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feminist movement: complaints from decades passed about the existence of the hidden Second Shift have been buried and superceded by the encroachment of never-ending hours, especially if they’re billable, in the first shift.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?

  • I’m not clear where this is taking us, particularly since (here in Team GB) we’ve just had l’affaire Mensch. And I’m always a bit itchy when a headline-article is heavy on rhetorical questions: the impression I carry is “worthy, but what?”

    If the inability of women to gain and hold down those “top” jobs is not down to lack of commitment, it must be something more sinister — male prejudices, perhaps?

    A few years back (and it hasn’t changed greatly) we were meant to be shocked — shocked! I tell you! — by the finding that only one of the top 100 US corporations was headed by a woman. The only black (and, naturally, male) CEO of a Fortune 500 company was Franklin Raines of Fanny May. Since then black CEOs at that level have reached the dizzy level of … six. Let’s celebrate the Kenneths — Chenault of AmEx, Frazier of Merck, Clarence Otis of Darden Restaurants, Roger Ferguson of privately-owned financiers TIAA-CREF, … oh … and Ursula Burns of Xerox.

  • Rory Carr

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

    Yeah, sure. It works terrifically well for all we men, not a deprived, downtrodden, over-exploited one among our whole sex. Deep coal mining is a breeze but perhaps not quite so glamourous as sewage maintenance. And all with wonderful conditions not to mention bonuses, health provision,pension rights and a salary to shout about.

    My wife, a retired teacher, does counsellig with women who have been in abusive relationships and she found that those whose fathers were “successful” – businessmen, professionals, military even clergy almost invariably had bad memories of their fathers, where not abusive, then cold, uncaring, unloving, while those who had fond memories of a kind, caring, loving father, more often than not, that father was not very successful in their working lives or were men who were manual, blue-collar workers who just managed to get along. Which prompts us to ask,

    “Must [men] choose: Top professional or committed [father]?

  • Perhaps some of the female authors on the Slugger O’Toole blog wish to contribute…

  • Mister_Joe

    ..their alledged lack of sufficient committment. ..

    Does that mean that they are not prepared to trample all over their colleagues and their colleagues dreams in order to get to the top? Maybe it’s in their psyche.

  • wslobbyist

    Oh…I couldn’t pass this one. I agree with Slaughter, in that ‘women can’t have it all’. I also believe that we are teaching young girls and women that they can have it all and this can result in an earlier than usual mid-life crisis – usually in your 30s when kids arrive into the equation.
    The world as we know it is still inherently unequal and huge gender gaps exist in politics, business, labour market etc.
    I believe passionately that women should be economically independent – why paid work is important. This is not a reality for many women. The reality for many women is that they are responsible for the majority of caring and are way more likely (than men) to work part-time and therefore in low-paid positions. That’s how juggling work and family life manifests itself. As the esteemed feminist economist and writer, Marilyn Waring said to me when she visited last year ‘there has to be a trade-off’. This is true within all families but we cannot ignore that generally it is the mother/woman exercises the trade-off.
    No, we can’t have it all….do we really want it all? For me the question is how can we ensure everyone has independent access to financial resources, including and especially in later life and that our children and their well-being is central to society.

  • claudius

    I don’t think its down to their own inadequacies. Firstly nature dictates a cut off period for having children at a time when most careers are entering a phase where an employee needs to put in the leg work to gain significant promotion. Leaving aside nature, economics plays a part. Child care is almost crippling financially. I have two young children. It costs me £1400 a month to put them into daycare. So what happens in many relationships is that one party gives up or takes leave to look after the kids. Thirdly, some employers discriminate against women as they don’t want to risk having to pay maternity leave etc.So all in all I think the odds are heavily stacked against females in the workplace

  • wee buns

    Do women even want it all?

    ‘Having it all’ is a cliche/ trite myth.

    In very simple in terms – biological hardwiring of women will (9 times out of 10) become a mother, no matter what. There exists a grandiose notion of ‘choice’ in this because of contraception, but reproduction for women is a compelling biological function, not necessarily a ‘choice’ per say. That is the nuts and bolts as to why motherhood takes prevalence over career in the first instance – an unstoppable tide of biology.

    Or as Chrissie Hynde (of Pretenders fame) said once – ‘If you don’t have kids – who the fuk are you?’

    What happens after motherhood is established involves a whole set of political and interpersonal issues – but the same hardwired function remains – to shelter the young – be that in a personal capacity, or via a spouse, in-laws, childminder etc. So that takes precedence.

    The problem (with the nucular family) is that a male spouse is not similarly hardwired (that is not to say he does not care or understand); nor is the most supportive set of two grandparents hardwired to be selfless caretakers; nor is a child minder etc.

    So whatever stress occurs in those relationships has to be managed by the woman and juggled alongside the demands of a career, plus the needs of the young. who until they are five need her almost to exclusion of others (biological again) – the game is not worth the candle when you look at the real complexities..

    See BORGEN for a great example of a (dramatized) story all too common – how even the most dedicated spouse can buckle under relentless domesticity. These ‘compromises’ are hellishly difficult to make.

