Confessions of a milestone-holic: Why milestones are so overrated and just like piñatas

A few weeks back, I received an email from a familiar name, who is not my regular email buddy. He was a guy from my high school. The email was titled “Class of 2005 Update,” meaning, clearly it wasn’t targeted just at me (phew, how awkward would it have been… Although, no offense Charles, it was still heartwarming). It started like this: Can you believe we’re coming up on our 10 year reunion next year?

10 years! A decade! I had a good fortune of attending the school that one of my favorite writers, John Green who graduated in 1995. Then I thought in 2005, when he published Looking for Alaska, wow, this dude is old. And now, I’m at the age where the upcoming graduating class of 18-year-olds are gonna think, “wow, this lady is old” (although I’m hoping that the fact that I’m Asian has aged me less rapidly, and I still look just out of puberty. One could certainly hope).

The following sentences were these: “During this time several of our classmates have completed advanced degrees, represented countries in global politics, started business, and found life-long partners. We’ve gone off to do some really amazing things with our lives, and I hope we can share our stories in person at reunion next year.”

Then I just sighed. Who are these kids who became so fabulous? What the hell have I done with my life over the past 10 years? I moved around like a freaking nomad, and now I’m a… I don’t even know how to describe myself. Sometimes, I feel like, I’m just a girl, not even a full-grown adult/woman. While my head knows that I’m more than that, my heart often succumbs to the hopeless monster I raise in me.

Trust me, I know in my head I’m a valuable citizen of the world who wants to (and will eventually) change the world one by one, the feminist way, the right way. But at the end of a particularly crappy day, I feel like I’m another problematic, entitled millennial that the society sees the needs of fixing to achieve greater things, maybe transforming the education system or something that’s messed up.

My agony runs a bit deeper than a generational issue in my mind however. Being a feminist and an avid reader, of course I have read countless books and articles, from Lean In (The famous book by Sheryl Sandberg) to Recline  to Lean Out to confidence gap. And at the end of the day, the issue is that I (and many other young women) may never get to all the milestones, because I’m not Sheryl Sandberg who can afford nannies, great hairstyle and work clothes and have great, laundry-doing (and hence sexy according to her) partners, because I’m never going to have those perfect babies who eat, sleep and poop regularly (while rarely crying and start to speak 2 different languages almost as soon as they’re born), because picture perfect milestones of others on facebook (or instagram, or pinterest) are perpetually ruining my expectations of my self-image, how I see myself. I have learned how to constantly objectify myself to be a perfect worker in the office, perfect friend to my friends, and eventually amazing partner (and mother) at home.

In reality, I wolf down half a bag of corn chips for breakfast. I constantly worry that I will never be able to prove myself at work. I don’t know what to do with my hair. My bedroom looks like a Gap clearance section on Black Friday. Most of my relationships have been mixture of disasters and lame guys. And I don’t see that all these magically correcting themselves and helping me get to those milestones. I’m screwed. If I were to attend that 10th reunion, what can I tell others about who I am and what kind of milestones are under my belt?

Of course, deep down, I know that there is no answer, and that’s why I think that we should all laugh at those milestones, as feeble goals, as piñatas that we need to beat the hell out of, because we may get some sweets at the end of the constant labor, some frustration, and most importantly, laughter.

Despite the fact that “what the hell am I doing with my life?” and “what will I do with my life?” have been the two main discussion topics with my 20 and 30-something friends in any occasions (brunches, weddings, hiking…), it seems like no one real (note: exceptions are applied to Chelsea Clinton and Mindy Kaling, in my book, but they are as good as my perfect imaginary friends) knows what the right paths are to get to those milestones, and as cliché as it sounds, the paths and roadblocks and piñatas on the road are the ones that really matter. I will twist my ankles just as often as in every hike, will want to throw up and/or poop in my pants where there is nowhere discrete, and may feel like there’s no one to hold my hand whenever I’m trembling in the dark in fear. I will have to beat the hell out of the piñatas on the way whether I want to or not, while not knowing what’s really inside.

But somewhere on the path, I hope to learn what I value and what are meaningful to me. I may never become fully happy and content (oh being human!), but I will meet people who will hold my hand from time or pat me on the back with knowing smiles. Maybe on the path, I will finally learn to do what normal and responsible adults do, like ironing my work shirts, eating healthy, and being a loving and generous daughter/sister/friend/partner, etc. to those who mean so much to me.

And meanwhile, I will try to beat the piñatas as hard as possible and laugh as much as possible while doing so (and enjoy the candy of course!).

The feminisation of poverty and the myth of the ‘welfare queen’ (Open Democracy 6/3/12)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The single mother; the woman seeking an abortion; the prostitute; the’ welfare queen’: poor women are made to serve as a timeless moral scapegoat.  These classifications need to be rejected. We should recognise the challenges that women living in poverty face and fight to enhance and increase their inclusion in decision making.

By Kate Donald

The ‘feminisation of poverty’ is now an undeniable reality. Worldwide, women are more likely to be poor, employed in precarious, low-paid labour, and less likely to have access to land, credit and education. Not only do they suffer disproportionately from the effects of poverty itself and the human rights denials that accrue from it, but also from the increasingly heavy-handed way in which poverty is governed across the world.  Being female and poor subjects you to unique forms of stigma and control, as well as forcing you to bear the brunt of supposedly gender-neutral policies.

The gender-specific and demeaning measures of control and containment that are applied to women overwhelmingly focus on their bodies and reproductive capacity. In many countries in the world, including most of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East abortion remains illegal except in very proscribed circumstances. Prohibition does not deter women from seeking abortions, but forces them submit to more unsafe abortions, putting their health, fertility or even life at risk. Planned Parenthood estimate that 19 million women and girls worldwide resort to unsafe abortions every year; 70,000 of them will die as a result, more than 96% of them from the world’s poorest countries (in many of which abortion is illegal).  For example, in Argentina, each year, between 460,000 and 600,000 women have an illegal abortion; abortion complications are the main cause of maternal death, with an estimated 400 deaths each year.  Clearly, it is poor women, without any hope of access to a private doctor or international travel who are most exposed to these risks.  Thus such policies, targeted to control female reproductive capacity (as if men were not involved), promote a selective penalisation of the poorest women.

The regulation of sex work is another way in which poor women are exposed to surveillance, invasion of privacy and criminalisationDetention, raids, deportation, evictions and removal of children are often carried out without a formal warrant, arrest or other due process, as if the mere fact of engaging in sex work waived one’s rights. Even worse, in many countries abuse by police and other state agents including extortion, rape and murder is committed withimpunity. Many laws also severely constrict sex workers’ freedom of movement, through zoning and registration, barring them from living together or assigning their work to isolated areas, rendering them yet more vulnerable to many forms of violence. Criminalisation drives sex workers to distance themselves from authorities and public services, entrenching their poverty and isolation and endangering their health. Thus, many sex workers, the majority of whom are poor women, are unable to access their fundamental rights, such as rights to health, equality, privacy, association, family life, housing and education. Sex workers who experience further forms of discrimination because of their sexuality, race, ethnicity or disability are particularly at risk.  Of course, in the criminalisation of both abortion and sex work, it is almost always a woman who is punished for an action or ‘crime’ that undeniably involved a man.

To be female and poor in itself attracts a unique stigma. The 1980s saw the remarkable rise of the ‘welfare queen’ as popular bogey (wo)man of choice in the USA. This was fuelled by Reagan’s ideological crusade against an ‘excessive’ ‘soft’ welfare system and driven by racist and sexist stereotypes of ‘lazy’ African-American women, often single mothers.  Indeed, the single mother is a recurring motif in the rhetoric surrounding welfare and benefits across the Western world.  The idea that single women ‘churn out’ babies in order to generate more income or obtain free housing is commonplace in the UK and was a core part of the vivid American ‘welfare queen’ stereotype.   Attacks on the integrity of single mothers are common; they are portrayed as less capable parents – despite evidence to the contrary – and are improbably blamed for a host of social ills, including, predictably, the riots that took place in the UK in the summer of 2011. The prevalent stigma borne by poor females in many societies is viscerally illustrated by British newspaper columnist James Delingpole who described several of the “great scourges” of contemporary Britain: “aggressive all-female gangs of embittered, hormonal, drunken teenagers; gym-slip mums who choose to get pregnant as a career option; pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers who’ll drop their knickers in the blink of an eye” (The Times newspaper, April 13, 2006 ). Disturbingly, the stigma of female poverty and single motherhood has become embedded in public policy in many different countries: women are all too often the ‘accidental’ victims of supposedly gender neutral measures, such as budget cuts and welfare reform.

In the UK, the Fawcett Society have shown that women are shouldering 70% of the budget cuts, with the cuts falling especially harshly on single mothers. The Women’s Budget Group has calculated that single mothers will lose 18.5% of their net income due to changes in the tax and welfare system. Rules which take lone parents off income support earlier than previously may create a sharp drop in household income for those women that cannot find work and even force women and their children back into abusive or unhealthy relationships. In other contexts, restrictive welfare provisions deter abused women from leaving abusive relationships by increasing their financial dependency or by making it harder for them to move.  Coupled with cuts to refuges and domestic violence prevention programmes in countries across the globe, there is an increasing likelihood that austerity measures may result in danger to women’s lives. One county in Kansas, USA even briefly ceased prosecution of domestic violence cases, citing budget cuts.

Discriminatory and outdated attitudes are often unashamedly glorified in legislation. ‘Spouse in the house’ policies in parts of Canada that deny women social assistance if they move in with a man, and similar legislation in Australia which restricts parenting payments for co-locating single mothers, perpetuate the discriminatory stereotype that any man cohabiting with a woman must be supporting her financially. The right to privacy is not deemed to apply for welfare claimants. In many jurisdictions, including in Canada, Australia and the US, unannounced home visits by welfare caseworkers is a common strategy to ensure their clients – typically women – are not being supported by another person. In San Diego, California, unannounced home visits precede the issue of benefits, and inspectors may look inside closets, bathroom cabinets and eventrash cans. The UK government has just announced ‘tough’ new sanctions for claimants purporting to be lone parents who are found to be living with someone else.  Benefit fraud is not a practice to be endorsed, but the real issue is whether the perpetrators have genuine economic alternatives, and also the degree to which benefit fraud is pursued and publicised compared to, say tax evasion, which is a far more costly crime.

The shift to conditionality in welfare –  itself revealing of paternalistic quid-pro-quo understandings of welfare as something you have to earn to atone for the personal failing of poverty –  also disproportionately punishes women in poverty.  Schemes that tie welfare payments to a child’s school attendance or enrolment in health programmes  increase the responsibility and work of women (who in most households already assume the principal burden of care and domestic work), remove autonomy and entrench unhelpful gendered roles and stereotypes.  Moreover, such initiatives have not proven to be effective.  Many of these policies have become a core part of welfare regimes and austerity programmes across a number of countries, based on the none-too-subtle view that welfare should be a temporary stop-gap measure until a woman finds a male breadwinner.

