Thursday, July 12, 2012

It's the year 2012, why can't women have a high-flying career and a family, too?

Can women have it all? Not in today's America, Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter says in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, and she shares her own story demonstrate. Slaughter left a top-level State Department job after two years to spend more time with her husband and two teenage boys. After years of being able to make her own schedule, with much success, she found a demanding job with a rigidly structured schedule took too much of a toll on her family life. It's a discouraging message: If a highly motivated and intelligent woman like this can't make it work, who can?

Slaughter says the lack of women in top positions is not a problem with women not being committed enough, or not being ambitious enough. Rather it is a work structure -- a rigid schedule, a mindset that rewards long hours -- that was not built with women's lives in mind:

(Facebook COO Sheryl) Sandberg thinks that “something” is an “ambition gap”—that women do not dream big enough. I am all for encouraging young women to reach for the stars. But I fear that the obstacles that keep women from reaching the top are rather more prosaic than the scope of their ambition. 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.”

She provides concrete examples of things that could be changed in the workplace, including flexible schedules, use of technology and scheduling in-person meetings during the school day.

In the meantime, Slaughter advises women to have kids before 35 (or freeze their eggs) and plan for their career peaks to be later, late 50s-early 60s (when the kids are out of the house) rather than late 40s-early 50s:

Along the way, women should think about the climb to leadership not in terms of a straight upward slope, but as irregular stair steps, with periodic plateaus (and even dips) when they turn down promotions to remain in a job that works for their family situation; when they leave high-powered jobs and spend a year or two at home on a reduced schedule; or when they step off a conventional professional track to take a consulting position or project-based work for a number of years.

I found this article to be both sad and hopeful. Sad because women *still* have to make these tougher than tough choices, when men often don't. It seems usually the result of the choice is that the family wins and women don't make it to top positions, and because of the lack of women at the top it seems we will be waiting even longer for change. But also hopeful because her solutions seem doable, if as she says it is a matter of prosaic issues like scheduling that hold back working mothers. Flexible schedules are more possible than ever with technology, and work-family balance seems to be becoming a more important priority both for men and women in today's workplace.

I also think it's brave for someone to be so candid about the problems women face in the workplace, and to risk being called a failure or not committed enough because she is willing to share her own story. Bringing that level of honesty into the conversation is a great step in the right direction.

Even more with Anne-Marie Slaughter:

An interview on NPR's Fresh Air

Video with the story from The Atlantic:

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