    Forget anything less than a token effort from the corporate sector. Theymight be smart but they haven’t got the wisdom to take proper care of their female workforce.

    The ideal circumstances (I imagine) exist outside the constricts of the nuclear family construct, where parents, grandparents, and those with vested interests in the community as a whole, would rotate responsibility for children.

    The closest experience I’ve had to this is when single parents who gravitate towards one another take shifts to mutually support each other’s work schedules – female co-operation free style meitheal.

    The chance to make serious feminist progress was ‘let slip’ in the 80s.

    I do not believe this makes women their ‘own worst enemies’- but simply that society has altered at a pace that has been difficult for our female biology to cope with.

  • Ní Dhuibhir

    I don’t think anything will change until we see fathers making a big – or indeed any – fuss. It’s the lifestyle of the typical working father that has stayed miraculously similar throughout these seismic shifts in middle class women’s lives. Employers have an important role to play, but they can’t make a man do the dishes when he gets home, and they can’t make him know in his bones that his female partner’s career is as important as his. Mandatory paternity leave would be a start. I still here men talking about ‘babysitting’ their own children.

  • Ní Dhuibhir


  • artofdarkness

    The ‘unstoppable tide of biology’ has not reached my shore, and of my friends in their 30s and 40s, about half have chosen to have a family, the other half have voluntarily chosen not to have children, so I wouldn’t go overboard with the idea that women are inexorably drawn to motherhood over all possible outcomes in life.

    Speaking for myself, despite having the freedom to do so, I feel no obligation to represent the rest of womankind by pursuing some ‘top job’ in a position of visibility, where my choice of hairstyle would garner more headlines than my results, and every decision I choose to make with my life would be analysed in terms letting the side down in some way.

    And I do reflect that there are untold numbers of women who don’t get to vacillate between ‘career’ and children because they don’t have the economic luxury of choice. In our heads, there’s the concept of the 1950s housewife or the Edwardian lady who wasn’t allowed to work – but throughout history, there has always been a class of women who have faced no alternative than to – literally – earn a living for their families, and they get written out of the picture, both then and now.

    So the concerns of middle-class professionals and the angst-ridden array of choices they face… that isn’t something that takes up too much of my thoughts, not when there are women for whom ‘career potential’ is something they never had in the first place, never mind the concept of ‘having it all’ as drawn up according to the visions of individuals with a certain standard of living.

  • wee buns

    That is interesting – don’t know what ‘shores’ you are on but in my peer group of 40-50yrs old the overwhelming majority have had kids (90%).Even those conscientious objectors who in their twenties did protest that they would never have kids ‘cos of ‘too many children in the world’ – they went on to have the biggest families of all.
    I wonder too about cultural elements because those I know who chose not to be mothers, none are Irish (?!). One has to wonder what is the connection between the recession and the current baby boom – apparently baby booms happen during times of hardship/war etc by way of sustaining moral and optimism. Are Irish women more optimistic about child rearing & the future in general?

    I agree that ‘choice’ of career, or the choice to even have a career one is not a ‘given’ for all women in this supposed land of ‘equals’ – and that ‘to have it all’ screams of pomposity, arrogance & ignorance when so many have little.

    @Ní Dhuibhair
    If the corporate world was serious about equality there would be a crèche in every workplace as well as paternity leave.

    ‘’Employers have an important role to play, but they can’t make a man do the dishes when he gets home….’’

    Neither can a woman (make a man do the dishes etc).

    I’ve heard the suggestion that wives should stop all sexual ‘favours’ until domestic ‘favours’ are met – but this solution ignores that the sex trade exists elsewhere and asks that female power lies within sex alone.

  • Ruarai

    To help clarify Slaughter’s point, here’s a simple challenge:
    Is there a single employer in Northern Ireland willing to come onto these pages, openly or anonymously, and make the case that their workplace is conducive to gender equality?

    Slaughter argues that the academy stands almost alone in providing women with enough control over their time to be able to balance motherhood and family with the uninterrupted career advancement more commen to working fathers.

    BBC NI or UTV – what’s your ratio of senior professional executives who are mothers to fathers?

    Irish News, BelTel and Newsletter, how to you do?

    Stormont, how sophisticated is your attention to providing paternity leave akin to Ní Dhuibhir’s recommendation?

    (Ní Dhuibhir, how do you propose small and medium sized businesses pay for paternity care along these lines?)

    These questions aren’t intended as “gottcha” potshots. They’re opportunities – particularly for some of the working environments that do most to shape NI’s public discourse – for employers to demonstrate how Slaughter’s proposed proscription for enhanced gender equality and, therefore, healthier societies, are already driving employment practices. Or why despite best efforts you’re floundering…

    Likewise, it would be helpful to hear from women, anonymously or otherwise, who have worked within these types of environments.

  • Mister_Joe

    A pioneer of the movement to empower women, Helen Gurley Brown, has died aged 90. She didn’t have children so didn’t have to struggle between work and motherhood. Was still working last Friday.