The single mother; the woman seeking an abortion; the prostitute; the’ welfare queen’: poor women are made to serve as a timeless moral scapegoat.  These classifications need to be rejected. We should recognise the challenges that women living in poverty face and fight to enhance and increase their inclusion in decision making. A major task in this endeavour is tackling head-on the negative stereotypes of poor women perpetuated in the media and in government policies, and ensuring that the voices of poor women can be heard in public discourse and policy design, both overwhelmingly dominated by wealthy, privileged men.

As Loïc WacquantWendy ChanVijay NagarajDeborah Padfield and others have argued on openDemocracy, the governance of poverty and welfare is becoming more paternalistic in general. To be poor and female is to face double discrimination. We must not allow governments to continue to deny or claim ignorance about the negative effect their policies have on women. This should be understood as an international legal obligation to uphold the universal rights to equality and non-discrimination.  These rights, as well as those to privacy and family life, education, and an adequate standard of living, are severely compromised by these policies.  Governments around the world are constructing social policy according to misrepresentations and stereotypes about poor people and welfare claimants, rather than by reference to the structural inequalities that affect everyone. This must change; gender inequality and economic inequality are two great blights on our societies and must be tackled in tandem.

Link: http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/kate-donald/feminisation-of-poverty-and-myth-of-welfare-queen

The Female Face of Poverty (The Atlantic 8/1/14)

The “can women have it all” debate among female executives, academics, managers – i.e. female high-flyers – seems to have obscured the fact that millions of women around the world have been struggling to escape poverty in the face of the wide wage gaps between men and women. Let’s not forget about them and their struggles. 

By Maria Shriver

Let me state the obvious: I have never lived on the brink. I’ve never been in foreclosure, never applied for food stamps, never had to choose between feeding my children or paying the rent, and never feared I’d lose my paycheck when I had to take time off to care for a sick child or parent. I’m not thrown into crisis mode if I have to pay a parking ticket, or if the rent goes up. If my car breaks down, my life doesn’t descend into chaos.

But the fact is, one in three people in the United States do live with this kind of stress, struggle, and anxiety every day. More than 100 million Americans either live near the brink of poverty or churn in and out of it, and nearly 70 percent of these Americans are women and children.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson envisioned the Great Society and called for a War on Poverty, naming my father, Sargent Shriver, the architect of that endeavor. The program worked: Over the next decade, the poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

In those days, the phrase “poverty in America” came with images of poor children in Appalachian shacks and inner-city alleys. Fifty years later, the lines separating the middle class from the working poor and the working poor from those in absolute poverty have blurred. The new iconic image of the economically insecure American is a working mother dashing around getting ready in the morning, brushing her kid’s hair with one hand and doling out medication to her own aging mother with the other.

For the millions of American women who live this way, the dream of “having it all” has morphed into “just hanging on.” Everywhere they look, every magazine cover and talk show and website tells them women are supposed to be feeling more “empowered” than ever, but they don’t feel empowered. They feel exhausted.

Many of these women feel they are just a single incident—one broken bone, one broken-down car, one missed paycheck—away from the brink. And they’re not crazy to feel that way:

  • Women are nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in the country.
  • More than 70 percent of low-wage workers get no paid sick days at all.
  • Forty percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income.
  • The median earnings of full-time female workers are still just 77 percent of the median earnings of their male counterparts.

For this year’s Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, we polled more than 3,000 adults to determine how Americans feel about the economy, gender, marriage, education, and the future. Here are some highlights from the poll respondents who are low-income women:

  • Seventy-five percent of them wish they had put a higher priority on their education and career, compared to 58 percent of the general population
  • Seventy-three percent wish they had made better financial choices (as did 65 percent of all those we polled)
  • They were less likely to be married (37 percent, compared to 49 percent of all the men and women we polled) …
  • And more likely than men to regret marrying when they did (52 percent, compared to 33 percent of low-income men)
  • Nearly a third of those with children wished they had delayed having kids or had fewer of them

Overwhelmingly they favor changes that will help balance work and family responsibilities. Eighty-seven percent of low-income women—and 96 percent of single moms—identify paid sick leave as something that would be very useful to their lives.

What’s more, the opinion of the general public is on their side: 73 percent of Americans said that in order to raise the incomes of working women and families, the government should ensure that women get equal pay for equal work. And 78 percent said the government should expand access to high-quality, affordable childcare for working families.

The typical American family isn’t what it used to be. Only a fifth of our families have a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. The solutions we need today are also different. We don’t need a new New Deal, because the New Deal was an all-government solution, and that’s not enough anymore. And my father’s War on Poverty isn’t enough anymore either.

Our government programs, business practices, educational system, and media messages don’t take into account a fundamental truth: This nation cannot have sustained economic prosperity and well-being until women’s central role is recognized and women’s economic health is used as a measure to shape policy.

In other words, leave out the women, and you don’t have a full and robust economy. Lead with the women, and you do. It’s that simple, and Americans know it.

Women have enormous power. Politicians knock themselves out wooing us because we’re the majority of voters in this country. Every corporate marketer and advertiser is after us because we make as much as 70 percent of this country’s consumer decisions and more than 80 percent of the healthcare decisions.

With this power, we women can exert real pressure on our government to change course on many of the issues we care about and deliver on what women need now. Isn’t it strange, for instance, that the United States is the only industrialized nation without mandatory paid maternity leave?

And how about those of us who aren’t in jeopardy? Do we pay the women we hire a living wage—not because it’s the law, but because it’s fair? Do we give them flexibility when they need to take time for caregiving? If we run businesses, do we educate our workers about public policies and programs that can help them?

But the truth is that for so long, America’s women have been divided: women who are mothers versus women who are not, women who work at home versus women who work outside the home, those who are married versus those who aren’t, pro-life women versus pro-choice, white women versus women of color, Democrat versus Republican, gay versus straight, and young versus old. It feels like the last issue where women came together was fighting for the right to vote.

It’s time to come together again. By pushing back and putting into practice the solutions we’re proposing in The Shriver Report, we can re-ignite the American Dream—for ourselves, for our daughters and sons, for our mothers and fathers, for our nation. We have the power—not just to launch a new War on Poverty, but a new campaign for equity, for visibility, for fairness, for worth, for care.

Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-female-face-of-poverty/282892/

Men Can’t Have It All, Either (The Atlantic 26/6/12)

Men weigh in!
JAMES JOYNER is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

Life is full of trade-offs. It’s not possible to “have it all.” It never was. And it never will be. For women or for men.

By James Joyner

When my copy of The Atlantic came in the mail this week, I was a bit bemused to see that the cover story featured Anne-Marie Slaughter explaining “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

In her piece, Slaughter — whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting professionally and interacted with on Twitter — explores the epiphany she had while holding her dream job as director of policy planning at the State Department. After years of building an enormously successful academic career and raising two sons, she realized in Washington that she did not, in fact, have it all. That, by holding her State Department job and doing it well, she was sacrificing time with her oldest son at a critical stage in his life.

When she left government to return to the more flexible schedule of academia, she found that her female peers viewed her with a mixture of pity and condescension. This infuriated her until she realized that she had previously reacted the same way to women who put their careers on hold in favor of work-life balance.

Now, Slaughter is part of the first generation of women for whom it was widely possible to even try to “have it all.” And there’s no doubt that there are unique pressures on women. Although women are approaching something like equality in the workforce, biology still puts the burden of childbirth on women and gives them a limited window in which to do it. So women are often pressured to make sacrifices at a critical point in their careers, whereas men are not. Relatedly, society holds mothers more accountable than fathers for the well-being of their children. And yet, as Slaughter’s story illustrates, superstar women are judged more harshly than their male peers when they choose to put family ahead of career.

That said, men can’t have it all, either. At least, not by the standard Slaughter outlines, and which I happen to think is spot on.

Once upon a time, it was the norm for a successful man to have a wife who gave up her career, if she had one to begin with, to take care of the children. Nowadays, most professional men are married to women with careers of their own. An increasing number of men are less successful than their wives, in terms of income or job title. That’s true of many of my contemporaries, especially those who went into academia and public policy while their wives went on to law school or business.

Until recently, that was my situation. My wife was the chief operating officer of a major political polling firm, having worked her way up from the bottom over 15 years with the company. I’d chosen the less lucrative path of teaching college and, eventually, working in a foreign policy think tank.

She died suddenly last November, leaving me alone with two young daughters, then not quite 3 years and 5 months old.

While I married and had children relatively late, I’d long valued a flexibility schedule and work I found rewarding over long hours and big money. Now, that flexibility of schedule is a necessity rather than a preference.

Not long after my wife’s passing, I was offered a promotion that would have helped bridge the loss of her income but would have required much more time at the office. Professionally, it was a good move. It also made sense financially, even though it would have meant paying for a few more hours of childcare. I nonetheless declined because my daughters needed me to spend that time with them. And, frankly, I needed to spend that time with them, too.

The fact is that life is full of trade-offs. It’s not possible to “have it all.” It never was. And never will be. For women or for men.

MUST SOCIETY CHANGE?

Slaughter calls for changing the workplace culture to eliminate “the need to travel constantly to succeed, the conflicts between school schedules and work schedules, the insistence that work be done in the office.” While I join her in wishing for that evolution, I don’t see how it’s possible.

All things being equal, those willing to put 90 hours a week into their careers are going to get ahead of those willing to put in 60, much less 40. While there is any number of studies showing that working too many hours is actually counterproductive from an efficiency standpoint, there nonetheless is a rare breed of cat who can keep up a frenetic work schedule for years on end. And those workaholics are simply more valuable to the company, agency, or organization than those who clock out at 5. That means that those of us who choose to prioritize our children are going to get out-hustled by those without children, or those willing to let their children spend longer hours with a partner or childcare provider.

Slaughter writes, “Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family.” Again, I fully agree in principle. In practice, however, it’s easier said than done. Could Slaughter have done her job at State in 40 hours a week? In 60? It’s hard to see how. Aside from the pressures put on her by bosses who worked absurd hours, there’s just not enough time for all the reading and writing, the constant travel, and the real work that gets done at after-hours dinners and cocktail parties.

Indeed, she admits as much, though she points to institutions — such as the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office — that are embracing modern technologies and allowing their employees to do more of their work outside the office.

NOT A ‘WOMEN’S PROBLEM’, BUT OUR PROBLEM

But the most intriguing part of Slaughter’s article is the conclusion, in which she argues that, even more than changing workplace culture, we must rethink our attitudes about the career arc. Given longer lifespans and the tendency to postpone marriage and childbirth, it no longer makes sense for women to get on the work treadmill and keep going. Rather, she writes, they should achieve plateaus, take breaks for children, and then continue their ascents.

But why wouldn’t it make sense for men to do the same thing? Obviously, we haven’t repealed biology; until we do, women are going to continue to do one hundred percent of the childbearing. And to the extent that nursing is advantageous over formula feeding, women will continue to have a unique role in that department, too. Still, there’s no reason men can’t take breaks in their careers — even just dialing it back a few notches and working from home — while their wives get back into career mode.

