Can “Having It All” Be Reality For Women?

I just finished reading a fantastic article. It was long, but I was transfixed.

I cried.

Not the “ugly cry”, as Oprah would say, but the periodic tearing up as I read certain sentences and they sent small arrows into my heart.

–>  Arrow #1 – “Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.”

The article is, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter in the 2012 July/August issue of The Atlantic. Work-Life balance, or whatever you want to call it, has seemed to be the third rail of topics among my friends, co-workers, and all kinds of articles over the last 30 or so years.

 –> Arrow # 2: “As nearly always happens in these situations, they soon began asking me about work-life balance. When I told them I was writing this article, the lawyer said, “I look for role models and can’t find any.”

It’s always been a topic I’ve felt strongly about. Even when starting out of college at one of the biggest consulting firms, I sought out and in some cases helped start “women’s mentoring” groups. Other women my age (20 years ago, when I was in my 20s) were instinctively looking for role models and answers from the partners and leaders within our consulting firm. We were looking around at the largely male dominated partnership and looking for the women – in some cases any women we could find – and trying to figure out what they were doing.

The travel and the hours involved in that job were one thing when you were single and figuring out what life had to offer – and quite another with kids, as far as I was concerned. I looked at the partners with families that were traveling every bit as much as I was. They were coming home on weekends to admittedly very nice houses and country club memberships – but missing the nightly homework, soccer practices, school plays and ballet lessons?

Over the years, it produced a nervous tension between my competitiveness and drive to succeed and continuing promotions (and make no mistake, partner was the definition of success in the “up or out” environment I was in). However, I began looking at the partnership with suspicion as I tried to figure out if that was a commitment I even wanted to strive for.  “Be careful what you wish for” often ran through my head.

–> Arrow #3: “Yet the decision to step down from a position of power—to value family over professional advancement, even for a time—is directly at odds with the prevailing social pressures on career professionals in the United States.”

So of all the articles written all the time on this topic, why did this article stop me in my tracks?

Well, she calls a spade a spade. I agree with her when she says that many of the “stories” that we tell ourselves are sometimes flawed. That many women feel caught between the idea that they should just be more committed to their job and family and just find a way to make it work.

The section titled, The Half-Truths We Hold Dear (Ouch! I’m losing track of the number of arrows that have hit home at this point) has the following themes regarding work-life balance:

  • It’s possible if you are just committed enough.
  • It’s possible if you just marry the right person.
  • It’s possible if you sequence it right.

Oh my, hasn’t there been essay after essay on those topics? And she takes each one down.

Instead, she goes on to provide real, substantive ideas for how to tackle work-life balance. I’ll dig into those in a subsequent blog. But for now, I just want to say ..

Thank you, Anne-Marie Slaughter, for your insightful, inspiring, truthful and helpful article. It’s not one that I’ll soon forget.

Kirsten Jordan is a Partner at PeopleResults. She can be reached on Twitter @Kirstenkbdb. Sign up to receive her and her colleagues’ blog at Current.