Why “Having it All” is not the Point

Everyone is talking about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article about what holding women back from “having it all”. (At least, everyone was talking about it when it came out two weeks ago. I’m a little behind, I know, but in my defense it’s a friggin’ long article (seriously, it’s over 12k words, which is longer than an average journal paper in psychology), and I don’t do this for a living.) There have been criticisms of her article, such as this one, (hilariously) taking the “having it all” theme to extreme, or this one, arguing that the subject is invalid in the current economy. I think both are missing the point. First of all, when reading Slaughter’s article it becomes clear (although not fairly quickly) that she doesn’t talk about “having it all” in the literal sense of the phrase. She is talking about women being equal to men in high power jobs, despite being mothers. Apparently that doesn’t happen, or happens very rarely. Second, if it’s a valid problem for some women, it’s a valid problem. Sure, there are women who work hard to make ends meet and there are kids who go to sleep hungry. Also, in Africa kids are dying of AIDS and in Israel presidents think it’s ok to rape their female assistants. I’m not saying these are not real problems; they are and we all need to do everything we can to help hard-working women and suffering children. However, just because there are worse problems in the world than work-life balance doesn’t make it an invalid issue.

Slaughter makes several good points. She argues that we have to accept that working people have other responsibilities, and they are allowed to take time off or slow down their career in order to take care of those responsibilities. She compares taking care of one’s children with taking care of one’s elderly sick parent or sick partner. There are two problems with this comparison. First, it’s not a fair comparison – you choose to have children, but you don’t choose for your dad to get Alzheimer’s Disease or for your spouse to get cancer. Second, the sheer amount of people who would take leave from work to take care of their children cannot be compared with the amount of people who would take leave to take care of an elderly parent or a sick spouse. I believe employers would be more worried about the former than the latter.

Another point Slaughter makes is that women shouldn’t have to act like men in order to be considered equal. I might be completely off here, but from my experience this may have been an issue for Slaughter’s generation, but is no longer an issue for our generation. Dads are more involved now, and most 30-something people are making hard choices (as Anika Palm writes) between work and childcare options. I think the amount of dad blogs is probably evidence enough for that statement. I don’t feel that I have to act like a man to get ahead. I’m not planning on being a C-level manager though, so maybe it’s just that different jobs have different cultures around them. I’ve taken two years off in the last three years, and my supervisor and other faculty members have been nothing but supportive. No one thinks less of me (at least, I don’t feel that) because I have children or because I have to leave work at 4 to get my kids out of daycare. It’s because, at least in my lab, if you get the job done (whether it’s a paper, a grant proposal, or just showing up prepared for a meeting) no one cares when you worked or how you got it done (assuming no plagiarism was involved).

Is it hard to find a work-life balance? Absolutely. But it’s hard for everyone in my age-range, I think. It’s hard for all parents, men and women, to figure out what they want in life and how to combine that with the responsibilities they have to their family. Joan Williams thinks that until men join the conversation about the “Ideal worker” schema nothing will get changed. Well, I think they are already in the conversation. The work-life balance is not a women-only conversation, nor should it be treated as such.

What do you think? What is your work-life balance? How do you make it work for your family?

@2015 - Gal Podjarny