Amusingly, many of the examples Slaughter gives of family-friendly workplace innovations were introduced by men, like Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. These men are facing essentially the same sorts of choices that Slaughter continues to insist are unique to women.

I’m less optimistic than Slaughter that we’ll ever create a culture that values family time as much as work time — much less one where those who run our government and businesses will do so. But we’ll come much closer if we stop looking at this as a “women’s problem” and instead see it as a societal problem.

Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/06/men-cant-have-it-all-either/258890/

Recline! Why leaning in is killing us (Foreign Policy 21/2/14)

An honest, genuine take on the “can women have it all” debate. Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. 

If we truly want gender equality, we need to challenge the assumption that more is always better, and the assumption that men don’t suffer as much as women when they’re exhausted and have no time for family or fun. And we need to challenge those assumptions wherever we find them, both in the workplace and in the family. Whether it’s one more meeting, one more memo, one more conference, one more play date, one more soccer game or one more flute lesson for the kids, sometimes we need to say, “Enough!”

By Rosa Brooks

I had an epiphany the other day. I was in the middle of marking up a memo on U.S. drone policy while simultaneously ordering a custom-decorated cake for my daughter’s sixth grade musical cast party and planning my remarks for a roundtable on women in national security.

Suddenly, it hit me: I hate Sheryl Sandberg.

It’s not what you’re thinking. I don’t hate Sheryl Sandberg because she’s so rich, or because she’s the COO of Facebook, or because she has gleaming, meticulously coiffed hair. True, Facebook is the Internet equivalent of Shiva*, Destroyer of Worlds, and my own hair will never approach the glossy perfection of Sheryl Sandberg’s — but I can find it in my heart to overlook these things. And I have nothing against rich people, who sometimes fund my projects or buy me lunch at fancy restaurants. Rich people, I love you!

My hatred of Sheryl Sandberg is also nothing personal. I’m sure Sheryl Sandberg is a delightful person, and I’d love her, too, if I knew her and she bought me lunch at a fancy restaurant. In fact, she and I probably have some friends in common; we were college classmates, though I don’t remember if we ever
actually met.

“Did we know Sheryl Sandberg?” I asked my friend Suzanne, who was also in my college class.

She gave me a funny look. “Well, I knew her. Don’t you know if you knew her?”

“I can’t remember,” I explained.

“If you knew her, you would remember,” said Suzanne. “She was one of those people you would definitely remember. I used to go to an aerobics class she taught.”

That explained it. Some college students, like my friend Suzanne, take aerobics classes. Some college students, like Sheryl Sandberg, teach aerobics classes. Other college students, like myself, lie around the dorm reading novels. No wonder I can’t remember meeting Sheryl Sandberg in college! She was already
busy leaning in. I was busy leaning back on my sofa, with a good book and a nice cup of cocoa.

This, of course, is also why I hate her.

Sheryl, have you ever stopped to consider that all this “leaning in” is ruining life for the rest of us?

Long ago, before Sandberg’s book Lean In convinced me to change my ways, I had a life. I had friends. I had hobbies. I could generally be relied upon to remember my children’s names, though I sometimes skipped their adorable little preschool events to take naps and read novels. I had a job, too, of course, but I
also took occasional vacations, knocked off work at a sensible hour and got eight hours of sleep each night.

Then I read Lean In and realized that I was self-sabotaging slacker. I resolved to do better. I started stepping up at work: “I’ll handle both those complex and urgent projects,” I informed my colleagues, with just the right mix of confidence, assertiveness, and non-threatening feminine charm. “With a little creative, outside-the-box thinking, I can take care of both by tomorrow!” I stopped turning down invitations to speak at conferences in inconveniently faroff places. I accepted every media request. I promised to write articles and
reports and books.

I leaned in to the other spheres of my life, too: I became a room parent at the children’s school, hosted the class potluck and the mother-daughter book club, and decided that my children would go to school each day with organic, homemade lunches packed in attractive, reusable, eco-friendly containers.

Just as Sandberg promised, the rewards of leaning in quickly became evident. My confident, assertive yet non-threatening feminine charm helped me rapidly expand both my business and social networks.

When I dropped the kids off at school, other mommies gazed upon me with approval, and asked me where I had purchased those adorable little lunch containers. “I handcrafted them from recycled tires!” I explained with a humble but authoritative laugh.

Older colleagues took me aside to tell me I was an up-and-comer and offer me plum assignments. Younger colleagues asked me to mentor them and join their Lean In Circles. Speaking engagements flowed my way, and rich people asked if they could buy me lunch. With my confident yet charmingly self-deprecating
smile, I accepted all offers and invitations.

Soon, the rewards of leaning in doubled.

Then they quadrupled. Then they began to increase exponentially.

I leaned in some more. I ate protein bars and made important telephone calls during my morning commute. I stopped reading novels so I could write more articles and memos and make more handicrafts to contribute to the school auction. I put in extra hours at work. When I came home, I did radio interviews
over Skype from my living room while supervising the children’s math
homework.

And I realized that I hated Sheryl Sandberg.

Because, of course, I was miserable. I never saw my friends, because I was too busy building my network. I was too tired to do any creative, outside-the-box thinking. I was boxed in. Trapped! I wondered if foreign-policy punditry was just too much for me. I wondered if I should move to Santa Fe and open a small gallery specializing in handicrafts made from recycled tires. I wondered if my husband and kids would want to go with me.

But then — after my I-hate-Sheryl epiphany — I came to a bold new conclusion.

Ladies, if we want to rule the world — or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions — we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us.

We need to fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.

Here’s the thing: We’ve managed to create a world in which ubiquity is valued above all. If you’re not at your desk every night until nine, your commitment to the job is questioned. If you’re not checking email 24/7, you’re not a reliable colleague.

But in a world in which leaning in at work has come to mean doing more work, more often, for longer hours, women will disproportionately drop out or be eased out.

Why? Because unlike most men, women — particularly women with children — are still expected to work that “second shift” at home. Men today do more housework and childcare than men in their fathers’ generation, but women today still do far more housework and childcare than men.

And just as work has expanded to require employees’ round-the-clock attention, being a good mom has also started requiring ubiquity. Things were different in my own childhood, but today, parenting has become a full-time job: it requires attendance at an unending stream of birthday parties, school meetings, class performances, and soccer games, along with the procurement of tutors, classes, and enrichment activities, the arranging of play dates, the making of organic lunches, and the supervising of elaborate, labor-intensive
homework projects than cannot be completed without extensive adult supervision.

Oh yes: By incredible coincidence, parenting was discovered to require the near-constant attention of at least one able-bodied adult at just about the same time women began to pour into the workforce in large numbers. Sorry ’bout that, girls!

It’s hard enough managing one 24/7 job. No one can survive two of them. And as long as women are the ones doing more of the housework and childcare, women will be disproportionately hurt when both workplace expectations and parenting expectations require ubiquity. They’ll continue to do what too many talented women already do: Just as they’re on the verge of achieving workplace leadership positions, they’ll start dropping out.

The general American tendency to think that “more time at work” equals “better work” is exacerbated by the All Crisis All the Time culture of foreign policy. Global crisis never sleeps, and neither do the overworked staffers at the Pentagon, the State Department, or the White House. It’s little wonder that many of the gifted young female staffers who enter these workplaces hit a wall at some point, and come to the painful realization that work and family obligations aren’t always things you can simply “balance.” Often, these weights become too heavy. They can crush you.

As I wrote in a 2012 column on women in foreign policy and national security jobs, the 24/7 nature of global crisis is no excuse for workplace policies that crush people:

“The long hours and pervasive crisis atmosphere that characterize most foreign-policy workplaces aren’t signs that Very Important Work is being done by Very Important People — they’re just signs of poor management. Good managers, whether they supervise air-traffic controllers, auto workers, or the National Security Staff, recognize that human beings function best when they work in humane and flexible conditions….

It’s far from impossible to do this, even in the foreign-policy workplace. At the Pentagon, for instance, Michèle Flournoy, then defense undersecretary for policy, actively encouraged her staff to adopt flexible work schedules. Secure video-conferencing reduces the need for travel, and emerging technologies increasingly permit people who must work with classified information to do so remotely via smartphones and tablets, reducing the need for people to spend long hours at the office.”

And this isn’t just about women. Men — and our society more broadly — also suffer when both work and parenting are intensive, round-the-clock activities.

Back in the day, Henry Ford didn’t advocate the eight-hour day for his auto assembly line workers because he was a nice guy. He advocated the eight-hour day because research demonstrated that worker productivity cratered after more than eight hours. As the Washington Post’s Brigid Schulte documents in her forthcoming book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, humans can only take so much for so long. When a workplace is full of employees who always lean in and never lean back, it’s full of employees who are exhausted, brittle, and incapable of showing much creativity or making good decisions.

Sometimes, overwork gets downright dangerous. We have tough legislation mandating adequate rest periods for truck drivers and airline pilots — not because we think they need their beauty sleep, but because when overtired drivers and pilots make mistakes, people can die. When did we come to believe that crucial national security decisions are best made by people too tired to think straight?

If we truly want gender equality, we need to challenge the assumption that more is always better, and the assumption that men don’t suffer as much as women when they’re exhausted and have no time for family or fun. And we need to challenge those assumptions wherever we find them, both in the workplace and in the family. Whether it’s one more meeting, one more memo, one more conference, one more play date, one more soccer game or one more flute lesson for the kids, sometimes we need to say, “Enough!”

In 1929, Virginia Woolf issued a cri de coeur: How can women become poets and writers, she asked in her now-classic essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” when they have no money, no independence, no privacy and no space? “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” declared Woolf.

Other forms of creativity are no different. If we want to do more than just go through the motions, both love and work require a protected space in which creativity can flourish.

Today, most women can make money on their own and acquire rooms of their own — but they still get too little psychic space and too little time for the kind of unstructured, creative thinking so critical to any kind of success.

Perhaps the modern equivalent of Woolf’s “room of her own” is the right to stop “leaning in” all the time. There is, after all, much to be said for leaning out — for long lunches, afternoon naps, good books, and some nice, slow hours in the La-Z-Boy recliner.

But it takes a village to give every woman her own La-Z-Boy recliner. When women — or men — lean out alone, they end up getting eased out, or just dropping out in despair.

No, this has to be a movement.

Sheryl Sandberg can keep right on leaning in if it makes her happy, but here’s my new feminist manifesto — call it a Manifestus for the Rest of Us.

We need to fight for our right to lean out, and we need to do it together, girls. If we’re going to fight the culture of workplace ubiquity, and the parallel and equally-pernicious culture of intensive parenting, we need to do it together –and we need to bring our husbands and boyfriends and male colleagues along,
too. They need to lean out in solidarity, for their own sake as well as ours.

Women of the world, recline!

Link: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/02/21/recline_why_leaning_in_is_killing_us_sheryl_sandberg

Why the Woman Who “Has It All” Doesn’t Really Exist (Glamour 09/13)

An insightful piece from Debora L. Spar, president of Barnard College. This is adapted from Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection and published on Glamour September 2013 issue.

