Women can’t have it all and neither can men

With extraordinary timing, just after last night’s post on high-powered career women, The Atlantic‘s July issue was released with a cover story addressing exactly that issue. In her essay, former director of policy planning for the US State Department Anne-Marie Slaughter  has given her treatise on why she left that dream job after just two years in order to be with her family and how society can change our expectations in order to better accommodate work-family balance.

I can’t do her argument justice, so please go and read the essay (it’s very important). There is, however, one point that I would like to focus on relating my post yesterday (my bold):

Magazine – Why Women Still Can’t Have It All – The Atlantic.

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 will feel 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.

This supposition is the issue. Slaughter does give evidence later that is closer to my perspective, however it does not seem to change her perception from what she has encountered in her “experience” (my bold):

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.

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 book The 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.” …

What I glean from this type of thing is the harm that is genuinely being done by gender-normative assumptions — not just to women, but to us men as well. The assumption here is that men won’t care about being away from their family and will naturally just spend more time working.

It seems that people have been extremely reluctant to acknowledge the sacrifices that men at the top actually make in order to be there. It could be that this phenomenon that we’re seeing is not a case of society having created top-jobs that women can’t do because women care about family too much. Maybe it’s a case of society having created top jobs that are extremely difficult, and the women who were born into the egalitarian era are just beginning to discover how true this is.

I am a little offended by this idea that it is something reasonable to expect of men, but unreasonable to expect of women. Even Slaughter here has made the assumption that the men around her were not hurting just as much about the fact that they weren’t spending time with their family.

Maybe the difference was not that she had some kind of inherent need that they didn’t feel — maybe it’s simply that it is more socially acceptable for her to make the decision to sacrifice career for family because, while she may be seen as “betraying her feminist principles”, she will not face the stigma that the men would of being “weak”, “not dedicated enough”, or — dare I say — “girly”.

Of course, evolutionary psychologists would disagree with this idealised view that human nature is so malleable and would argue that men and women really are wired that way. Even accepting this as true, the furthest that this argument can go is to say that most women on average will be inherently more likely to want to sacrifice their careers for their families than most men. There would still be countless men and women who do not fit this characterisation.

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 don’t see why this needs to be a “framing” issue. Why can’t we just accept that work-life balance is important for everyone? This idea that it’s a “feminist” fight immediately isolates anyone who does not define themselves that way. This is not about making work easier for women or men, it’s about strengthening families, improving peoples’ working lives and improving the wellbeing of parents and children.

And where are the Unions on this one? It seems a hell of a lot more important than keeping those damn foreigners from taking our jerbs.

That said, I will end with the point made here by Rod Dreher — who, as he describes in that post, is a man who sacrificed his career to spend more time with his family.

Slaughter is still hanging onto the 1960’s feminist dream that women can “have it all” and that is what her solutions are geared towards. Her solutions would definitely help with peoples’ work/family balance in general, however they would not allow women to “have it all”.

The unfortunate reality is that no one can ever have it all. It is impossible to do everything. There is no conceivable way that someone can work a 60-hour week and still have a huge amount of time with their families and there is no way that someone who works less than that can compare with someone who does work that much. At some point, everyone has to make a trade-off: some will choose their family, and some will choose their career. We can try to ease the conflicts as much as possible, but they will never go away completely.

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  1. #1 by shailee mendelevich (@ShaileeM) on June 22, 2012 - 7:54 pm

    Good job 🙂

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