Work-Life Balance

Ex-Law Prof Concludes Women Can't Have It All, Hits 'Time Macho' Culture at Law Firms


A former Harvard law professor who gave up her State Department job because of family demands says women still can’t have it all.

Writing in Atlantic magazine, Anne-Marie Slaughter says she loved her “foreign policy dream job” as director of policy planning at the State Department. But Slaughter was away from her home in Princeton, N.J., five days a week, leaving her husband to take care of her sons, 14 and 12. The older teen was “skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him.” At the end of Slaughter’s two-year-leave from Princeton, where she worked as an international affairs professor, she hurried home. She had scrapped her original plans to stay in Washington as long as her party was in power.

When Slaughter explained to others why she left government, she got two kinds of reactions: One was pity that she had to leave Washington. The other was condescending; some women proclaimed that they never had to compromise, and their children turned out fine. The second reaction provoked “blind fury,” Slaughter wrote in the Atlantic article.

“Suddenly, finally, the penny dropped,” Slaughter writes. “All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family … I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”

Slaughter says she still believes women can have it all, “but not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.” She recalled a conversation with a lawyer at a large New York law firm, who said women who had become partners and managers at her law firm had made tremendous sacrifices. They took two years off when their children were young but then worked hard to get back on track professionally. That meant they barely saw their teen-age kids. The lawyer’s friend said that all the professional women she knew had round-the-clock nannies.

Those women who do make it to the very top, Slaughter writes, are “genuine superwomen.” And for many who make it to the top, work-life balance is difficult. She points to the U.S. Supreme Court as an example. Every male Supreme Court justice has a family. Two of the three women on the court—Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan—are single without children.

Part of the problem, Slaughter says, is the culture of “time macho” that rewards working longer and harder than others. The problem is especially acute in law firms, she writes. The “cult of billable hours” provides “exactly the wrong incentives for employees who hope to integrate work and family.”

Slaughter offers several solutions, including changing the culture of office face time and redefining the arc of a successful career. At one time, a successful professional was someone who could climb the furthest in the shortest time. But women who have children should think about the path upwards as made up of “irregular stair steps,” she says. Michelle Obama is an example. She went from a high profile law firm to Chicago city government to the University of Chicago shortly before her daughters were born.

Hat tip to the New York Times Motherlode blog.

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