“Feminism was meant to remove a fixed set of expectations; instead, we now interpret it as a route to personal perfection. Because we can do anything, we feel as if we have to do everything.”

By Debora L. Spar

You know that girl who “has it all”—perfect job, relationship, body? No, you don’t, because she doesn’t exist, argues Barnard College president Debora L. Spar in her explosive new book Wonder Women. Her radical message to you: Stop trying to be so good at everything.

I’m pretty sure I remember the moment I knew I was having it all. On a December day several years ago, I was in the women’s bathroom at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. I had an hour between flights, so I rushed for the stalls. Cramming my bags against the door and pulling off my blouse, I perched on the seat, took out my little Medela pump, and began feverishly expressing my breast milk. After several minutes of whirring and fumbling, I pulled myself together and stuffed my five- weeks-postpartum belly back into my business suit.

And that’s when I realized—wryly, ironically, totally deprived of sleep—that I was experiencing the superwoman dream.

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. Like many women, I grew up believing we were equal to men, that we could have sex whenever we wanted, children whenever we chose, and work wherever we desired. For years, as a professor at Harvard Business School, I was the only woman in a room of alpha men and still I always felt equal. And I was. Then five years ago I was offered the chance to become president of Barnard College. There was barely a man in sight, and the change gave me a front-row view of what women are thinking and feeling now. We have opportunities today—to choose our educations, careers, spouses—that would’ve stunned our grandmothers. But now we’re dazed and confused by all the choices. Feminism was meant to remove a fixed set of expectations; instead, we now interpret it as a route to personal perfection. Because we can do anything, we feel as if we have to do everything.

In other words, women today face towering expectations: a pileup of the roles society’s long heaped on us, plusthe opportunities feminism created. Every day I meet young women who dazzle me. But I also see the pressure they’re under. To be mothers and astrophysicists. Hard-bodied size 2s with perfect 4.0s. To be perfect. And these expectations aren’t limited to a few spheres of their lives. They’re everywhere. Take a look:

The beauty standard

Society has always been obsessed with women’s bodies. Even ancient Egyptian tomb paintings showed the wives and daughters of important men as svelte. But expectations of physical perfection are at an all-time high—oddly, as women have gotten more culturally liberated, we’ve also gotten crazier about our bodies. Americans, mostly women, spent more than $13 billion on plastic surgery in 2007; 10 million U.S. girls a year have eating disorders; and any magazine rack confirms our obsession with one scantily clad celebrity after another.

And these standards aren’t for actresses alone. Look at any woman serving in Congress or working for a law firm or foundation. Everyone has her hair and nails done, her body in reasonable shape. (See my own routine at right.) It’s wonderful progress that we now accept that powerful women can look great. But must they, every minute of the day? As a requirement for success, beauty becomes just another burden.

The marriage standard

In the 1960s women needed their husband’s signatures to open credit cards; our grandmothers couldn’t hold mortgages unless they married. Once they did, they got sex, families, and respectability. We have more options today, but we’ve also raised our expectations of marriage. It’s not enough anymore to settle down. It’s all about fireworks, coparenting, lifelong romance, and ecstatic sex. And some of those goals are at odds:

• We want to be fully involved in our children’s care—without compromising time at work, with spouses, and for ourselves.
• We want men to love our independence and gas up the car.
• We want to achieve pay equity with men, but we prefer our husbands to earn more than we do. (Related: We want Martha Stewart’s media empire and doilies but not her divorce.)
• And whether we’re working as truck drivers or consultants, we want to be good homemakers, mothers, and wives.

True love is a gift. But expecting marriage to be perfect… that’s just another Wonder Woman myth.

The motherhood standard

And then there are our sky-high expectations of ourselves as mothers. While pregnancy today is blessed by the light of adoration that glimmers off Renaissance Madonnas and tabloids constantly screen for “baby bumps,” technology has created at least 15 additional ways to have a baby, none of which involves sex. It used to be enough for us to have kids and see them live through childhood. Now we time births to our career moves and reimagine pregnancy as a sexy sideshow.

I have a friend, a glamorous 42-year-old career woman, who couldn’t carry a pregnancy. So she and her husband spent tens of thousands of dollars interviewing surrogacy agencies, surrogates, and doctors to extract her eggs. They made embryos, froze them, and implanted them in strangers’ wombs. Nothing worked. Three years in, she’s doing IVF again. “It’s so hard,” she told me. “I just want a baby.”

Once, she would have adopted. Now we’ve set the standard that if you can become a biological mom—by spending exorbitantly and undergoing endless medical procedures—then you should. Is that liberating? To me, it feels like another way women have to be perfect or, in this case, perfectly fertile.

The homemaker standard

You’d think that as we work harder at all these new goals we’d at least have cut ourselves some slack on the home front. But no, housekeeping standards have actually risen since our grandmothers’ time. It makes no sense: In the 1900s cooking a roast chicken meant tending to it for hours in a slow oven. Now chickens come preroasted or disfigured in nugget form. We should be saving hours. Instead, we’re building bigger houses than ever—2,500 square feet for the average new house today, up from roughly 1,000 in the 1950s—and women today spend twice the time on housework men do, stir-frying our own zucchini and drizzling it with organic walnut oil. Yet it all takes time most of us don’t have. A recent issue of Everyday Food offers a sigh-inducing recipe for Harvest Vegetable Pancakes With Greens and Goat Cheese. I tried it. An hour and a half later, I had a burnt and bedraggled creation. My mother, older and wiser, opens a package of ground beef, mixes it with a package of Lipton’s onion soup, and makes a perfectly lovely meatloaf. My advice to my students: Listen to my mother.

The work standard

In May 2011 Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, a wife, mother of two, and one of the country’s most successful female executives, gave her now famous commencement address at Barnard. “Lean in,” she urged the grads, imagining their future careers. “Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there.”

Her gutsy speech underlined that, in our work lives too, expectations are now sky-high. Women have to not just get a job and keep it but rise through the ranks—while maintaining a partner and children, staying awake for sex, and looking like Beyoncé. Professional women are frequently asked, “How do you do it?” I hate the query, because doing it all, as is expected of women today, is not doable. A woman can’t work a 60-hour week and go to every school play. Yet we berate ourselves for failing at the balancing act. Do I think women should walk away from fast-paced jobs, or stop leaning in? Of course not— all I want for my students is their every dream fulfilled. But I also don’t want them to feel like failures if they’re not in a corner office—or if they are but their time for childcare and housework is limited. Every woman at the top makes trade-offs. Only Wonder Woman can do it all, and all at once. And she isn’t real.

Finally, the no-sweat standard

The most maddening thing about these new expectations? We’re not supposed to care about them. In the Wonder Woman world, perfection is meant to come easily. Look at late-night phenom Chelsea Handler swearing, “I don’t like to be that aggressive or ambitious,” or svelte Blake Lively proclaiming, “I’d rather have a little bit of cellulite and go do a food trip and try every ice-cream place in the South.” These women have extraordinary lives, but their nonchalance is the final flourish. Meanwhile, women who admit they’ve worked hard and wanted something face backlash—just remember the reaction to Anne Hathaway’s “It came true!” Oscar speech.

We like to believe women today are too cool, confident, and fully evolved to worry about this new crush of pressures and expectations. But we do worry—about our jobs, looks, finances, and families. We worry a lot, so far as I can tell, and maybe simply acknowledging that is the best way to start. Here, some of my other strategies for facing today’s towering new standards:

Remember, Wonder Woman doesn’t exist. She is fiction, and you are real. Building a life on fantasy is never a good thing.

Learn from the guys. Men know there’s only so much they can do at once. If the budget report’s due, the lawn goes unmowed. Women try to keep everything going, all the plates spinning. It’s OK to set down a plate. Just choose which one.

Stay close to home. As your life gets more complicated, having family around is a godsend, so live by parents or siblings. Find the right partner. Sheryl Sandberg said it in Lean In, but it bears repeating. Marry someone you love and like; finding a person who doesn’t care if you’re perfect is a good start.

Banish guilt from your social life. You don’t have to accept every invitation. Before you RSVP, ask yourself: (1) Is it required for work? (2) Will it help you professionally or intellectually? (3) Will you enjoy it? If the answer to all three is no, don’t go.

Commit to a workout regimen. It feels like one more gotta-be- perfect obligation, but exercise is a stress reliever: If I didn’t run, swim, or lift weights, I almost certainly would have killed someone by this point in my life.

Pick a job you love. If your career is satisfying, you’re more likely to stick with it after having kids. Women flee consulting and banking in droves; female doctors, though, tend to stay put, perhaps because no one enters medical school on a whim.

The most crucial thing for women to know today? No one does it all. We each, if we’re lucky, will have our chance to leave a mark on the world, but we are trying too hard to be perfect. So don’t emulate Wonder Woman; think about what’s wonderful to you instead. Then boldly, audaciously, joyfully, leave the rest behind.

Link: http://www.glamour.com/inspired/2013/08/why-women-cant-have-it-all-according-to-barnard-college-president-debora-l-spar

Why Women Still Can’t Have It All (The Atlantic 13/6/12)


 

 

 

 

 

By Anne-Marie Slaughter

EIGHTEEN MONTHS INTO my job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, a foreign-policy dream job that traces its origins back to George Kennan, I found myself in New York, at the United Nations’ annual assemblage of every foreign minister and head of state in the world. On a Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History. I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. Over the summer, we had barely spoken to each other—or, more accurately, he had barely spoken to me. And the previous spring I had received several urgent phone calls—invariably on the day of an important meeting—that required me to take the first train from Washington, D.C., where I worked, back to Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived. My husband, who has always done everything possible to support my career, took care of him and his 12-year-old brother during the week; outside of those midweek emergencies, I came home only on weekends.

As the evening wore on, I ran into a colleague who held a senior position in the White House. She has two sons exactly my sons’ ages, but she had chosen to move them from California to D.C. when she got her job, which meant her husband commuted back to California regularly. I told her how difficult I was finding it to be away from my son when he clearly needed me. Then I said, “When this is over, I’m going to write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’”

She was horrified. “You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.

A rude epiphany hit me soon after I got there. When people asked why I had left government, I explained that 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. 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. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (“It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (“I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great”).

The first set of reactions, with the underlying assumption that my choice was somehow sad or unfortunate, was irksome enough. But it was the second set of reactions—those implying that my parenting and/or my commitment to my profession were somehow substandard—that triggered a blind fury. Suddenly, finally, the penny dropped. All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

Last spring, I flew to Oxford to give a public lecture. At the request of a young Rhodes Scholar I know, I’d agreed to talk to the Rhodes community about “work-family balance.” I ended up speaking to a group of about 40 men and women in their mid-20s. What poured out of me was a set of very frank reflections on how unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be, at a demanding time for my children (even though my husband, an academic, was willing to take on the lion’s share of parenting for the two years I was in Washington). I concluded by saying that my time in office had convinced me that further government service would be very unlikely while my sons were still at home. The audience was rapt, and asked many thoughtful questions. One of the first was from a young woman who began by thanking me for “not giving just one more fatuous ‘You can have it all’ talk.” Just about all of the women in that room planned to combine careers and family in some way. But almost all assumed and accepted that they would have to make compromises that the men in their lives were far less likely to have to make.

