I wasn't going to read Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in the Atlantic, Why Women Still Can't Have It All, because the combination of the headline and the cover image made me think that this would be a continuation in the "print media flings crap at mothers and inflames another round of "mommy wars" in order to drive sales" game that seems to be popular right now, and I wanted no part in that.
Then a reader sent me the link with a recommendation that I read it, and I'm so glad she did. I still hate the headline, because I think that to the extent that women can't "have it all" (whatever "it all" is), neither can men. When men (or women) choose to work really long hours, they are missing out on something real, too, something that could be considered part of "it all", even if they don't have kids. Life necessarily involves making choices, and when you choose options A,B, and C, you are implicitly acknowledging that options D and E aren't going to happen for you.
But I also think that people should be able to choose "be an involved parent" and "have a stellar career" as two of their options, and I agree with Slaughter's argument that there is a lot in how we organize our work lives right now that makes that harder than it needs to be- in some types of careers, far harder than it needs to be. As Slaughter points out, when this unnecessarily high difficulty level leads some good, talented, and ambitious people to decide that they can not have those two options at once, we should not blame the people forced to make such a difficult choice, but instead look at what is wrong with a system that is forcing that choice upon them in the first place.
If Slaughter stopped there, I'd say it was an interesting essay but incomplete, because it would again ignore women who have found ways to include both involved parenting and striving for a "big" career in their lives. And as long time readers of this blog know, it really annoys me when people tell me that I'm living an impossible life. To be fair, my career is nothing like Slaughter's, so I'd probably have been inclined to let that go with a shrug, not a rant.
However, as this piece in Slate points out... most of us would consider Slaughter's career to be pretty "big". True, she felt the need to curtail it in favor of the needs of her family, but the point at which she had to curtail it is far beyond what most of us will achieve. I am not sure how much that should scare ambitious young women looking ahead to their own years of balancing career and family, since most of them will not be faced with a situation as difficult as she was. But I also know that my view on that is not only not one that all women hold, but also one that infuriates some women, so I think there is something interesting to be explored here. Unfortunately, the current "mommy wars" climate is probably not all that conducive to exploring this topic.
Anyway, Slaughter goes on and takes on the reasons for the conflict between career and family, and in my view, she gets that largely right. This is why I think you should go read the article, even if it feels like rewarding the editors of The Atlantic for their mother-baiting. The quality of the article makes up for the obnoxiousness of its presentation. It is long, but it is worth the time.
I liked seeing someone in a mainstream venue look at the work vs. family issues and conclude that the problem is with the work place, not the women. If there is anything I hate more than writing that inflames the "mommy wars" it is writing that refuses to contemplate the possibility that a work environment that is currently unfriendly to people who want a life outside of work could change without undermining the company involved. (This, by the way, is why I can't stand reading most of what Penelope Trunk writes on careers- her insistence that women, and in particular mothers, don't belong in venture-backed start ups makes me want to scream at her to go take some remedial logic training. And yes, I have worked in venture-backed start ups. Three of the five companies for which I've worked have been venture-backed. But that is a rant for a different day.)
I particularly liked a couple of quotes. Discussing the way that people subtly judge mothers in the work place, Slaughter makes a comparison between the responses to an employee who runs marathons as a hobby and to a mother :
"The discipline, organization, and sheer endurance it takes to succeed at top levels with young children at home is easily comparable to running 20 to 40 miles a week. But that’s rarely how employers see things, not only when making allowances, but when making promotions. Perhaps because people choose to have children? People also choose to run marathons. "
I suspect that part of the difference is that employers think that when push came to shove, the marathoner would give up running, but the mother would always prioritize her kids. That doesn't detract from her point, though, especially since I suspect employers are probably wrong about the marathoner.
Towards the end of the article, Slaughter talks briefly about what we might do to change this situation:
"If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us."
Of course, that is not very concrete. How, exactly, am I to insist that work place norms change? I don't know, and she doesn't say. But I do have some ideas about how I can help make them change, albeit in a small way. I have started being more vocal about my opinions on the importance of good planning at work. I cannot speak to government jobs, particularly at the level Slaughter was working, but in my science/tech world, 90% of the work-life balance issues I see employees suffer through are caused by bad management.* No one I know really minds having work take over their life for the rare true emergency. We resent the steady encroachment that we can see buys no real value for our employers, but that management nonetheless insists is necessary to compete. I am not yet senior enough (or obnoxious enough) to point out the bad management when I see it. But I have started talking more openly about good management practices. My team is demonstrably performing well right now- we're hitting our goals on time and within budget, and we're getting a lot done. People are noticing and asking me how we do that. I of course credit my wonderful employees, who are truly talented. However, I also say that we plan our projects out ahead of time, and that doing this makes us all more efficient. Furthermore, I have gotten more willing to speak up about work limits, and how I think regularly pushing employees to work long hours is an entirely avoidable risk to projects and often backfires. And not only has nothing bad happened to me, it seems people are listening to me, perhaps because I have a track record of bringing my projects in on time.
This favorable reception is leading me to get more serious about the idea of writing a book on project management. For the most part, scientists and engineers are not trained in how to manage projects, and the training that is out there is largely aimed at different types of projects that need far more heavy-handed management than your average scientific research project or limited scope software development project. What I do to manage projects seems obvious to me- identify tasks and dependencies, think about risks, estimate durations, allow some reserve for risk, etc.- but it is just as obvious from talking to the scientists and engineers with whom I work that it is not common in the field. Perhaps I will eventually try to help change that.
I can make a difference as a line manager, too. We arrange our work in my group so that everyone can have a life outside of work- that is our explicit culture, I have made it that way, and I will defend it up the chain as needed. Of course, as long as we're hitting our goals, not much defense is needed. My impact is not just limited to my team, though. I speak up about the requirements for a good lactation room when necessary- and find that I am usually the only person in the room who has any idea about what those might be. Twice, I have acted as a manager to correct actions I have seen other people take that could be seen as discriminatory on the basis of an employee's status as a mother. In hiring meetings, I speak up in defense of women who have a "motherhood gap" on their resume- and yes, I'd do the same for a man with a "fatherhood gap" if the opportunity ever presented itself. These examples have convinced me of the value of having more mothers in management. To put it bluntly, I notice the problems that the men I work with are mostly clueless about. It is not my unique responsibility as a woman in management to fix those problems, but my presence in the room can help ensure that they aren't just overlooked.
*Edited to add: bad management does not mean "bad managers" and most certainly doesn't mean "bad people doing the managing." We all make mistakes sometimes. I recently made a project management mistake that led to a developer working really long hours for roughly six weeks. I felt terrible about it, and have apologized. And learned from it. But the fact remains that he had crappy work-life balance for those weeks, and it was due to bad management.