Time for middle class women to drop the bourgeois fantasies about having it all

Can women have it all – ie the same choices as men – when it comes to having good work and a family too? According to a much-discussed article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic last week, the answer is no.

In the (long) piece, Slaughter talks about how, as the first woman director of policy planning at the US State Department (a job she had on leave from Princeton), she suddenly found the “feminist beliefs” on which she had built her entire career “shifting” under her feet.

As soon as her two-year term was up, instead of looking for more government work as she appears to have expected that she would, she “hurried home” to Princeton. Why? Partly because she didn’t want to lose her tenure but, she says, mostly because her conclusion that “juggling high level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible.”

The fact is, she says, that women don’t make it to the top in today’s world because extreme working conditions (in government she worked long, long days and got one day a month off) make it impossible for them to do so and to do anything else as well.

Evidence? “Every male Supreme Court justice has a family. Two of the three female justices are single with no children. And the third, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, began her career as a judge only when her younger child was almost grown. The pattern is the same at the National Security Council: Condoleezza Rice, the first and only woman national-security adviser, is also the only national-security adviser since the 1950s not to have a family.”

Some, such as Facebook’s Sandberg, think this is about an “ambition gap – that women do not dream big enough”.

But isn’t that. It is that “travel sucks” when you have young children; that school schedules never match work schedules; that in the early years of a career, childcare takes up more than a post-tax salary; and that in too many jobs timetabling is inflexible and too much work has to be done in rather than out of the office.”

To solve all this – and to keep clever women properly in the workforce – Slaughter wants to see less obsession with face time and less “time macho” behaviour; she wants employers to find a way of valuing family; she wants people to be able to think of their climb to leadership “not in terms of a straight upward slope but as irregular stair steps with periodic plateaus” when time is taken out for family; and she wants us to pursue happiness rather than just career success. 

That might all sound a little airy fairy but it’s certainly got people talking: the online version of the piece has had over 2,000 comments so far.

However, not everyone is much impressed. The problem with all this, says Naomi Wolf on www.project-syndicate.org, is that this really isn’t a woman’s issue any more. “All over the developed world millions of working men with small children also regret the hours that they spend away from them and go home to bear the brunt of domestic tasks.”

It also isn’t quite the issue that Slaughter’s generation think it is. It is recognised by both sexes making it more of an “ambient tension of modern life for a generation of women and men who are committed to gender inequality.”

That’s probably beginning to be true and it is also part of a better response from New York University’s Professor Katie Roiphe in the weekend FT. She simply takes issue with the “inane language” of work life balance.

Isn’t “part of the skill or joy of life in the imbalance, in the craziness, in the bizarre or implausible intensity” of juggling all sorts of things? Go for the perfect balance of helicopter parenting and “organic chicken grilled outside with heirloom tomatoes” and you could easily miss out on the “bursts and flashes of greatness in the midst of what Winifred Holtby, a journalist in the 1920s, called the ‘rich unrest of family life.’”

Working life is gradually becoming more flexible, more family friendly, more shared out inside families (witness the rise of the women who out-earn their husbands) and less face-time orientated (in the UK and Europe at least).

The things that Slaughter so wants will happen in the next 20 years or so – pushed along by both sexes. In the meantime, we might all spend more time “embracing the implausible, the complicated, the imperfect, the imbalanced and the here and now” rather than wallowing in bourgeois fantasies about having it all.