The striking gap between the responses I heard from those young women (and others like them) and the responses I heard from my peers and associates prompted me to write this article. 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.

I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.

BEFORE MY SERVICE in government, I’d spent my career in academia: as a law professor and then as the dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Both were demanding jobs, but I had the ability to set my own schedule most of the time. I could be with my kids when I needed to be, and still get the work done. I had to travel frequently, but I found I could make up for that with an extended period at home or a family vacation.

I knew that I was lucky in my career choice, but I had no idea how lucky until I spent two years in Washington within a rigid bureaucracy, even with bosses as understanding as Hillary Clinton and her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills. My workweek started at 4:20 on Monday morning, when I got up to get the 5:30 train from Trenton to Washington. It ended late on Friday, with the train home. In between, the days were crammed with meetings, and when the meetings stopped, the writing work began—a never-ending stream of memos, reports, and comments on other people’s drafts. For two years, I never left the office early enough to go to any stores other than those open 24 hours, which meant that everything from dry cleaning to hair appointments to Christmas shopping had to be done on weekends, amid children’s sporting events, music lessons, family meals, and conference calls. I was entitled to four hours of vacation per pay period, which came to one day of vacation a month. And I had it better than many of my peers in D.C.; Secretary Clinton deliberately came in around 8 a.m. and left around 7 p.m., to allow her close staff to have morning and evening time with their families (although of course she worked earlier and later, from home).

In short, the minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be—at least not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.

I am hardly alone in this realization. Michèle Flournoy stepped down after three years as undersecretary of defense for policy, the third-highest job in the department, to spend more time at home with her three children, two of whom are teenagers. Karen Hughes left her position as the counselor to President George W. Bush after a year and a half in Washington to go home to Texas for the sake of her family. Mary Matalin, who spent two years as an assistant to Bush and the counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney before stepping down to spend more time with her daughters, wrote: “Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.”

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. One phrase says it all about current attitudes toward work and family, particularly among elites. In Washington, “leaving to spend time with your family” is a euphemism for being fired. This understanding is so ingrained that when Flournoy announced her resignation last December,TheNew York Times covered her decision as follows:

 Ms. Flournoy’s announcement surprised friends and a number of Pentagon officials, but all said they took her reason for resignation at face value and not as a standard Washington excuse for an official who has in reality been forced out. “I can absolutely and unequivocally state that her decision to step down has nothing to do with anything other than her commitment to her family,” said Doug Wilson, a top Pentagon spokesman. “She has loved this job and people here love her.

Think about what this “standard Washington excuse” implies: it is so unthinkable that an official wouldactually step down to spend time with his or her family that this must be a cover for something else. How could anyone voluntarily leave the circles of power for the responsibilities of parenthood? Depending on one’s vantage point, it is either ironic or maddening that this view abides in the nation’s capital, despite the ritual commitments to “family values” that are part of every political campaign. Regardless, this sentiment makes true work-life balance exceptionally difficult. But it cannot change unless top women speak out.

Only recently have I begun to appreciate the extent to which many young professional women feel under assault by women my age and older. After I gave a recent speech in New York, several women in their late 60s or early 70s came up to tell me how glad and proud they were to see me speaking as a foreign-policy expert. A couple of them went on, however, to contrast my career with the path being traveled by “younger women today.” One expressed dismay that many younger women “are just not willing to get out there and do it.” Said another, unaware of the circumstances of my recent job change: “They think they have to choose between having a career and having a family.”

A similar assumption underlies Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s widely publicized 2011 commencement speech at Barnard, and her earlier TED talk, in which she lamented the dismally small number of women at the top and advised young women not to “leave before you leave.” When a woman starts thinking about having children, Sandberg said, “she doesn’t raise her hand anymore … She starts leaning back.” Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach. We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: “What’s the matter with you?”

They have an answer that we don’t want to hear. After the speech I gave in New York, I went to dinner with a group of 30-somethings. I sat across from two vibrant women, one of whom worked at the UN and the other at a big New York law firm. 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.” She said the women in her firm who had become partners and taken on management positions had made tremendous sacrifices, “many of which they don’t even seem to realize … They take two years off when their kids are young but then work like crazy to get back on track professionally, which means that they see their kids when they are toddlers but not teenagers, or really barely at all.” Her friend nodded, mentioning the top professional women she knew, all of whom essentially relied on round-the-clock nannies. Both were very clear that they did not want that life, but could not figure out how to combine professional success and satisfaction with a real commitment to family.

I realize that I am blessed to have been born in the late 1950s instead of the early 1930s, as my mother was, or the beginning of the 20th century, as my grandmothers were. My mother built a successful and rewarding career as a professional artist largely in the years after my brothers and I left home—and after being told in her 20s that she could not go to medical school, as her father had done and her brother would go on to do, because, of course, she was going to get married. I owe my own freedoms and opportunities to the pioneering generation of women ahead of me—the women now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s who faced overt sexism of a kind I see only when watching Mad Men, and who knew that the only way to make it as a woman was to act exactly like a man. To admit to, much less act on, maternal longings would have been fatal to their careers.

But precisely thanks to their progress, a different kind of conversation is now possible. It is time for women in leadership positions to recognize that although we are still blazing trails and breaking ceilings, many of us are also reinforcing a falsehood: that “having it all” is, more than anything, a function of personal determination. As Kerry Rubin and Lia Macko, the authors of Midlife Crisis at 30, their cri de coeur for Gen-X and Gen-Y women, put it:

 What we discovered in our research is that while the empowerment part of the equation has been loudly celebrated, there has been very little honest discussion among women of our age about the real barriers and flaws that still exist in the system despite the opportunities we inherited.

I am well aware that the majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable. But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.

Millions of other working women face much more difficult life circumstances. Some are single mothers; many struggle to find any job; others support husbands who cannot find jobs. Many cope with a work life in which good day care is either unavailable or very expensive; school schedules do not match work schedules; and schools themselves are failing to educate their children. Many of these women are worrying not about having it all, but rather about holding on to what they do have. And although women as a group have made substantial gains in wages, educational attainment, and prestige over the past three decades, the economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson have shown that women are less happy today than their predecessors were in 1972, both in absolute terms and relative to men.

The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.

 The Half-Truths We Hold Dear

Let’s briefly examine the stories we tell ourselves, the clichés that I and many other women typically fall back on when younger women ask us how we have managed to “have it all.” They are not necessarily lies, but at best partial truths. We must clear them out of the way to make room for a more honest and productive discussion about real solutions to the problems faced by professional women.

It’s possible if you are just committed enough.

Our usual starting point, whether we say it explicitly or not, is that having it all depends primarily on the depth and intensity of a woman’s commitment to her career. That is precisely the sentiment behind the dismay so many older career women feel about the younger generation. They are not committed enough, we say, to make the trade-offs and sacrifices that the women ahead of them made.

Yet instead of chiding, perhaps we should face some basic facts. Very few women reach leadership positions. The pool of female candidates for any top job is small, and will only grow smaller if the women who come after us decide to take time out, or drop out of professional competition altogether, to raise children. That is exactly what has Sheryl Sandberg so upset, and rightly so. In her words, “Women are not making it to the top. A hundred and ninety heads of state; nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women. In the corporate sector, [the share of] women at the top—C-level jobs, board seats—tops out at 15, 16 percent.”

Can “insufficient commitment” even plausibly explain these numbers? To be sure, the women who do make it to the top are highly committed to their profession. On closer examination, however, it turns out that most of them have something else in common: they are genuine superwomen. Consider the number of women recently in the top ranks in Washington—Susan Rice, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Michelle Gavin, Nancy-Ann Min DeParle—who are Rhodes Scholars. Samantha Power, another senior White House official, won a Pulitzer Prize at age 32. Or consider Sandberg herself, who graduated with the prize given to Harvard’s top student of economics. These women cannot possibly be the standard against which even very talented professional women should measure themselves. Such a standard sets up most women for a sense of failure.

What’s more, among those who have made it to the top, a balanced life still is more elusive for women than it is for men. A simple measure is how many women in top positions have children compared with their male colleagues. 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.

The line of high-level women appointees in the Obama administration is one woman deep. Virtually all of us who have stepped down have been succeeded by men; searches for women to succeed men in similar positions come up empty. Just about every woman who could plausibly be tapped is already in government. The rest of the foreign-policy world is not much better; Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently surveyed the best data he could find across the government, the military, the academy, and think tanks, and found that women hold fewer than 30 percent of the senior foreign-policy positions in each of these institutions.

These numbers are all the more striking when we look back to the 1980s, when women now in their late 40s and 50s were coming out of graduate school, and remember that our classes were nearly 50-50 men and women. We were sure then that by now, we would be living in a 50-50 world. Something derailed that dream.

Sandberg thinks that “something” is an “ambition gap”—that women do not dream big enough. I am all for encouraging young women to reach for the stars. But I fear that the obstacles that keep women from reaching the top are rather more prosaic than the scope of their ambition. My longtime and invaluable assistant, who has a doctorate and juggles many balls as the mother of teenage twins, e-mailed me while I was working on this article: “You know what would help the vast majority of women with work/family balance? MAKE SCHOOL SCHEDULES MATCH WORK SCHEDULES.” The present system, she noted, is based on a society that no longer exists—one in which farming was a major occupation and stay-at-home moms were the norm. Yet the system hasn’t changed.

Consider some of the responses of women interviewed by Zenko about why “women are significantly underrepresented in foreign policy and national security positions in government, academia, and think tanks.” Juliette Kayyem, who served as an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2011 and now writes a foreign-policy and national-security column for The Boston Globe, told Zenko that among other reasons,

 the basic truth is also this: the travel sucks. As my youngest of three children is now 6, I can look back at the years when they were all young and realize just how disruptive all the travel was. There were also trips I couldn’t take because I was pregnant or on leave, the conferences I couldn’t attend because (note to conference organizers: weekends are a bad choice) kids would be home from school, and the various excursions that were offered but just couldn’t be managed.

Jolynn Shoemaker, the director of Women in International Security, agreed: “Inflexible schedules, unrelenting travel, and constant pressure to be in the office are common features of these jobs.”

These “mundane” issues—the need to travel constantly to succeed, the conflicts between school schedules and work schedules, the insistence that work be done in the office—cannot be solved by exhortations to close the ambition gap. I would hope to see commencement speeches that finger America’s social and business policies, rather than women’s level of ambition, in explaining the dearth of women at the top. But changing these policies requires much more than speeches. It means fighting the mundane battles—every day, every year—in individual workplaces, in legislatures, and in the media.

It’s possible if you marry the right person.

