Anne-Marie Slaughter recently wrote a piece in The Atlantic that stirred up a fair amount of discussion about women and “having it all”. Slaughter is a liberal feminist, and I disagreed with many points in the article, but it was interesting nonetheless for its candid acknowledgement of many hard truths. She admits, for example, that she herself was once the sort of person who looked smugly down on former peers or colleagues who left the professional fast track for the sakes of their families. She admits that she and many of her fellow feminist Boomers have felt “disappointment” in a younger female generation that seems unwilling to “make the sacrifices” for their careers. Most importantly, she seems to admit that the barriers that keep women from achieving at the highest levels aren’t all social constructs. Some of them are rooted in more fundamental realities about the differences between mothers and fathers, and in what families need.
Having admitted so much, Slaughter still keeps her eyes on the prize. We need to make society more accommodating so that womenwillbe able to have it all. We need more female politicians and CEOs. We need more female partners at high-powered law firms. We need these women to ascend to positions of power, from which they will be able to transform society and make it more family friendly. We need women to build a world that works for women.
There may be some people here at Ricochet who would strike down nearly all of Slaughter's concrete suggestions. I actually agree with her on several points. I think Americans should be intensely concerned about building a family-friendly society. If workplaces could be made more family-friendly without sacrificing productivity (and quite a number of people seem to think that they could), this should certainly be done.
In a related vein, I agree with Slaughter that we as a society should have a lively concern about work-family balance, and particularly about the difficulties mothers face in this regard. In my mind, this isn’t an equality issue so much as a demographics issue. All the world over, rising levels of women’s education tend to correspond to falling birth rates. It’s not that hard to figure out why this would happen. When women have significant professional opportunities, combined with real earning potential, the price of childbearing starts to look very steep indeed. Raising a child, according to the USDA, is as expensive as it’s ever been. At the same time, children make it much harder for women to have serious careers. Some of this just comes down to unavoidable realities, but at the same time, it’s really not in society’s interests for women to feel that they must choose between a life of material comfort and prestige, and a life of diapers, dishes and relentless coupon-clipping. That’s a recipe for demographic disaster.
So, we want women to be good mothers, without having to forego all interesting professional opportunities. But how important is it to see them at the top? Slaughter is distraught about the paucity of female politicians, CEO’s and law firm partners.
It seems to me that her essay explains quite well how reasonable it is for women to avoid these highly demanding careers. There are exceptional cases, and that’s fine. Not every woman needs to become a mother, though ideally most of us will. But one obvious way to ease the tension between family and work is by encouraging women to pursue flexible jobs, and ones that can be left for a period, and resumed again later in life. Those aren’t the sorts of jobs that will easily be found in high-power law firms or executive boardrooms. Can’t we just accept that that’s always going to be the case? Is it such a bad thing if women make their contributions elsewhere?
Myself, I think it is desirable that women should succeed in some prestigious and influential professions. It puts a check on male entitlement (which I don’t see as a big problem in our society, but it is and historically has been for some) and enables women to make their voices heard. Sometimes they do have insights or suggestions that men would be less likely to make. Still, it should be possible to get the benefit of a female perspective without achieving a perfect gender equilibrium in every influential profession.
In Slaughter’s happy vision, powerful women should take the reins and create a family-friendly world for everyone. It’s sort of a nice thought, but I just don’t think it would happen. Women are themselves deeply conflicted about these issues, and the ones who do make it “to the top” are often not that interested in using their prestige and influence to address “mommy issues”; sometimes they even seem to have a quasi-vindictive desire to ensure that, if they had to miss the t-ball games and band concerts, other women should have to pay the same price.
I think my generation of women is far more ready than our elders were to discuss reasonable compromises. Raising children is a major life project, and we can’t realistically expect to do it well without making some professional sacrifices. Taking one’s name out of the running for Secretary of State might be the sort of thing that can be sacrificed.
On the other hand, given the high social value of this particular project, it’s in society’s interests to keep the “price” as low as it reasonably can be. Mothers often feel buffeted, on the one hand by the judgments of people (somewhat like the younger Slaughter, apparently) who think they “sold out” by having a family in the first place, and on the other by people who seem to think that the very desire for a career proves them to be utterly in the thrall of feminist ideologies. (This last never made much sense to me. Women want to work for substantially the same reasons men do. Why do we need to read more into it than that?) Working women feel constantly torn between an excess of obligations, while women who leave work for extended periods, regardless of their qualifications or experience, may well find themselves filling out an application at Dairy Queen when they’re ready to return to work. Does it need to be that way, given that a 45-year-old woman (say) may well have a solid 25 employable years still ahead of her?
I think it’s time for some renegotiation. But it might help to start by getting over the obsession with strict equality. Who cares if the partners of Jones Day are mostly male? Why does it matter if few women are running Fortune 500 companies? Let’s put that silliness aside, and get started on the conversations we really need to be having.