Is “Having It All” Even What Modern Professional Women Want?

Karen Slaughter recently wrote a much-discussed and fantastic piece in the Atlantic on “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” where she explores some of the great career cliches. These cliches about ‘What’s Possible’ often have an ounce of truth, but can be ultimately undermining for women for the high bar they set.

These career ‘partial truths’ include:

  • “It’s Possible if you are Committed Enough”
  • “It’s Possible if you Marry the Right Person”
  • “It’s Possible if you Get the Sequencing of Life Events Right”

The article is very well written and offers answers on what needs to change at a legislative and cultural level, which is as important as inspiring women to make wise individual career choices.

As expected Slaughter’s article has generated criticism and hundreds of comments online. These range from wholly supportive to down right bitter, many of which focus on the limits of  ‘Trickle Down Feminism’. Her article has drawn some accurate criticism in that it focuses on the trials of elite women and the assumption that if women were better represented in government and in senior positions, they would create a society better for women as a whole. However, while this would be fantastic progress, in a world where there is a growing divide between the socioeconomic ‘have’s and have not’s', successful women often have more in common with successful men than they do with working class women.

As Gail Dines succinctly explained in a Guardian response to Slaughter’s article entitled “‘Having it all’ Looks very Different for women Stuck in Low Paid Jobs”: “Slaughter provides an insightful analysis of the gruelling hours and aggressive work culture that take a toll on even the most talented and ambitious women, and she argues that we need to “close the leadership gap” to ensure that women are equally represented in positions of power, from the president down. But reorganising the professional workplace with flexible working hours, telecommuting, and maternity leave is not enough. Working to increase the ranks of women in elite jobs without a strategy for wider social and economic change represents a kind of “trickle-down feminism.”

Dines was reminded of the growing disparity between different groups of women after returning from an overseas trip exhausted and seeing the reality of black and ethnic minority cleaners at the airport who were just starting what was probably their ’3rd shift’ of the day, particularly if you counted childcare.  She recognised that these women, and men, keep the professional world and global cities invisibly ticking over by doing poorly paid maintenance and service jobs. Dines went on to say: “Having it all” looks very different to the airport cleaners I encountered, as well as to millions of others in similar jobs who lack access to safe housing, decent schools and affordable healthcare. These women face exhausting daily drudgery and vulnerability to illness, violence and depression.”

However, to be fair to Slaughter, she did see this criticism coming, and on the whole wrote a highly sensitive piece. She explains at the end of her article: “As I write this, I can hear the reaction of some readers to many of the proposals in this essay: It’s all fine and well for a tenured professor to write about flexible working hours, investment intervals, and family-comes-first management. But what about the real world? Most American women cannot demand these things, particularly in a bad economy, and their employers have little incentive to grant them voluntarily. Indeed, the most frequent reaction I get in putting forth these ideas is that when the choice is whether to hire a man who will work whenever and wherever needed, or a woman who needs more flexibility, choosing the man will add more value to the company.

In fact, while many of these issues are hard to quantify and measure precisely, the statistics seem to tell a different story. A seminal study of 527 U.S. companies, published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2000, suggests that “organizations with more extensive work-family policies have higher perceived firm-level performance” among their industry peers. These findings accorded with a 2003 study conducted by Michelle Arthur at the University of Mexico. Examining 130 announcements of family-friendly policies in The Wall Street Journal, Arthur found that the announcements alone significantly improved share prices. In 2011, a study on flexibility in the workplace by Ellen Galinsky, Kelly Sakai, and Tyler Wigton of the Families and Work Institute showed that increased flexibility correlates positively with job engagement, job satisfaction, employee retention, and employee health.

This is only a small sampling from a large and growing literature trying to pin down the relationship between family-friendly policies and economic performance. Other scholars have concluded that good family policies attract better talent, which in turn raises productivity, but that the policies themselves have no impact on productivity. Still others argue that results attributed to these policies are actually a function of good management overall. What is evident, however, is that many firms that recruit and train well-educated professional women are aware that when a woman leaves because of bad work-family balance, they are losing the money and time they invested in her.” I’d encourage you to read both articles and weigh in with your observations on the LinkedIn Female Breadwinners group.

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