Sandberg’s second message in her Barnard commencement address was: “The most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is.” Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, recently drove that message home to an audience of Princeton students and alumni gathered to hear her acceptance speech for the James Madison Medal. During the Q&A session, an audience member asked her how she managed her career and her family. She laughed and pointed to her husband in the front row, saying: “There’s my work-life balance.” I could never have had the career I have had without my husband, Andrew Moravcsik, who is a tenured professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton. Andy has spent more time with our sons than I have, not only on homework, but also on baseball, music lessons, photography, card games, and more. When each of them had to bring in a foreign dish for his fourth-grade class dinner, Andy made his grandmother’s Hungarian palacsinta; when our older son needed to memorize his lines for a lead role in a school play, he turned to Andy for help.

Still, the proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women willfeel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case.

Here I step onto treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes. From years of conversations and observations, however, I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.

Many factors determine this choice, of course. Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.

Men and women also seem to frame the choice differently. In Midlife Crisis at 30, Mary Matalin recalls her days working as President Bush’s assistant and Vice President Cheney’s counselor:

 Even when the stress was overwhelming—those days when I’d cry in the car on the way to work, asking myself “Why am I doing this??”—I always knew the answer to that question: I believe in this president.

But Matalin goes on to describe her choice to leave in words that are again uncannily similar to the explanation I have given so many people since leaving the State Department:

 I finally asked myself, “Who needs me more?” And that’s when I realized, it’s somebody else’s turn to do this job. I’m indispensable to my kids, but I’m not close to indispensable to the White House.

To many men, however, the choice to spend more time with their children, instead of working long hours on issues that affect many lives, seems selfish. Male leaders are routinely praised for having sacrificed their personal life on the altar of public or corporate service. That sacrifice, of course, typically involves their family. Yet their children, too, are trained to value public service over private responsibility. At the diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s memorial service, one of his sons told the audience that when he was a child, his father was often gone, not around to teach him to throw a ball or to watch his games. But as he grew older, he said, he realized that Holbrooke’s absence was the price of saving people around the world—a price worth paying.

It is not clear to me that this ethical framework makes sense for society. Why should we want leaders who fall short on personal responsibilities? Perhaps leaders who invested time in their own families would be more keenly aware of the toll their public choices—on issues from war to welfare—take on private lives. (Kati Marton, Holbrooke’s widow and a noted author, says that although Holbrooke adored his children, he came to appreciate the full importance of family only in his 50s, at which point he became a very present parent and grandparent, while continuing to pursue an extraordinary public career.) Regardless, it is clear which set of choices society values more today. Workers who put their careers first are typically rewarded; workers who choose their families are overlooked, disbelieved, or accused of unprofessionalism.

In sum, having a supportive mate may well be a necessary condition if women are to have it all, but it is not sufficient. If women feel deeply that turning down a promotion that would involve more travel, for instance, is the right thing to do, then they will continue to do that. Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier.

It’s possible if you sequence it right.

Young women should be wary of the assertion “You can have it all; you just can’t have it all at once.” This 21st-century addendum to the original line is now proffered by many senior women to their younger mentees. To the extent that it means, in the words of one working mother, “I’m going to do my best and I’m going to keep the long term in mind and know that it’s not always going to be this hard to balance,” it is sound advice. But to the extent that it means that women can have it all if they just find the right sequence of career and family, it’s cheerfully wrong.

The most important sequencing issue is when to have children. Many of the top women leaders of the generation just ahead of me—Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor, Patricia Wald, Nannerl Keohane—had their children in their 20s and early 30s, as was the norm in the 1950s through the 1970s. A child born when his mother is 25 will finish high school when his mother is 43, an age at which, with full-time immersion in a career, she still has plenty of time and energy for advancement.

Yet this sequence has fallen out of favor with many high-potential women, and understandably so. People tend to marry later now, and anyway, if you have children earlier, you may have difficulty getting a graduate degree, a good first job, and opportunities for advancement in the crucial early years of your career. Making matters worse, you will also have less income while raising your children, and hence less ability to hire the help that can be indispensable to your juggling act.

When I was the dean, the Woodrow Wilson School created a program called Pathways to Public Service, aimed at advising women whose children were almost grown about how to go into public service, and many women still ask me about the best “on-ramps” to careers in their mid-40s. Honestly, I’m not sure what to tell most of them. Unlike the pioneering women who entered the workforce after having children in the 1970s, these women are competing with their younger selves. Government and NGO jobs are an option, but many careers are effectively closed off. Personally, I have never seen a woman in her 40s enter the academic market successfully, or enter a law firm as a junior associate, Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife notwithstanding.

These considerations are why so many career women of my generation chose to establish themselves in their careers first and have children in their mid-to-late 30s. But that raises the possibility of spending long, stressful years and a small fortune trying to have a baby. I lived that nightmare: for three years, beginning at age 35, I did everything possible to conceive and was frantic at the thought that I had simply left having a biological child until it was too late.

And when everything does work out? I had my first child at 38 (and counted myself blessed) and my second at 40. That means I will be 58 when both of my children are out of the house. What’s more, it means that many peak career opportunities are coinciding precisely with their teenage years, when, experienced parents advise, being available as a parent is just as important as in the first years of a child’s life.

Many women of my generation have found themselves, in the prime of their careers, saying no to opportunities they once would have jumped at and hoping those chances come around again later. Many others who have decided to step back for a while, taking on consultant positions or part-time work that lets them spend more time with their children (or aging parents), are worrying about how long they can “stay out” before they lose the competitive edge they worked so hard to acquire.

Given the way our work culture is oriented today, I recommend establishing yourself in your career first but still trying to have kids before you are 35—or else freeze your eggs, whether you are married or not. You may well be a more mature and less frustrated parent in your 30s or 40s; you are also more likely to have found a lasting life partner. But the truth is, neither sequence is optimal, and both involve trade-offs that men do not have to make.

You should be able to have a family if you want one—however and whenever your life circumstances allow—and still have the career you desire. If more women could strike this balance, more women would reach leadership positions. And if more women were in leadership positions, they could make it easier for more women to stay in the workforce. The rest of this essay details how.

Changing the Culture of Face Time

Back in the Reagan administration, a New York Times story about the ferociously competitive budget director Dick Darman reported, “Mr. Darman sometimes managed to convey the impression that he was the last one working in the Reagan White House by leaving his suit coat on his chair and his office light burning after he left for home.” (Darman claimed that it was just easier to leave his suit jacket in the office so he could put it on again in the morning, but his record of psychological manipulation suggests otherwise.)

The culture of “time macho”—a relentless competition to work harder, stay later, pull more all-nighters, travel around the world and bill the extra hours that the international date line affords you—remains astonishingly prevalent among professionals today. Nothing captures the belief that more time equals more value better than the cult of billable hours afflicting large law firms across the country and providing exactly the wrong incentives for employees who hope to integrate work and family. Yet even in industries that don’t explicitly reward sheer quantity of hours spent on the job, the pressure to arrive early, stay late, and be available, always, for in-person meetings at 11 a.m. on Saturdays can be intense. Indeed, by some measures, the problem has gotten worse over time: a study by the Center for American Progress reports that nationwide, the share of all professionals—women and men—working more than 50 hours a week has increased since the late 1970s.

But more time in the office does not always mean more “value added”—and it does not always add up to a more successful organization. In 2009, Sandra Pocharski, a senior female partner at Monitor Group and the head of the firm’s Leadership and Organization practice, commissioned a Harvard Business School professor to assess the factors that helped or hindered women’s effectiveness and advancement at Monitor. The study found that the company’s culture was characterized by an “always on” mode of working, often without due regard to the impact on employees. Pocharski observed:

 Clients come first, always, and sometimes burning the midnight oil really does make the difference between success and failure. But sometimes we were just defaulting to behavior that overloaded our people without improving results much, if at all. We decided we needed managers to get better at distinguishing between these categories, and to recognize the hidden costs of assuming that “time is cheap.” When that time doesn’t add a lot of value and comes at a high cost to talented employees, who will leave when the personal cost becomes unsustainable—well, that is clearly a bad outcome for everyone.

I have worked very long hours and pulled plenty of all-nighters myself over the course of my career, including a few nights on my office couch during my two years in D.C. Being willing to put the time in when the job simply has to get done is rightfully a hallmark of a successful professional. But looking back, I have to admit that my assumption that I would stay late made me much less efficient over the course of the day than I might have been, and certainly less so than some of my colleagues, who managed to get the same amount of work done and go home at a decent hour. If Dick Darman had had a boss who clearly valued prioritization and time management, he might have found reason to turn out the lights and take his jacket home.

Long hours are one thing, and realistically, they are often unavoidable. But do they really need to be spent at the office? To be sure, being in the office some of the time is beneficial. In-person meetings can be far more efficient than phone or e-mail tag; trust and collegiality are much more easily built up around the same physical table; and spontaneous conversations often generate good ideas and lasting relationships. Still, armed with e-mail, instant messaging, phones, and videoconferencing technology, we should be able to move to a culture where the office is a base of operations more than the required locus of work.

Being able to work from home—in the evening after children are put to bed, or during their sick days or snow days, and at least some of the time on weekends—can be the key, for mothers, to carrying your full load versus letting a team down at crucial moments. State-of-the-art videoconferencing facilities can dramatically reduce the need for long business trips. These technologies are making inroads, and allowing easier integration of work and family life. According to the Women’s Business Center, 61 percent of women business owners use technology to “integrate the responsibilities of work and home”; 44 percent use technology to allow employees “to work off-site or to have flexible work schedules.” Yet our work culture still remains more office-centered than it needs to be, especially in light of technological advances.

One way to change that is by changing the “default rules” that govern office work—the baseline expectations about when, where, and how work will be done. As behavioral economists well know, these baselines can make an enormous difference in the way people act. It is one thing, for instance, for an organization to allow phone-ins to a meeting on an ad hoc basis, when parenting and work schedules collide—a system that’s better than nothing, but likely to engender guilt among those calling in, and possibly resentment among those in the room. It is quite another for that organization to declare that its policy will be to schedule in-person meetings, whenever possible, during the hours of the school day—a system that might normalize call-ins for those (rarer) meetings still held in the late afternoon.

One real-world example comes from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a place most people are more likely to associate with distinguished gentlemen in pinstripes than with progressive thinking about work-family balance. Like so many other places, however, the FCO worries about losing talented members of two-career couples around the world, particularly women. So it recently changed its basic policy from a default rule that jobs have to be done on-site to one that assumes that some jobs might be done remotely, and invites workers to make the case for remote work. Kara Owen, a career foreign-service officer who was the FCO’s diversity director and will soon become the British deputy ambassador to France, writes that she has now done two remote jobs. Before her current maternity leave, she was working a London job from Dublin to be with her partner, using teleconferencing technology and timing her trips to London to coincide “with key meetings where I needed to be in the room (or chatting at the pre-meeting coffee) to have an impact, or to do intensive ‘network maintenance.’” In fact, she writes, “I have found the distance and quiet to be a real advantage in a strategic role, providing I have put in the investment up front to develop very strong personal relationships with the game changers.” Owen recognizes that not every job can be done this way. But she says that for her part, she has been able to combine family requirements with her career.

