Anne-Marie Slaughter: Forget ‘Having It All’ — Own What You Want

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When Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter published an essay in The Atlantic titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in July 2012, she touched a nerve across generations and among both men and women, setting off a renewed public debate on women’s progress and work-life balance.

Slaughter recently visited campus as a guest lecturer in the Authors@Wharton series and spoke directly to the people who she says inspired her to write the piece: this generation’s students. In an interview for Knowledge@Wharton with Stewart Friedman, Wharton practice professor of management and director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, Slaughter, former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, shares what it was like to draw back the curtain on her life as someone perceived to “have it all,” and why she passed up the promotion of a lifetime to be with her family. She also suggests how companies can make life better for both women and men, and what society collectively must do to support the next generation.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Stewart Friedman: Let’s start with a little bit of background on that article and what spurred it. Was there a critical experience in your life or in your work that propelled you to write that piece?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: I would say somewhere in the two years that I spent in Washington [working for the U.S. State Department], it became harder and harder to be in D.C. with my kids back in Princeton. I really did feel the ground sort of shifting under my feet as I started thinking, “I’ve always believed you could make this work — work and family — but this isn’t working.” I started to think about writing [an article]. Then I thought, “Well, no, this is just me. It’s just now.”

Probably the event that crystallized it was coming back to Princeton and starting to give talks to students. They weren’t prepared talks. They were just [about] what it was like in Washington. A lot would start to spill out about how hard it was. It was those students and then later — as I wrote in the article — an audience of young Rhodes Scholars who kept saying, “You have to write this.”That made me decide [that although] this is going to be difficult, [and] it may be controversial, for this next generation I need to write this, and we need to have this conversation.

Friedman: So the impetus really was to share your story with the next generation.

Slaughter: Yes.

Friedman: What was your hope, your intent? Or what were the students who encouraged you to write about your experience asking for?

Slaughter: They wanted to open up the conversation around work and family. They wanted to hear more than what I and so many of my peers had been telling them, which is, you can do it. Our standard response had been, “You can do it. It’s hard, but you can make it work.” That is, of course, true for some number of women, and that has been true of me as long as I stay in a more flexible job. I did make it work for two years in Washington. I just couldn’t make it work for four, much less eight.

But these younger women and men, in some ways, are the first generation that has watched a whole generation of working men and women ahead of them, because I didn’t see working women. I’m of the generation where I was still first. These young men and women, whether it’s their own parents or others, have seen it, and they don’t like what they see or they are scared of what they see or, at the very least, they think, “What people tell me and the reality I’m seeing just [aren't] meshing.”

There is a hunger to open this topic back up. Whereas many women of my generation told me after this article came out, “Well, that’s fine, but it wasn’t exactly news.” It was like, “We knew this. We’ve been living this. We’ve written these things before. You could have written this 20 years ago, and it wouldn’t have been any different.” Every generation has to find it for themselves.

Friedman: What was the news, if I can follow on that last point? What chord was struck? Why do you think it had such a broad effect and readership?

Slaughter: The first thing is I did catch, again, this generational wave: Many younger women who had been saying to each other, “I don’t want to be in a workplace and never see my children. I don’t want to have two nannies, if that’s what it takes. I want something different.” Those women had been talking to each other, but it wasn’t registering in the larger conversation. They sent my article to their mothers, sisters, aunts, mentors, every woman I think who they had talked to, as well as to each other. I think that’s a large part of it.

But I also think I was drawing aside the curtain. I did know that I was doing this. I have been enormously successful and very fortunate. I’ve been able to have great jobs. From the outside, I think it looked exactly [as if] sure, you can have it all. I have two kids and a husband and some great jobs. [What] I was saying [in the article] ripped aside the perfect façade: “You know what? Actually this didn’t work the way I expected it to. Actually I’m not [continuing] in a job that I would have loved to continue in because my kids are at home, and I feel like that’s more important.” I know many women wrote me with profound relief because even for the women — and the men — who are making it work, it’s hard.

Friedman: They’re feeling it.

Slaughter: Right. They’re feeling it. They were feeling like that was their fault, that something must be wrong with them. They weren’t organized enough or something was wrong with their parenting or something. I was basically saying: “You know what, this is really hard, and a lot of people are not actually able to make it. A lot of people are stepping out.” That’s the major explanation, in my view, as to why we don’t have enough women at the top.

Friedman: You said that you became aware that the feminist beliefs on which you had built your career were shifting under your feet. Were those beliefs wrong? Have women of our generation been sold a bill of goods by early feminists? Or have attitudes changed? Has the world changed? What’s shifted?

Slaughter: It’s interesting. I’ve had to think really hard myself about what I meant. I certainly didn’t mean that feminism sold us a bill of goods. Feminism is responsible, as far as I’m concerned, for the life that I have. I am in total debt to the women and the men who were a generation ahead of me, who broke barriers and allowed me to dream of a career and then have one. But along the way, it never occurred to me — as a self-proclaimed career woman, feminist, however you want to see it — that I would end up in a situation where I’d make the choice I made. That’s what shifted.

