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
Within four days of publication, the article gathered over 725,000 readers and 119,000 Facebook “Recommends.” It has been discussed in the New York Times, on NPR, and in countless blogs and forums. It has also drawn over 2,000 comments ranging from intelligent debate to personal anecdotes to backward-minded rants from hateful trolls.
What’s so controversial about this article?
Slaughter states that feminists of past decades have convinced the women that came after them (that’s us) of a lie: that women who work hard, get educated, and stick it to the man can have both high-status careers and active family lives. The lie is exposed when women work their hardest, don’t see the results they want, and blame themselves for not being motivated enough.
Slaughter names a number of socioeconomic factors preventing women from “having it all,” namely that employers expect ever-increasing time commitments and open availability, leaving parents struggling to carve out family time without seeming like they’re shirking work. To aid productivity while also freeing workers for family, Slaughter calls for an overhaul of the 9-to-5 workday, wider use of distance technologies like Skype, and a family-first scheduling mentality among employers.
The objections to Slaughter’s article fall into three major claims:
1. Slaughter’s experience doesn’t reflect the struggles of working-class women, who don’t have the freedom to work remotely or negotiate schedules.
2. Men are just as subject to the work-family tension as women, if not more so.
3. Men are inherently better in the workforce, so women shouldn’t expect to have high-status careers or delegate family responsibilities to their husbands.
The first complaint is just true: Slaughter’s background is in politics and academia, where she can sometimes work from home on articles or reports. Working-class women have rigid hours, limited personal time, and the expectation that work will be done on-site, not from home. They face accusations of laziness if they want time off for family events.
I recently chatted with my mother (who juggled work, family and college) about her secrets for achieving balance. She was always honest with her employers about her family needs and never allowed anyone to crowd work into her family time. Simultaneously, she accepted that some career opportunities would have to wait until her children were grown, since she wouldn’t have time for both at once.
Which leads into the second complaint, that men and women alike are unable to have both perfect careers and perfect family lives. This complaint is also true: until employers follow Slaughter’s recommendations—and people understand that postponing either a career or children and achieving one goal at a time is a perfectly good plan—people of both genders will be dissatisfied with life.
It’s difficult for people to believe that they’re not failures if they put off one goal in order to focus on another; in fact, that’s a sign of mature planning and patience. The key to happiness while achieving incremental goals is to make sure all resources are used wisely: if either spouse finds a great career opportunity, and the other spouse loves staying home with the kids, then all the family’s needs are met, and both spouses achieve at their best.
Which leads into the third complaint, that women should always choose family over career while husbands bring home the bacon. The rationales for this bogus claim range from biological determinism to misogynist assertions that women are dumber than men.
Thankfully, both women and men are quick to lambast any trolls who dare to post comments like this. Society must stop believing that men show their love to families by earning money and women show their love by staying home. We should always praise both wage-earning women and nurturing stay-at-home fathers, opening all roles for both genders.
The balance between work and family is complicated, ever changing and always individualized. It’s important for everyone to consider all their options—and for society to keep those options open.