Non-Superwomen Need Not Apply

The recent article in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” hit a nerve in our culture. Slaughter wrote on the challenges of coordinating ones’ parenting responsibilities with the ongoing pressures of developing one’s professional career. She refers to her recent decision to return home after taking a leave from her tenured position at Princeton to work in the State Department in DC under Hilary Clinton. Women have responded to the issues she raised and solutions she proposed in a variety of outlets including two outlets I follow, New York Times and Huffington Post.

There is no concensus on what women actually want: to be married? have kids? work high-powerd jobs? And there is no consensus on what is at stake in this debate: tangible gains such as healthy and happy children raised by parents with stimulating jobs? or intangible profits such as feelings of happiness, belonging, and approval from society?

In response to Slaughter’s piece I have been most surprised (and disappointed) by the  critique of her assumptions that many women want to be both good parents and successful professionals. This is the same attitude I’ve encountered from other parents who lament the unfortunate fact that my son has to be in daycare because I chose to work—as if daycare was a punishment or choice we should feel guilty about. On the contrary, I am certain that he gets more stimulation, teaching, and opportunities to develop socially than I could ever hope to provide at home on my own with him.

In one section of her essay she lays out the myths we tell ourselves and each other about why it’s so difficult to “have it all” while also proposing new ways of understanding ourselves, our expectations, and how society can help more families flourish.

  1. It’s possible if your are just committed enough. The working mothers who have actually achieved professional success are actually superwomen with fantastic talents. Many women truly want to reach for the top, but they encounter too many things that derail their trajectories. One of the biggest obstacles for women involves finding better ways to coordinate work and school schedules. This is especially challenging for women who have to travel for work.
  2. It’s possible if you marry the right person. This means leaning heavily on the husband/father to be with their kids while the wife/mother works late or travels for her job. But many women are just not OK with not being with their kids. They struggle to make the hard choice to stay at work (or take a promotion which may involve more hours or more travel) when their kids need them at home. It is not enough to have a supportive husband who is at home with the kids. Slaughter argues, “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.” In other words, we need to stop burdening women with guilt about choosing work instead of family.
  3. It’s possible if you sequence it right. Slaughter critiques this formula for women who try to do everything at the same time, but she also gives her own advice: get established in your career first, but try to start your family before you are 35 (or freeze your eggs) just in case things get complicated. She makes the scary observation that she has never seen a woman in her 40s successfully enter the academic job market or as a junior associate in a law firm.

I’ll have to revisit this article again sometime soon to digest her suggestions about how to facilitate more women staying in the workforce.

  • Changing the culture of face time.
  • Revaluing family values.
  • Redefining the arc of a successful career.
  • Rediscovering the pursuit of happiness.
  • Innovation nation.
  • Enlisting men.

I wish I knew how to become a superwoman who can function, nay, thrive on the crazy schedule that Slaughter describes in her piece. In fact, I’m not sure that becoming a superwoman is the best way to frame the cultural revolution that we need for career women with families. By saying the women who have achieved professional success while parenting must have some extraordinary genius, we continue to commend the  problematic model of “doing it all” instead of criticizing the basis of being a superwoman who seems to go along with the (patriarchal) cultural expectations imposed on us as parents and professionals.

I applaud Slaughter’s practice of continually reminding people that she has a family and that meetings had to be finished before she left to pick up her kids. Feminists need to stand up and voice their vision for a more balanced workplace for men and women.

In academia, having a child while still writing my thesis has made my ability to progress difficult. So much of my time and attention is focused on my family. I haven’t figured out just how to be more efficient with my “work” time or how to be more productive in my reduced time to work on my research and writing. These challenges are more particular to my own project and not the larger, societal issues of enabling more women to achieve success in their careers.

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