Friedman: To leave Washington? That choice?

Slaughter: Yes. The way I think of the choice is I had been there for two years. I always knew that after two years, my public service leave would end and that I would go home. But then I succeeded well enough to be considered for promotion. That was the point at which I thought, you know, the old me would have said, “Well, of course you’ll make it work. You have a dream job, and that’s even more of a dream job.” Generally, if your party’s in power and you have an opportunity, you take it because you can never promise that it will come again. When it came down to it, it was hard, but I knew the right thing to do was to go home. That is not something I had been taught to expect of myself. In other words, it’s the flip of the 1950s stereotype where the woman, of course, is going to choose her children and put her family first.

I just thought, “No, I’m a different kind of woman, or parent, or person…. I will make it work.” But when it came down to it, I realized there is actually something more important. As ambitious as I am, as dedicated to my career, I’m actually a different person than I thought I was.

Friedman: So your thinking had evolved in light of the zeitgeist of beliefs about what men or women could possibly do?

Slaughter: It’s hard to explain fully. I think the best way to explain it is I just read an article about how we always look back and we know we’ve changed a lot. If I think of who I was at 20, 30 or 40, I know I’ve changed a lot. But when I look forward, I assume I’ll be the same person at 60, 70 or 80, yet in fact, of course, I will change. It was an evolution. It was a growth. But it was one I never would have expected.

Friedman: You have said that there are several half-truths that women hold. You write about this in the piece — that it’s possible to have it all if you’re just committed enough, if you marry the right person, if you sequence it right. What did you mean by half-truths?

Slaughter: Well exactly that they are true, but not enough. It is certainly true that if you want to succeed, you have to be committed. You have to work very hard. Sheryl Sandberg’s arguments are right in many, many ways. But that’s not enough. It’s also certainly true that it may be necessary to marry the right person. I think it is. But it’s not always sufficient. It makes a huge difference. If you don’t marry the right person, you may never get out of the starting gate. But even with a fully supportive spouse — and I have a wonderful husband who is completely an equal partner, more than an equal partner — you hit situations where both of you need to be there, or you feel you need to be there.

The sequencing could be right in the sense that if we restructured society and the workplace, it would be quite possible to sequence. But right now, what so many women have found is if they opt out of the workplace … they can’t go back. Or they can’t go back in the same way. It’s not that they won’t get a job necessarily, but it’s not as if they pick up as that associate who was heading toward partner or that untenured faculty member who was heading toward tenure. They are in a very different world.

Friedman: The paths are constricted or different.

Slaughter: Yes, very, very. So they are half-truths. But they are things we cling to because we want to believe if we just do this, it will work, and that’s not enough.

Friedman: What can businesses do to support employees to be able to live the lives that matter to them and still contribute productively to society and businesses specifically? What have you been discovering about that as you have taken up the charge in this arena this last year?

Slaughter: Well, there are whole programs. The one that I think is the most interesting is the Results Only Workplace environment, or ROW, where you effectively tell your employees, “Here’s what you have to do. Here’s the date by which you have to do it. Here’s the quality that it has to attain. And it’s really up to you when you get it done and how you get it done and where you get it done.” This is a radical change. It’s not flex time; it’s no time, it’s your time. There are programs like that, and they are being implemented in some very surprising places, including at some very big corporations. I actually think the most important thing is what I call the culture of the presumptive yes, which [means that] you are completely open to experimentation, and you let your own employees figure out either singly or, more likely, as teams, what they need to make it work.

Some of those experiments will not work. A job share really may not work. A certain kind of flexible arrangement may not work, but you’re willing to try. It’s like innovation, small steps, small bets. You keep trying. You see what works. When it works, then you expand it. The biggest barrier in the workplace is that women are afraid to ask — and men, parents or caregivers are afraid to ask because they are afraid they will be told “no,” but worse still, they are afraid that they will look like they are not so committed to their career, so the very asking will be a black spot.

So they don’t ask, and nothing changes. If the management said, “Tell me what you need, and let’s give it a try. If it doesn’t work, I promise you I will say it’s not working and we’ve got to do something else. But, hey, maybe it will.”

Friedman: Those small steps then engender a greater sense of confidence and competence in being able to produce further changes.

Slaughter: Yes.

Friedman: Thinking about what we do here at Wharton and other business schools, what should we be doing to foster progress?

Slaughter: In the first place, I think the idea that if any student in that classroom … wants to have children or imagines that they are going to want to have time for their family, everybody needs to think of it as an equal responsibility. That is an ethos that we are starting to see among many of our younger men: It isn’t this idea that, well, that’s the person at home’s domain, presumably a wife. But rather, this is my responsibility. How am I going to fit my career around it? If we get men and women thinking that way — or women and men, I should say — that changes the dynamic a great deal. Of course, then young men start asking questions of employers as well, and that makes a big change.

