High achiever who reached top tells why she went home again

Sat, Jun 30, 2012, 01:00

AMERICA:A Princeton professor’s account of why women still cannot have it all has got people talking

THE PRINCETON professor Anne-Marie Slaughter was already known for her lucid commentary on the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But since Slaughter published “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, a provocative essay in the July/August edition of the Atlantic magazine, she has become the defender of the overwhelmed career woman who struggles – and sometimes fails – to reconcile work and family.

The magazine cover shows a baby stuffed into a briefcase held by a woman. It has attracted record numbers of readers and provoked a public debate on work-family balance.

Slaughter explains why she stepped down after only two years as the state department’s first woman director of policy planning – the post once held by George Kennan, who devised the cold war strategy of “containing” the Soviet Union.

Slaughter’s intense admiration for her boss, secretary of state Hillary Clinton, couldn’t make up for the 4.20am starts on Monday and long weeks apart from her husband, a Princeton professor, and the couple’s two adolescent sons. (Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, “famously gets up at 4.00 every morning” to check emails before her school-age twins wake up, Slaughter notes.) Slaughter’s 14-year-old son was “skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him”. Crises seemed to occur “invariably on the day of an important meeting”.

Not only did she need to be with her family, she realised, she wanted to be home in New Jersey. Slaughter’s husband had shouldered more than his share of parenting, but, she admits, “men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.”

Sheryl Sandberg, the Harvard-educated second in command at Facebook, is the villain of Slaughter’s piece. Sandberg has looks, brains, money and a family, and seems to lord it over women who are merely mortal, in a series of inspirational videos and a commencement address at Barnard women’s college in New York.

“Women are not making it to the top,” Sandberg lamented. Of 190 heads of state, only nine are women. Women hold at best 16 per cent of top corporate jobs and only 13 per cent of seats in parliaments across the globe.

Sandberg condemned the “ambition gap” that causes women to “lean back” professionally as soon as they start thinking about having children. “Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach,” Slaughter writes. “We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: ‘What’s the matter with you?’”

Slaughter experienced what she calls “a rude epiphany” when she concluded that “juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible”. When she left her policymaking job, professional women friends expressed disappointment or condescension rather than understanding.

“All my life . . . I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so she could spend more time with her family,” Slaughter writes. “I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).” Slaughter appeals for more flexible working hours and a greater willingness on the part of employers to allow women – and men – to work from home. She stresses that everyone – not just mothers – should abandon the “time macho” approach that values late nights and weekends in the office. If proof were needed, she quotes Bronnie Ware’s 2011 book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, in which the most common regret was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”. The second most common regret was “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”

But Slaughter’s prescription is barely gentler than Sandberg’s. Like Sandberg, she never questions the fundamental assumption that women must succeed. Her family-friendly, post-state department schedule is still daunting: “I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book.”

Women should establish themselves in their careers faster, so they can have children before age 35 – or if that’s not possible, freeze their eggs, Slaughter writes. And they should peak later professionally, in their late 50s or early 60s, to give them time to raise children. After praising first lady Michelle Obama for taking a career break, she adds: “We should expect a glittering career from her after she leaves the White House and her daughters leave for college.”

Sheryl Sandberg would certainly agree.