The cover story in The Atlantic this month is "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," by Anne-Marie Slaughter, presently the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs (I hope I didn't mess that up) at Princeton University, and prior to that the Director of Policy Planning at the Department of State, working under Secretary Hillary Clinton. You might think she'd had, if not "it all," certainly most of it: few women, and for that matter few men, rise to such heights. Not so, she says. This is the editorial intro to her article:

It's time to stop fooling ourselves, says a woman who left a position of power: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, here's what has to change.

The Atlantic, July/August 2012 coverBut before I'd gotten that far in the magazine before I'd finished looking at the cover, in fact I had already jumped to one conclusion: "Well, of course they can't have it all. They don't have time to have it all. They'd need something like a 34-hour day to get everything done that they'd need to get done, and you can't sustain a schedule like that for very long, especially with the planet more or less permanently on a 24-hour cycle." (Or not.) I know a woman with two small children who does graphic design, and I wondered how in the world she kept up with everything, especially now that the business has grown to the extent that she and her husband can no longer run it out of their house. Maybe she doesn't. (I do know that they've since hired a third person.) Maybe she runs full-tilt five days a week and then collapses into a heap. Or maybe she's just an incredibly efficient time manager. (Aside: At the office, I am renowned, if hardly revered, for my mad time-management skillz, though this is a textbook case of the one-eyed man ruling in the land of the blind.) On Slaughter's three criteria, she manages about 1.25: she is self-employed, and if she's not superhuman, she's at least a bit more energetic than some of us, your humble scribe included. (Then again, I'm almost twice her age.) She is not, however, wealthy.

Slaughter's friends and acquaintances wanted to know why she left her job at State. She had good reasons:

I explained that I'd come home not only because of Princeton's rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: 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. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age [53] or older that ranged from disappointed ("It's such a pity that you had to leave Washington") to condescending ("I wouldn't generalize from your experience. I've never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great").

The latter, at least, could be answered in that classic Southern phrase "Bless your heart." (Slaughter is from Charlottesville, Virginia, which really isn't all that Southern, but I have no doubt she knows the implications of that utterance.) Washington protocol, however, is inherently suspicious of motives of this sort:

In Washington, "leaving to spend time with your family" is a euphemism for being fired... it is so unthinkable that an official would actually step down to spend time with his or her family that this must be a cover for something else. How could anyone voluntarily leave the circles of power for the responsibilities of parenthood?

Former Bush administration advisor Mary Matalin has answered that one already:

I finally asked myself, "Who needs me more?" And that's when I realized, it's somebody else's turn to do this job. I'm indispensable to my kids, but I'm not close to indispensable to the White House.

Men, you'll note, seldom think along these lines. When Andrew Rice left his seat in the Oklahoma Senate to follow his wife out of state to a better job she'd found, some folks, even in his more-blue-than-red district, were incredulous: such a thing is simply Not Done.

In some wise, this reflects the fact that there still aren't that many women at or near the top. Slaughter suggests that if Congress and corporate boardrooms were closer to 50-50 instead of, say, 85-15, these matters would eventually clear themselves up. I have my doubts: while I don't object to a more even distribution of the seats of power, I suspect these matters would have to clear themselves up before we'd ever get close to 50-50, as many women simply are not willing to sacrifice family for career, or career for family, so long as they see it as either/or. Still, this is not a call to inaction. Reports Slaughter:

My longtime and invaluable assistant, who has a doctorate and juggles many balls as the mother of teenage twins, e-mailed me while I was working on this article: "You know what would help the vast majority of women with work/family balance? MAKE SCHOOL SCHEDULES MATCH WORK SCHEDULES." The present system, she noted, is based on a society that no longer exists one in which farming was a major occupation and stay-at-home moms were the norm. Yet the system hasn't changed.

This might have been easier, I'm thinking, if women were still getting married at 22 or so, which put the kids out of the house when she was in her early forties and gave her plenty of time for career development after that assuming, of course, you could get one of those old mossbacks to hire a fortysomething woman with a twenty-year-old degree. But marriage comes later and later these days, if it comes at all. And the biological clock pays no attention to these details:

[F]or three years, beginning at age 35, I did everything possible to conceive and was frantic at the thought that I had simply left having a biological child until it was too late.

And when everything does work out? I had my first child at 38 (and counted myself blessed) and my second at 40. That means I will be 58 when both of my children are out of the house. What's more, it means that many peak career opportunities are coinciding precisely with their teenage years, when, experienced parents advise, being available as a parent is just as important as in the first years of a child's life.

And what of the men, who (in theory anyway) make up half of the available parents? It was simpler, perhaps, when Dad went to work and Mom stayed home with the kids, but that particular genie is not going to be pushed back into the bottle no matter what its advantages might have been. Here I agree with Slaughter's assessment: "[O]nce work practices and work culture begin to evolve, those changes are likely to carry their own momentum." And they will evolve: we may mock the Swedes and their 26-hour work week most of the time, I hit my 26th hour early Wednesday afternoon but few of us, I believe, have the sort of emotional core that can be satisfied only by long hours of toil.

Of course, with the world economy in turmoil, it may be that the next question might not be "How can we have it all?" but "How can we have any of it?" But that's a tale for another time.

The Vent

  24 June 2012

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 Copyright © 2012 by Charles G. Hill