Do women hold the key to having it all?
A hot topic at the moment is whether or not women can have it all, triggered by a thought-provoking article in U.S. magazine The Atlantic, written by the former first female planning director at the State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter. The author had been a successful academic before she went to Washington to take up her post at the State Department. She left after two years to spend more time with her family, who were living in a different state in the U.S.
Slaughter, who has two teenage sons and, by all accounts, a loving and caring husband who she can rely on, felt that she could not have it all. She believed that the current way the economy and society is set up in America makes it incredibly hard for women to manage a family and a work life simultaneously. Bear in mind, Slaughter travelled to work five days a week in a different state while her husband stayed at home with the kids.
But why did Slaughter not carry on with her job in one of the most high profile industries in the world: the U.S. government?
The first thing she suggests is that schools should mirror the work day more closely. That means longer hours in the classroom and fewer holidays. This deals with the problem of knowing where the kids are when you are at work, but there are a few problems with this: 1) children need more rest than adults and keeping them at school for long hours may make them less productive 2) changing the school timetable would require an enormous battle with the teaching unions, which I don’t believe that women, either in the UK or the other side of the Atlantic, can win. After all, a lot of teachers argue that they work after class, so by extending class-time you force teachers into working longer hours.
Slaughter’s second argument on how to tackle this imbalance is a fresh way of looking at this problem and could be more effective than tackling school culture. She says that women need to re-think their career path and corporate culture needs to get on board. Thus, instead of seeing your career as a linear progression you should see it as a series of building blocks. So you work hard when you first enter the workforce and take every opportunity you can to progress up the career ladder. However, when your children are young you may need to step back from a certain career step, and perhaps turn down that great promotion.
However, there is a silver lining – as soon as your children are grown you can throw yourself into your career again. So instead of a woman seeing her career peaking in her late forties, she may not reach the pinnacle until her late fifties or even sixties. In this Reuters TV clip, Slaughter says women can have it all, but it may take a decade.
But even though this looks like a perfect solution on paper, it requires huge changes in corporate culture, which tends to follow patriarchal patterns of career progression. For example, the macho-idea, as Slaughter points out, is to climb the ladder as fast as you can, to try and peak as early as possible. This requires long hours in the office, dedication, and, in today’s global economy, potentially lots of foreign travel and long spells away from home. None of these situations are ideal for a woman with kids to care for, even if she does share the load with her partner. But it’s perfectly fine for an ambitious woman before she becomes a mother, or after her children are old enough to look after themselves.
The change in corporate culture also impacts my next point. Slaughter uses examples of male colleagues who actively take personal family time, including one example of an Orthodox Jewish colleague who left Washington on Friday’s to make it home for the Sabbath by sundown and did not allow himself to be disturbed by work until the Sunday. This meant he left the office before most people on a Friday and was unavailable for most of the weekend, keeping that as a sacred family time. However, his career did not suffer.
So if a man can observe religious practice and still progress in his career, why can’t women do the same and leave work at a reasonable hour to spend the evening with their children? What is stopping women from doing this? There is definitely a culture in a lot of companies and in politics whereby staying in the office and being the most dedicated is seen as a way to progress your career. Let’s face it, if you want to be successful you do need to put in the hours and think about what you do at all times, not just during the work week. However, you can do this at home, or if you are away for the weekend. Also, as in Slaughter’s example, there is no harm in taking a day for yourself and your family and making up the extra work at a time more convenient for you.
Sometimes women can make work life harder than it needs to be. Some still feel they need to work harder then everyone else to get noticed, so they pull the long hours and don’t delegate as much as they should. Added to that, some women (me included) may worry at times what others are saying about us when we leave work early. However, do you wonder where your male colleague is as he saunters out at 4.30pm to catch an early train? Probably not.
I believe that women have more demons than men in the workplace and this also holds them back. A good dose of confidence could help women make patriarchal structures in the work place work for them. So leaving on time and doing the extra leg-work at home to reach your career goals should be acceptable to women. That way you can still perform when you need to, be it at a major conference or at a meeting with your boss.
Women are important for the economy and the workplace; they make up nearly 50 percent of all workers and we live longer than men. So whatever women can do to help themselves and corporate culture can do to help women achieve their ambitions and contribute to the UK economy will reap dividends in the long-term.
Image — Former U.S. President Bill Clinton (L) talks to Director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department Anne-Marie Slaughter during an announcement of a commitment pledge at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York September 22, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson