Something’s gotta give

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic unleashed a flurry of online reactions, ranging from the “I totally identify – it’s the story of my life” to “oh stop whinging”-type blog posts.
It was only a week before I read her article that some mummy friends and I were chatting about the myth of the supermum. I commented that something’s gotta give, always.  One couldn’t do it all, have it all.  Those Her World Women of the Year who say they balanced it all were probably leaving out important information.  Like the advise from a high-profile career woman to my colleague – on how she managed to develop her career whilst having kids, “you just try not to travel when they are young”.  I didn’t think she should be doling out advice as if she did it all right, when it was no secret that her husband was adulterous. It may or may not have been because she had chosen to put in long hours at work, prioritising that above her husband if not her children, but the bottom line is. Something always has to give.
I was also reminded of the show “I don’t know how she does it” (Short answer: she doesn’t) which made me laugh.  And cry.  Was NOT a good idea to watch it on the flight to DC on a work-trip. What possessed me??
Anyway, I was glad to read Slaughter’s article. For its honesty, for its accurate representation of what a woman is confronted with in this day and age.
I posted an excerpt of what resonated most resoundingly.  Within minutes, mummy friends were “liking” this quote, which is actually, the nub of the issue:
Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier.
That was for the bosses, the HR departments, the world, heckkit.
She notes how people look askance at those who leave high office (or “a good job” to localise it) for the responsibilities of parenthood.  In our context, usually the assumed if not verbalised thought is that “oh she probably wasn’t very good at what she did anyhow”, or “oh it wasn’t much to give up”, because the woman who was truly doing WELL would never do something so silly as to give up (or put on hold) her glittering career, for something as mundane as childcare.  What are childcare centres/ maids for?  They think.  (Well, not everyone has access to an option that they can live with, is my rejoinder.  For the record, I must credit sacrificial grandparents for giving me options as a mum.)
But because Slaughter is writing as an American, there were other issues to deal with. Another senior female colleague told her it would be a “terrible signal to younger generations of women”, to be told that women can’t have it all.  What? Terrible to tell the truth? Since when did lying become so necessary?
Still women of her generation “clung to the feminist credo we were raised with” even as their ranks were “steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because (they) were determined not to drop the flag for the next generation”.  “The pioneer generation of feminists walled off their personal lives from their professional personas to ensure that they could never be discriminated against for a lack of commitment to their work.”  All I could think of was, at what cost?  The price must have been huge, at the personal level.
She acknowledged that “many of us were reinforcing a falsehood: that having it all was a function of personal determination”.  So if you didn’t, you simply weren’t trying hard enough.  Imagine the guilt and stress that heaps upon the average mum, who’s already feeling beat-up as it is. 
The other half-truth was that women who didn’t succeed basically had an “ambition gap”.  Women were not dreaming big enough, and thus were short-changing themselves from the start, giving up before they gave up.  Is it really our fault again? I don’t think so. Rather, as Slaughter says “the obstacles that keep women from reaching the top are more prosaic than the scope of their ambition”. Working long hours on someone else’s schedule, the ubiquity of unrelenting work travel – sure-fire ways of severely compromising family life.  It might not be immediately apparent, but these things take their toll.  By which time one realises, it may be too late.  She says sure, we can “have it all at the same time.  But not today, not with the way America’s (more so Singapore’s!) economy and society are currently structured.”.  The bitter truth that more should acknowledge.
Nonetheless I do agree, as she rightly mentioned, that there is a small minority of true superwomen who DO have it all.  They usually graduated top of their Harvard class. So let the rest of us just please admit that we are not that 0.001% of women, and stop trying to kill ourselves / set ourselves for spectacular failure by benchmarking ourselves against them.
But even if not the creme de la creme, the women of her/our demographic “are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks”.  Yes, this is true. But how we create an environment where such equal representation can occur, at minimal expense to the family?
Her view was that this cause would be helped if top women spoke out more, and true change would come if the US of A had a female president.  To that I am slightly skeptical.  A Margaret Thatcher type would not be too sympathetic, I reckon.  But perhaps indeed “only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women.” (And by oft-overlooked extension) “That will be  a society that works for everyone”.
It was a relief to hear that the Rhodes scholars Slaughter spoke to thanked her for not giving one more “fatuous” you can have it all talk.  And that all the women there “assumed and accepted that they would have to make compromises that the men in their lives were far less likely to have to make”.
Therein lies the rub.  There were men posting (and my male colleagues saying) that this applied similarly to men as well. Men who chose to spend more time with their families and less on their careers.  Urm, excuse me.  It’s not quite the same. It’s NEVER the same.
If they read the article carefully, they would have noticed these points:
  • Among those who have made it to the top, a balanced life still is more elusive for women than for men. Almost every male in leadership positions has children. Most of the (already very few) women in leadership do not.
  • Virtually all the women who have stepped down are succeeded by men.
  • Marrying a husband who’s an involved father assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children.  That is not the case. The maternal imperative is felt so deeply that driven to breaking point, there really is no “choice” for any self-respecting mother.
  • Dy Secretary of State Steinburg would leave the office at a reasonable hour and request for classified information to be made accessible to his home.  However, Slaughter wonders how many women in similar positions would be afraid to ask, lest they be seen as insufficiently committed to their jobs.
Here, she segues into the oft-cited point that parents are indispensable to their kids, but no one is close to indispensable to their company/public office.  Still, leaders are praised for sacrificing their personal life for their work, and their children are trained to value this service over private responsibility.  She wonders “why we would want leaders who fall short on personal responsibilities”, and whether “this ethical framework makes sense for society”, especially when “leaders who invested time in their own families would be more keenly aware of the toll their public choices take on private lives”.  Thought this was very astute.
Slaughter argues that the system needs to be “quickly changed”, but changing these policies means “fighting in the mundane battles – everyday, every year – individual workplaces, in legislatures, and in the media”. 
It is clear which set of choices society values more today.  Workers who put their careers first are typically rewarded; workers who choose their families are overlooked, disbelieved, or accused of unprofessionalism.
Slaughter warns young women against the “cheerfully wrong” assertion that you CAN have it all, simply with careful sequencing.  It is disingenuous to tell women that they can start developing a career in their mid-40s, when the children born in her 20s finish high-school.  It just doesn’t happen.  The work culture today is such that you have to establish your career from graduation, but not having children before 35 creates another set of issues in itself.  Again, pure biology makes women face trade-offs that men do not have to make. 
Is Slaughter unrealistic when she says:
You should be able to have a family if you want one – however and whenever your life circumstances allow – and still have the career you desire.  If more women could strike this balance, more women would reach leadership positions.  And if more women were in leadership positions, they could make it easier for more women to stay in the workforce.
[I’m not sure how this could pan out in Singapore, in our Asian context (just thinking of the possible power-play norms in the recent sex-for-deals cases hogging the local media headlines sickens me).]
To the end outlined above, Slaughter offers the following options:
  • Instead of pulling inflexibly long hours in the office, given modern technology, “we should be able to move to a culture where the office is a base of operations more than the required locus of work”
  • Being able to work from home can be key for mothers to carrying your full load versus letting a team down at crucial moments
  • From behavioural economics, she suggests altering baselines, or the default. e.g. in-person meetings should only occur during school hours
  • To replace parental leave with family leave, thus recognising that singles too have families, and thus instilling a sense of fairness
For Singapore, a start would be for part-time work to be just that. Not part-time pay for full-time work under the guise of part-time work please thank you.  Too many of my friends on part-time stay beyond 8pm in the office on the days they are in, and even work weekends to meet deadlines. But they soldier on, because they are able to retain some income, and still spend half the week physically present with their kids.
As with many other women.  I particularly enjoyed the anecdote Slaughter shared on Louise Richardson, who “organised her time so ruthlessly that she always keyed in 1:11 or 2:22 on the microwave rather than 1:00 or 2:00 because hitting on the same number three times took less time.
The discipline, organisation, and sheer endurance it takes to succeed at top levels with young children at home is easily comparable to running 20-40 miles a week.  But that’s rarely how employers see things, not only when making allowances, but when making promotions. 
You chose to have children, some may say.  So live with the fallout.  But isn’t running a marathon a conscious lifestyle choice too?
It is thus that Slaughter emphasises the importance of changing our own assumptions, perceptions and responses.
She relates the difficulties she herself faced, when trying to effect such change.  When she became dean of the Woodrow Wilson School in 2002, she tried to change the norms by deliberately talking about her children and her desire for a balanced life. To which she ended up being berated by several female assistant professors.  “You have to stop talking about your kids.  You are not showing the gravitas that people expect froma dean, which is particularly damaging precisely because you are the first woman dean of the school.”  She told them that it was deliberate and she persisted, but noted with interest “that gravitas and parenthood don’t seem to go together.”  Guess this showed that the very women she was trying to benefit sometimes were the key obstacles to change.  How tragic is that? 
As she ends her long op-ed (more like an op-thesis! 12,700+ words you know), Slaughter suggests that women can build their credentials between 22-35, simultaneously have children between 25-45, build in maximum flexibility over her time when her children are 8-18 (surprising to me since I always thought it was the 0-6 gap, but now it seems the years thereafter are just as important if not more so GAH), and only take on positions of maximum authority and demands on her time after her children leave for college.  Her view is that women who have children in their late 20s can re-immerse themselves in their careers in their late 40s, with plenty of time to rise to the top in their late 50s and early 60s. 
This is an interesting and somewhat inspiring view that I had hitherto not considered.  These days, choices are couched in the either or.  Once out, no woman seriously thinks she can rise to the top of anything after the kids are grown.  Re-entering the workforce to a middling mundane routine job perhaps, but scaling the heights she left off?  Virtually inconceivable.
Whether women will really have the confidence to stair-step their careers (turning down promotions, taking a year or two out) will again depend in part on perceptions.  All this has to become more visible and more noticeably accepted as a pause rather than an opt-out.
She dreams with us about a world in which “to be a strong woman, you don’t have to give up the things that define you as a woman. Empowering yourself, ” Lisa Jackson said at her Princeton speech, “doesn’t have to mean rejecting motherhood, or eliminating the nurturing or feminine aspects of who you are.”  A world where we can stop talking about whether women can have it all.  A world where, instead, we can properly focus on how we can have healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people we love as much as the success we seek.
So much food for thought.

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