Women: Is Having it All A Myth?

In the July/August issue of Atlantic Monthly, according an article by college professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, women really can’t have it all – at least not unless there are some serious changes that include more family friendly corporate policies. Her very thoughtful article reflects on her two year stint as the first woman director of policy planning at the US State Department.

I’m inclined to both agree and disagree with Slaughter.

Women Having It All
What does it mean to have it all? The question is critical because, in the real world of business, I see women making choices about lifestyle and career. Is it that a woman can’t have it all, or is it that women are not getting it all in the way that society defines “all” and they feel frustrated?

I think, in many cases, women are making choices that are not congruent; there seems to be a clash between values and expectations. Also, when making work/life choices, too many women impose the shortfall on others and complain if those people don’t comply. That causes more problems and stress than anyone needs.

Here’s what I mean: A woman may want to be both mom and career woman. She wants to work her way up the career ladder and, at the same time, she wants to be a good mom to her children. In many family-friendly companies, the woman works her goals out with the employer. So there seems to be no problem when she gets to work late because of childcare issues, takes off when a child is sick or leaves work early to go to a game or some other child-related event. While that’s fine with the company, other people may be picking up the slack for her time away from the job; they do it, but in reality, many co-workers are silently resentful.

Still, for a while, everything is fine. That is until the woman doesn’t get the raise or promotion she wants. Then she’s angry and thinks it’s gender-based discrimination. Maybe it is and maybe it just looks like it.

Looking at it from both sides, it could be true that she’s smarter and more qualified than anyone else in the department or better than the person who got the promotion. But every company, family-friendly or not, must also consider the employee’s level of dependability and commitment through the filter of its clients’ satisfaction. While the company may see the skill and brilliance of an employee, it must also see the reliability. That is, if there’s a question mark in the company’s head about whether the employee will be present and focused when there’s a critical need for her, they can’t promote her. This kind of thinking isn’t popular in the politically correct world. But, trendy or not, it is a reality. And it isn’t new thinking because it’s logical – if the company’s customer can’t be served effectively, the customer goes someplace else and the company loses business.

When my father was offered a promotion in another state, my mother didn’t want to move and my father turned the job down. There were two offers and two passes. The second one stopped his career trajectory in its tracks. It wasn’t discrimination. In fact, my father was a disabled veteran and his company really wanted him to ascend to higher ranks because promoting a disabled vet made them look good. But he wouldn’t go where they needed him, when they needed him. Nice or not, in all fairness, what else were they supposed to do?

One Woman’s “All"
In her article, Slaughter left her government job after two years. She explained, “I’d come home not only because of Princeton’s rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible.” But it’s not like Slaughter is a slouch now. She admits, “I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book.”

Whatever kind of work you do, in or out of the home, you have to know that much business is lot of work and a lot of hours!! Surely it takes as much time as her job at the state department did. So my question is this: If Slaughter wouldn’t have lost her tenure, would she have made the same decision? What if she could have had another year in government and still maintained her tenure at the university, would she still have gone home?

Since Slaughter isn’t a single mom and isn’t the sole support of her family, leaving her government job was an option that most benefited her desired lifestyle and long-term goals. Tenure atPrincetonis a big deal. Being able to come home to your spouse and children at night is also a big deal. But leaving her high profile job to embrace those two important things? That’s her choice. Going home freed Slaughter from the kind of guilt that came with being at a “glamorous reception” hosted by President and Ms. Obama, where she says she “sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled” all the while worrying about her fourteen year old son. No change in company or corporate policy will free a mom from guilt!

It seems to me that Slaughter’s career choices are giving her the “all” she thinks she can’t have. Her choices just aren’t the ones that someone else might have made or that other feminists might approve. But I believe they were her real choices, the ones that reflected her true values and gave her what she most desired. It seems that Slaughter does have it all!

Similarly, local suburban Philadelphiarealtor Maureen Ingelsby is at the top of her game today. But that wasn't always the case. More than twenty years ago, when her spouse left her with five children under the age of eight, she was the family's sole support. With two children not yet in school, Maureen took low-paying but time-flexible jobs to support them. When all the children were in school full time, she got better jobs. Later on, still working a full-time job, she started her real estate career as a part-time agent. By then her children were teenagers, she was married again and her mother lived with her. She couldn’t have become the award-winning and celebrated professional she is today without that full-time support. Her story of marital abandonment is detailed in my book, Victorious Woman! Shaping Life’s Challenges into Personal Victories.

Each woman has to make the career choices that best serve her personal values. She might want to be both hands-on mom and high level executive but there are few women who can actually pull that off. Even if you are Michele Obama, who Slaughter praises as a role model, you need a nanny and (like our First Lady and Maureen Ingelsby) your live-in mom to pick up the childcare duties in your absence.

One More Thing
I don’t think “having it all” is a myth. I’m in the group that thinks you can have it all, just not all at the same time; Slaughter disagrees with me, saying that kind of thinking is “cheerfully wrong.” Here’s the rub: when I was thirty-five and forty, nothing came fast enough. I wanted everything now, and I was willing to work for it and make the necessary sacrifices. Much to my chagrin, I didn’t get it all - then. I got some of it, but not all of what I wanted - then.

As time has passed, I look back at my thirty and forty year old self and wonder what I would have done with it “all” – then. I’m sure I would have enjoyed the success I desired. But I was still in the building stage of my life. So much was happening with me and with my spouse. There were family issues, relationship matters, and personal and financial stresses. I surely would have enjoyed the moment, but not had the time to savor and delight in it. And there’s a real difference!

Before anyone gives up on the idea of having it all, think about people like Madeline Albright. She didn’t become the first Secretary of State until she was fifty-nine years old. When she did, she had the maturity and skills to do the job. And her children were old enough that she could enjoy them instead of always worrying about them the way she did as the caregiver.

Similarly, “The Prosperity Sisters” had a whole set of work experiences before, in their fifties, they started a baking company. As they inch into their sixties, a whole new world of success is coming their way. Instead of thinking about the end of their work years, the three sisters are selling cakes on QVC, being Rachel Ray’s Snack of the day and expanding their operations. In their mind, the best is yet to come – and they’re enjoying the success in a way they couldn’t have twenty years ago.

Would you be willing to wait that long to fully actualize your potential? If you wouldn’t, then ask yourself this question: is your need to “have it all” and do it now about personal and career choices or about a need for instant gratification.

Something else to consider: Before making any decision you have to know what you value. Do you clearly know what your values? Can you name your top five values right now? If you can't, how are you making decisions? Values provide the guidelines for your life.

When I teach a success workshop, I find that women who are frustrated or unsettled are the ones who aren't clear about their values. As a result, they’re beating up on themselves for “not having it all” and they're missing all the fun. Sometimes, when they get clear, they find out that they're happier and more successful than they realize. They can still go bigger and better and I encourage them to do it, but new choices are made more deliberately.

What about you? Let me know what you think.

Copyright ©2012 Annmarie Kelly

Connect with Annmarie Kelly, Author, Speaker, Victory Strategist
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