Changes in default office rules should not advantage parents over other workers; indeed, done right, they can improve relations among co-workers by raising their awareness of each other’s circumstances and instilling a sense of fairness. Two years ago, the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts decided to replace its “parental leave” policy with a “family leave” policy that provides for as much as 12 weeks of leave not only for new parents, but also for employees who need to care for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition. According to Director Carol Rose, “We wanted a policy that took into account the fact that even employees who do not have children have family obligations.” The policy was shaped by the belief that giving women “special treatment” can “backfire if the broader norms shaping the behavior of all employees do not change.” When I was the dean of the Wilson School, I managed with the mantra “Family comes first”—any family—and found that my employees were both productive and intensely loyal.

None of these changes will happen by themselves, and reasons to avoid them will seldom be hard to find. But obstacles and inertia are usually surmountable if leaders are open to changing their assumptions about the workplace. The use of technology in many high-level government jobs, for instance, is complicated by the need to have access to classified information. But in 2009, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who shares the parenting of his two young daughters equally with his wife, made getting such access at home an immediate priority so that he could leave the office at a reasonable hour and participate in important meetings via videoconferencing if necessary. I wonder how many women in similar positions would be afraid to ask, lest they be seen as insufficiently committed to their jobs.

 Revaluing Family Values

While employers shouldn’t privilege parents over other workers, too often they end up doing the opposite, usually subtly, and usually in ways that make it harder for a primary caregiver to get ahead. Many people in positions of power seem to place a low value on child care in comparison with other outside activities. Consider the following proposition: An employer has two equally talented and productive employees. One trains for and runs marathons when he is not working. The other takes care of two children. What assumptions is the employer likely to make about the marathon runner? That he gets up in the dark every day and logs an hour or two running before even coming into the office, or drives himself to get out there even after a long day. That he is ferociously disciplined and willing to push himself through distraction, exhaustion, and days when nothing seems to go right in the service of a goal far in the distance. That he must manage his time exceptionally well to squeeze all of that in.

Be honest: Do you think the employer makes those same assumptions about the parent? Even though she likely rises in the dark hours before she needs to be at work, organizes her children’s day, makes breakfast, packs lunch, gets them off to school, figures out shopping and other errands even if she is lucky enough to have a housekeeper—and does much the same work at the end of the day. Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s indefatigable chief of staff, has twins in elementary school; even with a fully engaged husband, she famously gets up at four every morning to check and send e-mails before her kids wake up. Louise Richardson, now the vice chancellor of the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, combined an assistant professorship in government at Harvard with mothering three young children. She organized her time so ruthlessly that she always keyed in 1:11 or 2:22 or 3:33 on the microwave rather than 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00, because hitting the same number three times took less time.

Elizabeth Warren, who is now running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, has a similar story. When she had two young children and a part-time law practice, she struggled to find enough time to write the papers and articles that would help get her an academic position. In her words:

 I needed a plan. I figured out that writing time was when Alex was asleep. So the minute I put him down for a nap or he fell asleep in the baby swing, I went to my desk and started working on something—footnotes, reading, outlining, writing … I learned to do everything else with a baby on my hip.

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 peoplechoose to have children? People also choose to run marathons.

One final example: I have worked with many Orthodox Jewish men who observed the Sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. Jack Lew, the two-time director of the Office of Management and Budget, former deputy secretary of state for management and resources, and now White House chief of staff, is a case in point. Jack’s wife lived in New York when he worked in the State Department, so he would leave the office early enough on Friday afternoon to take the shuttle to New York and a taxi to his apartment before sundown. He would not work on Friday after sundown or all day Saturday. Everyone who knew him, including me, admired his commitment to his faith and his ability to carve out the time for it, even with an enormously demanding job.

It is hard to imagine, however, that we would have the same response if a mother told us she was blocking out mid-Friday afternoon through the end of the day on Saturday, every week, to spend time with her children. I suspect this would be seen as unprofessional, an imposition of unnecessary costs on co-workers. In fact, of course, one of the great values of the Sabbath—whether Jewish or Christian—is precisely that it carves out a family oasis, with rituals and a mandatory setting-aside of work.

Our assumptions are just that: things we believe that are not necessarily so. Yet what we assume has an enormous impact on our perceptions and responses. Fortunately, changing our assumptions is up to us.

Redefining the Arc of a Successful Career

The American definition of a successful professional is someone who can climb the ladder the furthest in the shortest time, generally peaking between ages 45 and 55. It is a definition well suited to the mid-20th century, an era when people had kids in their 20s, stayed in one job, retired at 67, and were dead, on average, by age 71.

It makes far less sense today. Average life expectancy for people in their 20s has increased to 80; men and women in good health can easily work until they are 75. They can expect to have multiple jobs and even multiple careers throughout their working life. Couples marry later, have kids later, and can expect to live on two incomes. They may well retire earlier—the average retirement age has gone down from 67 to 63—but that is commonly “retirement” only in the sense of collecting retirement benefits. Many people go on to “encore” careers.

Assuming the priceless gifts of good health and good fortune, a professional woman can thus expect her working life to stretch some 50 years, from her early or mid-20s to her mid-70s. It is reasonable to assume that she will build her credentials and establish herself, at least in her first career, between 22 and 35; she will have children, if she wants them, sometime between 25 and 45; she’ll want maximum flexibility and control over her time in the 10 years that her children are 8 to 18; and she should plan to take positions of maximum authority and demands on her time after her children are out of the house. Women who have children in their late 20s can expect to immerse themselves completely in their careers in their late 40s, with plenty of time still to rise to the top in their late 50s and early 60s. Women who make partner, managing director, or senior vice president; get tenure; or establish a medical practice before having children in their late 30s should be coming back on line for the most demanding jobs at almost exactly the same age.

Along the way, women should think about the climb to leadership not in terms of a straight upward slope, but as irregular stair steps, with periodic plateaus (and even dips) when they turn down promotions to remain in a job that works for their family situation; when they leave high-powered jobs and spend a year or two at home on a reduced schedule; or when they step off a conventional professional track to take a consulting position or project-based work for a number of years. I think of these plateaus as “investment intervals.” My husband and I took a sabbatical in Shanghai, from August 2007 to May 2008, right in the thick of an election year when many of my friends were advising various candidates on foreign-policy issues. We thought of the move in part as “putting money in the family bank,” taking advantage of the opportunity to spend a close year together in a foreign culture. But we were also investing in our children’s ability to learn Mandarin and in our own knowledge of Asia.

Peaking in your late 50s and early 60s rather than your late 40s and early 50s makes particular sense for women, who live longer than men. And many of the stereotypes about older workers simply do not hold. A 2006 survey of human-resources professionals shows that only 23 percent think older workers are less flexible than younger workers; only 11 percent think older workers require more training than younger workers; and only 7 percent think older workers have less drive than younger workers.

Whether women will really have the confidence to stair-step their careers, however, will again depend in part on perceptions. Slowing down the rate of promotions, taking time out periodically, pursuing an alternative path during crucial parenting or parent-care years—all have to become more visible and more noticeably accepted as a pause rather than an opt-out. (In an encouraging sign, Mass Career Customization, a 2007 book by Cathleen Benko and Anne Weisberg arguing that “today’s career is no longer a straight climb up the corporate ladder, but rather a combination of climbs, lateral moves, and planned descents,” was a Wall Street Journal best seller.)

Institutions can also take concrete steps to promote this acceptance. For instance, in 1970, Princeton established a tenure-extension policy that allowed female assistant professors expecting a child to request a one-year extension on their tenure clocks. This policy was later extended to men, and broadened to include adoptions. In the early 2000s, two reports on the status of female faculty discovered that only about 3 percent of assistant professors requested tenure extensions in a given year. And in response to a survey question, women were much more likely than men to think that a tenure extension would be detrimental to an assistant professor’s career.

So in 2005, under President Shirley Tilghman, Princeton changed the default rule. The administration announced that all assistant professors, female and male, who had a new child would automaticallyreceive a one-year extension on the tenure clock, with no opt-outs allowed. Instead, assistant professors could request early consideration for tenure if they wished. The number of assistant professors who receive a tenure extension has tripled since the change.

One of the best ways to move social norms in this direction is to choose and celebrate different role models. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and I are poles apart politically, but he went way up in my estimation when he announced that one reason he decided against running for president in 2012 was the impact his campaign would have had on his children. He reportedly made clear at a fund-raiser in Louisiana that he didn’t want to be away from his children for long periods of time; according to a Republican official at the event, he said that “his son [missed] him after being gone for the three days on the road, and that he needed to get back.” He may not get my vote if and when he does run for president, but he definitely gets my admiration (providing he doesn’t turn around and join the GOP ticket this fall).

If we are looking for high-profile female role models, we might begin with Michelle Obama. She started out with the same résumé as her husband, but has repeatedly made career decisions designed to let her do work she cared about and also be the kind of parent she wanted to be. She moved from a high-powered law firm first to Chicago city government and then to the University of Chicago shortly before her daughters were born, a move that let her work only 10 minutes away from home. She has spoken publicly and often about her initial concerns that her husband’s entry into politics would be bad for their family life, and about her determination to limit her participation in the presidential election campaign to have more time at home. Even as first lady, she has been adamant that she be able to balance her official duties with family time. We should see her as a full-time career woman, but one who is taking a very visible investment interval. We should celebrate her not only as a wife, mother, and champion of healthy eating, but also as a woman who has had the courage and judgment to invest in her daughters when they need her most. And we should expect a glittering career from her after she leaves the White House and her daughters leave for college.

 Rediscovering the Pursuit of Happiness

One of the most complicated and surprising parts of my journey out of Washington was coming to grips with what I really wanted. I had opportunities to stay on, and I could have tried to work out an arrangement allowing me to spend more time at home. I might have been able to get my family to join me in Washington for a year; I might have been able to get classified technology installed at my house the way Jim Steinberg did; I might have been able to commute only four days a week instead of five. (While this last change would have still left me very little time at home, given the intensity of my job, it might have made the job doable for another year or two.) But I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults. But also irreplaceable years for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals. My older son is doing very well these days, but even when he gives us a hard time, as all teenagers do, being home to shape his choices and help him make good decisions is deeply satisfying.

The flip side of my realization is captured in Macko and Rubin’s ruminations on the importance of bringing the different parts of their lives together as 30-year-old women:

 If we didn’t start to learn how to integrate our personal, social, and professional lives, we were about five years away from morphing into the angry woman on the other side of a mahogany desk who questions her staff’s work ethic after standard 12-hour workdays, before heading home to eat moo shoo pork in her lonely apartment.

Women have contributed to the fetish of the one-dimensional life, albeit by necessity. The pioneer generation of feminists walled off their personal lives from their professional personas to ensure that they could never be discriminated against for a lack of commitment to their work. When I was a law student in the 1980s, many women who were then climbing the legal hierarchy in New York firms told me that they never admitted to taking time out for a child’s doctor appointment or school performance, but instead invented a much more neutral excuse.