But I think there’s even something deeper. I have thought about this even at the undergraduate level. We are seeing kids who are more programmed and more accomplished than ever before. They don’t have a spare minute. I have a 16-year-old, and at 16, he has little time. If you look at my freshmen and sophomores at Princeton, they are scheduled to the minute. I’m sure at Wharton it’s even greater.

You cannot reward cramming every minute of your time — all the way through high school, all the way through college, all the way through graduate school, the early parts of the workplace and then say, “Oh, but now actually family is really important.” We have to start putting our money where our mouths are. We really have to start saying, “We think it’s important to take time now, as students, as faculty. We think that hour that you have coffee with a friend is more important than cramming one more thing on your resume. We think calling home or we think taking time [is important]. I don’t mean volunteering and doing good works; I mean cultivating human connection with those you love. As students, it’s mostly friends. But I’ve heard students say, “I have to schedule in my friends. I don’t have time for my friends.” Well later that’s going to be, “I don’t have time for my kids.” That’s what, again, fosters this binary choice. We’ve got a lot of work to do at educational institutions.

Friedman: Indeed. I couldn’t agree more. What do you think we should be telling our kids about what they can expect in their work lives?

Slaughter: One thing I think we tell them is the future at work is changing. In the first place, they will hold many different jobs. But work itself will be done in pretty radically different ways — different kinds of knowledge work, different kinds of team work, different kinds of technologically enabled work. What I want to tell them is, less is more. A lot of it is creative work. You will not be able to succeed creatively unless you give yourself down time. It’s not just down time; it’s different time. You need to do different things. You need to cultivate different relationships. As you think about the changing nature of work, you should be thinking about a very different notion of the place of family as part of that changing nature. You will be happier. You will be more productive. You will work longer and live longer. Your children will be happier. Our society will be more competitive.

I don’t like thinking about it just in terms of work/family. You yourself actually taught me to stop saying “work/life” because work is part of life, and that doesn’t work. I prefer to think of it as who do we want to be as breadwinners, caregivers, human beings, professionals.

Friedman: As you think to the future about the next generation, which clearly is your motivating force behind this work, where does the brunt of responsibility lie? Is it at the individual level? Is it institutions, social policy, public policy? Where does the real action have to come in order to see these kinds of changes that you are envisioning?

Slaughter: I think at all those levels. I really do. Every individual can be part of this change. Part of the reason I’m writing a book is both to tell the stories men and women have written to me and to showcase solutions. But also to say to people, “If you want to be part of this change, here’s what you can do for men and women.” Government is going to have to do some big things. It just has to. If you look at the societies that make this work, it isn’t an opt-in situation. We’re going to have to move toward paid family leave. Yes, I understand that business says that’s an encumbrance. But back in the early part of the 19th century, they thought restrictions on work day periods were an encumbrance, right?

We’re going to have to have some really important signals from the top, from government. But I wouldn’t wait for that. I would work for it, but I wouldn’t wait for it. The in-between is the workplace. A lot of experimentation must take place. The places that are doing this kind of experimentation have a better chance of retention. I think leaders — and again, this is work you have done that I have read — [should] think about total leadership, about what makes you a good worker or a good leader, a good professional.

Workplaces are going to have to change things like schedules and time in the office. But they are going to have to change cultures. Good CEOs are always about the culture. The culture now essentially has to say, “You were here all night for two months? You’re either not managing your time well or you must be a very uni-dimensional person.” That’s not what we want to reward. We want to reward the quality of your work, but we also want to reward somebody who is able to relate to others and to understand that people need time. They are not just automatons.

Friedman: Changing culture is a slog. It takes a long time, especially entrenched attitudes, values and expectations, the kinds of things that you’re talking about. As we’re wrapping up here, what is it that you would want to convey to boil it down for people in terms of what they can be doing now? We can all be a part of progressive change in this area. What’s the most important thing for people to be thinking about and doing?

Slaughter: The first thing is for all of us to own what we want. Not what we think we should want, not what our parents expect or society or any of that. Own what we want and recognize that if we want both the power and dignity of a profession and the love of family — however family is constructed — that is entirely legitimate. Actually, we will be better for it, as our society will be. That’s the first thing.

The second is to have the courage to both talk about it and ask for change. The worst that can happen is somebody will say no. But I think part of what my article demonstrated was there were a whole lot of people who are thinking about this. If you thought you were alone, no, the woman next to you and the man next to you, they were thinking about it, too. Have the courage to say, “I’m going to ask.” Even if they say no and even if they think a little less well of me, well, that’s not what I’m judged on. I’m judged on the quality of my work and I’m going to keep working. You’re no worse off, and you may be much better off.

If you are in management, you should be willing to get out of your comfort zone. So many people tell me all the time, “Well, I’m just uncomfortable with a job share.” Or, “Well, that goes against the idea. What are other people going to think if this woman has a different arrangement and that man comes in only four days a week?” Get out of your comfort zone. That’s what change takes. Try it. You may be agreeably surprised. It’s a long slow process, but it’s a virtuous circle.

Follow Stew Friedman on Twitter @stewfriedman

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