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Mom or Career? Why Women Are Still Forced to Choose

Date posted: August 16, 2012

Everyone is excited about Marissa Mayer becoming the new CEO of Yahoo. Mayer was hired six months into her pregnancy to take over the former internet giant, Yahoo. Since the announcement, the media has been bombarding her with questions on how she plans to juggle a family with this immensely demanding position.

Everyone is lauding Mayer as proof that women can be high-powered career moms. But, can Mayer alone prove the notion that women can have it all? According to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial article in The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It

All,” the task of balancing the responsibilities of motherhood and employment is practically impossible with our current attitudes about motherhood.

Many feminist ripped her for even suggesting that power moms still face many of the same struggles that their mother’s once did, even in today’s pro-woman culture. Slaughter sheds light on a façade that falsely encourages young women to take on demanding positions knowing that our culture discourages the notion of being supportive to working moms. To Slaughter, we just don’t live in a culture that allows women to do both successfully…yet.

And, I agree. There needs to be reform in the workplace first for there to ever be a harmonious merger of work and motherhood. Just because Meyer is a CEO does not mean that society has accepted working moms into the workplace, giving them the same value as their male counterparts. Nor have we enabled moms—who continue to carry the bulk of home responsibilities–to better handle the burdens of childcare.

For those who don’t know, Anne-Marie Slaughter is the former Dean at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, who left a tenured position to become the Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department and the chance to  work with famous power-mom Hilary Clinton. 

Slaughter thought that focusing on a singular role, instead of juggling multiple projects, would allow her to spend more time with her two teenage sons. Unfortunately, her dreams of spending weekends travelling up the East Coast with her kids in tow were dashed when she started struggling to have the time to be able to see them at all:

“My workweek started at 4:20 on Monday morning, when I got up to get the 5:30 train from Trenton to Washington. It ended late on Friday, with the train home. In between, the days were crammed with meetings, and when the meetings stopped, the writing work began—a never-ending stream of memos, reports, and comments on other people’s drafts. For two years, I never left the office early enough to go to any stores other than those open 24 hours, which meant that everything from dry cleaning to hair appointments to Christmas shopping had to be done on weekends, amid children’s sporting events, music lessons, family meals, and conference calls.”

Slaughter lasted two years before the rigor of the position forced her to return to Princeton. The worst part for her was facing  the stigma that came along with having to quit her dream job. People assumed she was fired, despite publicly expressing that her resignation was purely based on her desire to spend more time with her children:

“Yet the decision to step down from a position of power—to value family over professional advancement, even for a time—is directly at odds with the prevailing social pressures on career professionals in the United States. One phrase says it all about current attitudes toward work and family, particularly among elites. In Washington, “leaving to spend time with your family” is a euphemism for being fired.”

We need to destroy the notion that any woman who chooses to put their families first are somehow weaker for doing so.  In her essay, Slaughter blames the constant stream of misinformation put out by overly-optimistic feminists who fail to understand the unending pressure placed on women to juggle both roles. Slaughter goes on to acknowledge that unless we forge a sisterhood of support for working moms, we will never really be able to have it all.

Slaughter’s first point is that whenever a woman reaches the pinnacle of her career, she (for some reason) feels the need to attribute her success to a husband who is willing to share the parental load.

Classic example: Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and James Madison Medal recipient. When asked during a Q&A session how she finds the time to manage both a career and her family, her first instinct was to commend her husband for being willing to support the home while she works. Last time I checked, you cannot marry yourself. So, why should Jackson’s husband expect to NOT assist with the family while his wife works as an administrator?

The truth of the matter is if Lisa Jackson were a man, no one would ever feel the need to ask this question.

Then, there’s the onslaught of flippant responses to the very real gender gap in the workplace by women who’ve made it. According to a commencement speech that Chief Financial Officer of Facebook, Cheryl Sandberg gave at Barnard College, women today are not ambitious enough to reach these positions.

That’s not a helpful way to encourage young women. I agree with Slaughter: these women are not unambitious. Sandberg, you are speaking to an audience of extremely determined girls looking to start their careers. What we are is overworked and strained to the brink. What we need are companies that are willing to care enough to make things easier.

Face it:  even Anne-Marie Slaughter gripes that men are rarely ever asked to make the same compromises in their career as women. On those rare occasions where a man has to choose  he is more likely to pick the company over his family.

A few critics found fault with Slaughter’s outspoken portrayal of the life of a female executive. Linda Hirshman found Slaughter to be pretentious, much like well-to-do mothers who cry into their afternoon cocktails about how hard it is to be, well… them. She wrote in a rebuttal for The Atlantic, that it is unfair to attribute Slaughter’s struggles as a “female” issue because it makes it seem like women are complaining. Well, even if we are… so what?

Laura Stepp says it is almost insulting to compare regular, working women to the likes of Marissa Meyer, Sheryl Sandberg,  Lisa Jackson and most importantly, Anne-Marie Slaughter. Much of the criticism regarding Slaughter’s piece acknowledges that her achievements would be considerably more impressive if she not wealthy and pedigreed.

Stepp feels Slaughter had all the opportunity to make the most out of her position, knew the expectations prior to accepting the position yet, was still very unhappy. Here’s a woman who is super-rich, has a supportive husband and works for a boss who couldn’t be any more understanding of her plight. No one has it all, neither women nor men. No one ever will have it all. Some of us, however, including Slaughter, have a lot more than the rest of us.”

I don’t think it is fair to discount her experience when Slaughter herself agrees that if she is having a hard time; it must be harder for most women out there with less resources.

I am proud of Marissa Mayer, Cheryl Sandberg and others have all made it. Who wouldn’t be? But, if a woman like Slaughter struggles to find some sort of balance in her career, then we all need to stand up and support her.

Slaughter even mentions several of her colleagues who have all abandoned their high-powered careers as government officials for the same reasons she did. If we’re losing the only allies that women have in our battle because of the strain these positions put on their families, then soon, we won’t have a single woman left in government to help establish gender rights in the workplace.

We can still congratulate all successful female CEOs, CFOs and high-ranking politicians. No one is discrediting the Sandbergs and the Mayers of our generation. But, who we are knocking are the women who are ballsy enough to say it is not fair that they cannot take their children to school or, tuck them in at night.   If things stay the way they are now, Slaughter will not be the first woman to leave a job because she cannot spend time with her family.

If we ever hope to see change in the “new gender gap,” organizations really do need to start offering working moms jobs with reasonable (not accommodating) schedules and fair salaries that make working a fair tradeoff for not being able to stay at home. It’s not weak to acknowledge that women are far more eager put their children before their work. There’s nothing wrong in believing that having more women in political positions will change public policy and help close the gender gap.

Most importantly, we need to forge a united front and recognize that there is a gender gap, and graduating with a degree is not enough to help close it. We need to demand that our voice be heard and our rights be acknowledged.

3 Comments

  • MB says:

    I was with you until you used the sexist term, ballsy. Your subconscious male chauuvinism was showing.

  • Kaoz says:

    And what the hell is wrong with using the term ‘ballsy’? I personally use it all of the time, and tell guys that God had to put my balls on my chest because they were just too big to fit between my legs. lol. Are you one of those super elitist feminists, the holier-than-thou type? Seems like it to me! ;D

  • Kaoz says:

    Also, in relation to this article – If families accommodate forjobs, jobs should accommodate for families.

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