Inflammatory headline aside, I found the recent Atlantic magazine article - ‘Why women still can’t have it all’ - to be a really interesting look at how and why women struggle with work-life balance once they have a family. The main argument of the piece is that our current inflexible work culture does not allow for modern family dynamics (aka two working parents trying to find time to care for kids). It is written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who worked for the US State Department for two years before having to leave because her work clashed too much with family commitments. Slaughter argues that until we have a more flexible working culture women will continue to hold fewer top-level positions.
The article has been quite controversial and widely discussed online (see Twitter hashtag #havingitall), so much so that Slaughter is now writing a book on the topic. There are many critics out there, challenging Slaughter’s argument from various standpoints. Some see the ‘having it all’ debate as only a middle class concern, others say the simple answer is just to not have kids, and others still think the presentation of the article demonstrates a persistently patronising and judgemental attitude towards working mothers. Underlying many critiques is the viewpoint that its not helpful to pose work-life balance as a feminist issue. Slaughter acknowlegdes the concern that as a powerful woman she risks putting out the wrong message; discouraging other women from going for top positions by openly highlighting the personal struggles she has faced, and linking these struggles overtly with her gender.
There are of course an increasing number of women in positions of power today, who are balancing work and family life successfully. An example of this has just recently come from Yahoo appointing new female CEO, Marissa Mayer, who is expecting a baby later this year. The only way being a CEO and expectant mother has been made possible, however, is through the minimal maternity leave Mayer has agreed to take (just a few weeks, and she will work throughout). This seems to support a point Slaughter makes - that it is only ‘super-women’ making it to the top; those who are prepared to sacrafice more than many would be willing or physically able to. Slaughter poses that if we want to see true equality, meaning 50-50 distribution of the positions of power in society, then we need to acknowledge that our (over)working practices must change.
Many are extremely grateful to Slaughter for being honest about the fact not all parents (neither men nor women) are super-human, and many are struggling to find time for family and for their high-pressure careers. I can see the critics’ point that the issue of work-life balance is not only a feminist issue, but a concern of society at large. However, Slaughter has highlighted that these challenges still seem to persistently and disproportionately effect women, and in so doing she has provided a fresh perspective that has struck a chord with many. The debate continues, and its really interesting to see so many diverse voices joining the discussion…