Why the dream of having it all is an impossibility
What women may need is to redefine success as having enough for a humane, fulfilling life, writes BREDA O'BRIEN
ANNE-MARIE Slaughter achieved what is probably every opinion writer’s dream, that is, being read by a million people, with her cover story in this month’s The Atlantic.
Called “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, it explores why the system still militates against women reaching the top in their chosen profession if they also choose to be mothers.
The level of interest is perhaps surprising, given that the dilemma that sparked Slaughter’s piece definitely qualifies as a first-world problem.
She spent five days a week in Washington working with Hillary Clinton in a high-ranking foreign policy role while trying to cram caring for two sons, one of whom was a normal but troubled teenager, into the weekends back home in Princeton. After two years she felt she had to quit because her sons needed her more.
Not that she was quitting to be a full-time “mom”. Slaughter still teaches full-time at Princeton, has regular print and online columns and media appearances, gives 40 to 50 speeches annually and is writing a new book. She also finds time to cook breakfast waffles, watch “silly movies” with her sons and provide essential discipline and guidance.
It fascinated me that she never even mentions the possibility of any woman choosing to work full time in the home. The most she can contemplate is an “investment interval” in which a woman “steps back” for a few years, as epitomised by Michelle Obama, whom Slaughter expects to have a “glittering career” when her daughters go to college.
Yet, as the sociologist Catherine Hakim has demonstrated, there is a hard core of women, between 10 per cent and 30 per cent in every country researched, who aspire to work full time as mothers and homemakers.
Unrepresentative as Slaughter is, her article still generated an unprecedented discussion both in mainstream media and the blogosphere, not just in the US but everywhere from Brazil to Vietnam.
Then Marissa Mayer was appointed as chief executive of Yahoo!, at 37 the youngest of only 20 women who run Fortune 500 firms but also the only one appointed while pregnant. Mayer’s blithe announcement that she would continue to work through the few weeks of maternity leave she planned to take also generated fierce debate.
Were Mayer to find time in her more than 70-hour work week to read Slaughter’s article, she might find it could be summed up by, “I hope it keeps fine for you”.
According to Slaughter, none of the myths peddled to women about “having it all” is true. Take “it’s possible if you are just committed enough”. Only if you are Superwoman, she says. Saying that ignores structural problems such as the way neither men nor women are supposed to prioritise families in a driven work environment.