Must women choose: Top professional or committed mother?

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

– Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, 2010

What’s going on?

In a now infamous 2010 TED talk, Sandberg firmly located a prime cause of women’s absence from the Top Jobs on the heads of women, specifically their alledged lack of sufficient committment. To the still-hot ire of many, she sought to rally women by calling for an end to her targer audience’s alledged propensity for “leaving before they leave”; selling themselves short by “leaning back”, no longer “raising [one’s] hand” – no longer aggressively seeking the promotion, the new challenge – once thoughts of planning motherhood kick in.

If you haven’t read possible future US Secretary of State and current Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, Anne Marie Slaughter’s article of the year , please do; it’s so much more than a rebuttal. If you have read it, you’ll have read it twice by now so here’s a video of her on the subject .

Slaughter’s “Why Women Can’t Have It All” is a manifesto wrapped in a confession. Her argument, though damn long and heavily qualified, is rousingly simple: Women (with the exception of a few “Superwomen”) cannot “have it all”; the  ideal of living a healthy life by balancing fully engaged parenting with a focus on fully realizing one’s career potential is an impossible lie.

And the chief liars ‘training’ younger women to chase this ghost are older women.

Any honest reckoning of how professional expectations are currently constructed (at least in the US) can only conclude with a recognition that – if I might paraphrase Slaughter’s case thus – we’ve reached a perverse impasse in the feminist movement: complaints from decades passed about the existence of the hidden Second Shift have been buried and superceded by the encroachment of never-ending hours, especially if they’re billable, in the first shift.

Such are the impossible time demands of today’s Top Jobs, women simply cannot (while men alledgely will not even contemplate trying to) strike a domestic-professional balance without the havnig to dilute committment levels in one role in order to accomodate the needs of the other.

Slaughter outlines three central myths that must be exposed if society is to solve the harmful exclusion of women from its senior positions of leadership.

It’s possible if you are just committed enough.

(The crux of Sandberg’s remedy that Slaughter admits with some shame she used to peddle before personal experience forced her into catching herself on.)

It’s possible if you marry the right person.

It’s possible if you sequence it [parenting balanced with career planning] right.

All false.

While reading her will be a tonic for many and possibly a devastation for others, I found her proposed framework for finding solutions occassionally pregnant with logic likely only to reinforce many of the underlying problems she tackles.

Take greater flexibility to work remotely, for example. This sounds fine in theory but wouldn’t it exacerbate the modern assumption among bosses or – miles worse in my experience – clients, that one is never off or “unplugged”?

My uncertainty was further increased by Slaughter’s vision of a society changed through women taking their rightful place at the top table. Consider:

 Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women.

I’d like to be convinced by this vision but I’m sure its a mirage. Sure I can imagine and support a society transformed by powerful women power will always play a more defining role in the character than gender: Would this newly transformed society really work “for all women”, or would it simply work better for powerful women?

Above all, I take issue with Slaughter’s thinking about making work hours more humane. While ‘the working week’ continues to become synonymous with the waking week, surely the underlying problems of work-family balance will remain relatively unchecked, at least for the vast majority of us.

How essentially right-on is Slaughter and how similar is her US experience to yours in Ireland, Britain and beyond?

Are young professional women given impossible goals to pursue in the context of a lie that any ‘failures’ to ‘succced’ are largely down to their own confected inadequacies?

Strategic Communications Consultant, located in Washington, D.C.