Today, however, women in power can and should change that environment, although change is not easy. When I became dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, in 2002, I decided that one of the advantages of being a woman in power was that I could help change the norms by deliberately talking about my children and my desire to have a balanced life. Thus, I would end faculty meetings at 6 p.m. by saying that I had to go home for dinner; I would also make clear to all student organizations that I would not come to dinner with them, because I needed to be home from six to eight, but that I would often be willing to come back after eight for a meeting. I also once told the Dean’s Advisory Committee that the associate dean would chair the next session so I could go to a parent-teacher conference.

After a few months of this, several female assistant professors showed up in my office quite agitated. “You have to stop talking about your kids,” one said. “You are not showing the gravitas that people expect from a dean, which is particularly damaging precisely because you are the first woman dean of the school.” I told them that I was doing it deliberately and continued my practice, but it is interesting that gravitas and parenthood don’t seem to go together.

Ten years later, whenever I am introduced at a lecture or other speaking engagement, I insist that the person introducing me mention that I have two sons. It seems odd to me to list degrees, awards, positions, and interests and not include the dimension of my life that is most important to me—and takes an enormous amount of my time. As Secretary Clinton once said in a television interview in Beijing when the interviewer asked her about Chelsea’s upcoming wedding: “That’s my real life.” But I notice that my male introducers are typically uncomfortable when I make the request. They frequently say things like “And she particularly wanted me to mention that she has two sons”—thereby drawing attention to the unusual nature of my request, when my entire purpose is to make family references routine and normal in professional life.

This does not mean that you should insist that your colleagues spend time cooing over pictures of your baby or listening to the prodigious accomplishments of your kindergartner. It does mean that if you are late coming in one week, because it is your turn to drive the kids to school, that you be honest about what you are doing. Indeed, Sheryl Sandberg recently acknowledged not only that she leaves work at 5:30 to have dinner with her family, but also that for many years she did not dare make this admission, even though she would of course make up the work time later in the evening. Her willingness to speak out now is a strong step in the right direction.

Seeking out a more balanced life is not a women’s issue; balance would be better for us all. Bronnie Ware, an Australian blogger who worked for years in palliative care and is the author of the 2011 bookThe Top Five Regrets of the Dying, writes that the regret she heard most often was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” The second-most-common regret was “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” She writes: “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.”

Juliette Kayyem, who several years ago left the Department of Homeland Security soon after her husband, David Barron, left a high position in the Justice Department, says their joint decision to leave Washington and return to Boston sprang from their desire to work on the “happiness project,” meaning quality time with their three children. (She borrowed the term from her friend Gretchen Rubin, who wrote a best-selling book and now runs a blog with that name.)

It’s time to embrace a national happiness project. As a daughter of Charlottesville, Virginia, the home of Thomas Jefferson and the university he founded, I grew up with the Declaration of Independence in my blood. Last I checked, he did not declare American independence in the name of life, liberty, and professional success. Let us rediscover the pursuit of happiness, and let us start at home.

Innovation Nation

As I write this, I can hear the reaction of some readers to many of the proposals in this essay: It’s all fine and well for a tenured professor to write about flexible working hours, investment intervals, and family-comes-first management. But what about the real world? Most American women cannot demand these things, particularly in a bad economy, and their employers have little incentive to grant them voluntarily. Indeed, the most frequent reaction I get in putting forth these ideas is that when the choice is whether to hire a man who will work whenever and wherever needed, or a woman who needs more flexibility, choosing the man will add more value to the company.

In fact, while many of these issues are hard to quantify and measure precisely, the statistics seem to tell a different story. A seminal study of 527 U.S. companies, published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2000, suggests that “organizations with more extensive work-family policies have higher perceived firm-level performance” among their industry peers. These findings accorded with a 2003 study conducted by Michelle Arthur at the University of New Mexico. Examining 130 announcements of family-friendly policies in The Wall Street Journal, Arthur found that the announcements alone significantly improved share prices. In 2011, a study on flexibility in the workplace by Ellen Galinsky, Kelly Sakai, and Tyler Wigton of the Families and Work Institute showed that increased flexibility correlates positively with job engagement, job satisfaction, employee retention, and employee health.

This is only a small sampling from a large and growing literature trying to pin down the relationship between family-friendly policies and economic performance. Other scholars have concluded that good family policies attract better talent, which in turn raises productivity, but that the policies themselves have no impact on productivity. Still others argue that results attributed to these policies are actually a function of good management overall. What is evident, however, is that many firms that recruit and train well-educated professional women are aware that when a woman leaves because of bad work-family balance, they are losing the money and time they invested in her.

Even the legal industry, built around the billable hour, is taking notice. Deborah Epstein Henry, a former big-firm litigator, is now the president of Flex-Time Lawyers, a national consulting firm focused partly on strategies for the retention of female attorneys. In her book Law and Reorder, published by the American Bar Association in 2010, she describes a legal profession “where the billable hour no longer works”; where attorneys, judges, recruiters, and academics all agree that this system of compensation has perverted the industry, leading to brutal work hours, massive inefficiency, and highly inflated costs. The answer—already being deployed in different corners of the industry—is a combination of alternative fee structures, virtual firms, women-owned firms, and the outsourcing of discrete legal jobs to other jurisdictions. Women, and Generation X and Y lawyers more generally, are pushing for these changes on the supply side; clients determined to reduce legal fees and increase flexible service are pulling on the demand side. Slowly, change is happening.

At the core of all this is self-interest. Losing smart and motivated women not only diminishes a company’s talent pool; it also reduces the return on its investment in training and mentoring. In trying to address these issues, some firms are finding out that women’s ways of working may just be better ways of working, for employees and clients alike.

Experts on creativity and innovation emphasize the value of encouraging nonlinear thinking and cultivating randomness by taking long walks or looking at your environment from unusual angles. In their new book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, the innovation gurus John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas write, “We believe that connecting play and imagination may be the single most important step in unleashing the new culture of learning.”

Space for play and imagination is exactly what emerges when rigid work schedules and hierarchies loosen up. Skeptics should consider the “California effect.” California is the cradle of American innovation—in technology, entertainment, sports, food, and lifestyles. It is also a place where people take leisure as seriously as they take work; where companies like Google deliberately encourage play, with Ping-Pong tables, light sabers, and policies that require employees to spend one day a week working on whatever they wish. Charles Baudelaire wrote: “Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.” Google apparently has taken note.

No parent would mistake child care for childhood. Still, seeing the world anew through a child’s eyes can be a powerful source of stimulation. When the Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote The Strategy of Conflict, a classic text applying game theory to conflicts among nations, he frequently drew on child-rearing for examples of when deterrence might succeed or fail. “It may be easier to articulate the peculiar difficulty of constraining [a ruler] by the use of threats,” he wrote, “when one is fresh from a vain attempt at using threats to keep a small child from hurting a dog or a small dog from hurting a child.”

The books I’ve read with my children, the silly movies I’ve watched, the games I’ve played, questions I’ve answered, and people I’ve met while parenting have broadened my world. Another axiom of the literature on innovation is that the more often people with different perspectives come together, the more likely creative ideas are to emerge. Giving workers the ability to integrate their non-work lives with their work—whether they spend that time mothering or marathoning—will open the door to a much wider range of influences and ideas.

Enlisting Men

Perhaps the most encouraging news of all for achieving the sorts of changes that I have proposed is that men are joining the cause. In commenting on a draft of this article, Martha Minow, the dean of the Harvard Law School, wrote me that one change she has observed during 30 years of teaching law at Harvard is that today many young men are asking questions about how they can manage a work-life balance. And more systematic research on Generation Y confirms that many more men than in the past are asking questions about how they are going to integrate active parenthood with their professional lives.

Abstract aspirations are easier than concrete trade-offs, of course. These young men have not yet faced the question of whether they are prepared to give up that more prestigious clerkship or fellowship, decline a promotion, or delay their professional goals to spend more time with their children and to support their partner’s career.

Yet once work practices and work culture begin to evolve, those changes are likely to carry their own momentum. Kara Owen, the British foreign-service officer who worked a London job from Dublin, wrote me in an e-mail:

 I think the culture on flexible working started to change the minute the Board of Management (who were all men at the time) started to work flexibly—quite a few of them started working one day a week from home.

Men have, of course, become much more involved parents over the past couple of decades, and that, too, suggests broad support for big changes in the way we balance work and family. It is noteworthy that both James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, and William Lynn, deputy secretary of defense, stepped down two years into the Obama administration so that they could spend more time with their children (for real).

Going forward, women would do well to frame work-family balance in terms of the broader social and economic issues that affect both women and men. After all, we have a new generation of young men who have been raised by full-time working mothers. Let us presume, as I do with my sons, that they will understand “supporting their families” to mean more than earning money.

I HAVE BEEN BLESSED to work with and be mentored by some extraordinary women. Watching Hillary Clinton in action makes me incredibly proud—of her intelligence, expertise, professionalism, charisma, and command of any audience. I get a similar rush when I see a front-page picture of Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, deep in conversation about some of the most important issues on the world stage; or of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, standing up forcefully for the Syrian people in the Security Council.

These women are extraordinary role models. If I had a daughter, I would encourage her to look to them, and I want a world in which they are extraordinary but not unusual. Yet I also want a world in which, in Lisa Jackson’s words, “to be a strong woman, you don’t have to give up on the things that define you as a woman.” That means respecting, enabling, and indeed celebrating the full range of women’s choices. “Empowering yourself,” Jackson said in her speech at Princeton, “doesn’t have to mean rejecting motherhood, or eliminating the nurturing or feminine aspects of who you are.”

I gave a speech at Vassar last November and arrived in time to wander the campus on a lovely fall afternoon. It is a place infused with a spirit of community and generosity, filled with benches, walkways, public art, and quiet places donated by alumnae seeking to encourage contemplation and connection. Turning the pages of the alumni magazine (Vassar is now coed), I was struck by the entries of older alumnae, who greeted their classmates with Salve (Latin for “hello”) and wrote witty remembrances sprinkled with literary allusions. Theirs was a world in which women wore their learning lightly; their news is mostly of their children’s accomplishments. Many of us look back on that earlier era as a time when it was fine to joke that women went to college to get an “M.R.S.” And many women of my generation abandoned the Seven Sisters as soon as the formerly all-male Ivy League universities became coed. I would never return to the world of segregated sexes and rampant discrimination. But now is the time to revisit the assumption that women must rush to adapt to the “man’s world” that our mothers and mentors warned us about.

I continually push the young women in my classes to speak more. They must gain the confidence to value their own insights and questions, and to present them readily. My husband agrees, but he actually tries to get the young men in his classes to act more like the women—to speak less and listen more. 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.

We’ll create a better society in the process, for all women. We may need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart. But when we do, we will stop talking about whether women can have it all. We will properly focus on how we can help all Americans have healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people they love as much as the success they seek.

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ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER is the president of the New America Foundation and the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. She was previously the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department and the dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/