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October 03, 2012

Can American Women Really Have it All?

by Keida Kostreci

When Anne-Marie Slaughter came to Washington in 2009 to serve as the first female director of Policy Planning at the State Department, she noticed  there was not much flexibility.  As a Princeton professor she was used to being quite busy but she did not have to abide by someone else’s schedule.  

“Working in Washington showed me what it was like for the vast majority of men and women who are working on other people’s time and I realized that flexibility has been essential to my being able to make it work," she said in a VOA interview.
 
When she went back to teach at Princeton in 2011 she decided to write about it. Although she has written books on foreign policy and delivers many speeches each year on topics of international affairs, it was her recent cover essay for Atlantic magazine, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” that made her name immediately recognizable.  The debate on work-life balance that ensued spread like a wildfire.

Jenn, a consultant with a government affairs firm who lives in the Washington suburbs with her husband and two school-age daughters, is one of those who read the article.  Both she and her husband juggle childcare, and many extracurricular activities, with the demands of their jobs.

“D.C. is one of these high-powered, high-pressure places," she said.  "And if you are in sort of a high level of government or in certain jobs here in D.C.,  I think it is very hard to carve out that time with your family and still get ahead. This is not a flexible city.”

The concept of "having it all" -- that is, having a fulfilling career as well as a satisfying family life -- emerged after the second wave of the women’s movement in the United States.. It focused on equal opportunities and the changing of law and culture to this effect. One of the enduring legacies of this movement is the idea that women can and should be able to "have it all.".

But Jenn says she made a compromise a few years ago, to leave her job on a Senate committee staff and work as a consultant.

“Maybe there are times when I think maybe I want to be involved in that big negotiation, or I really want to get involved in that big issue But I don’t regret it because I get home to see my kids,” she said.

The debate on this compromise reopened after Professor Slaughter published her article. She knew she would get a lot of criticism from women of her generation or older, who were going to think that she was betraying the cause.   

“I count myself a proud feminist,” Slaughter said. “I have spent my whole life both believing that men and women should have equal opportunity, and trying myself to live that dream and to be a role model.  But I knew that many older women would say ‘you can’t say this, you can’t admit that things are hard, that you have to make different choices because if you admit that, then man won’t hire you and younger women would be discouraged’.”

Professor Slaughter thought younger women deserved to know the truth and points out that she is not saying it’s impossible to have both work and family.

“Of course you can have work and family,” she said. “But to have work and family we need big changes, we need big social changes and one of them is exactly around workplace flexibility.”

By flexibility she means that women and men should be able to stay home if they need to, reschedule conferences when they cannot make it, work from home one day a week, leave early but come in later, things that she says that make it possible for parents to work with having their kids and having their work.

“Our workplace is still set up on the assumption that you have somebody who is working who is not also taking care of children," she said.  "And so those changes which are not that hard to make will make an enormous difference for parents - men and women - who just need a play in the system."

Still, the culture ingrained into many high-profile professions is the idea that long hours and unpredictable work schedules are signs of dedication. And one of the main ideas of the feminist movement in the United States was that women can "have it all," if they are given the same opportunities as men and work hard enough.

Neera Tanden, is a trail blazer herself. In the rarefied world of think-tank leaders,  As the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress, she is one of the few women heading a major organization.  She disagrees with what she calls Slaughter’s overly negative view.

“We have seen tremendous changes and I think we should be proud of these changes,” she said. “And we have more and more women leaders and what we need to do is work so there is greater equality in the work place, that women are paid equally to men, that we are valuing work and family and that’s all possible. We just need to keep working for it.”

Still Tanden admits that when she goes into a meeting with her peers, most of them are men.  Both she and Slaughter also agree that men have become more involved in family responsibilities in recent years. and they too would take advantage of workplace flexibility -- a possible help in changing the culture.  

“I would have not written this article if I didn’t think we couldn’t make another round of change and in many ways I’d rather be in the United States than in any other country,” Slaughter explained.

At present, however, even though about half the U.S. is female, women hold only about 15-25 percent of top positions. And women in the United States still earn only 78 cents -- on the average -- for every dollar earned by men.  

Jenn, the government affairs consultant, says she considers herself one of the lucky ones. She has flexibility, and thanks to technology she can work from everywhere.

“I would say that I am almost always attached to work. I think that technology has helped us and hurt us at the same time," she addd.  "I think that without my Blackberry, without my ability to check my email all the time, I would probably be in my office many more hours."

Even so, she tries to catch up on unfinished business and reading late at night, after her daughters fall asleep. She rarely falls asleep before midnight. And at the end of a long day, for Jenn and plenty of other women, it is still difficult to answer the question whether women can "have it all."