One of the grand questions facing our generation of women, generations before us and generations to come, is – how do you successfully balance a happy family, fulfilling career and personal health and wellness? I doubt anyone has the answer, and if they do, there will undoubtedly be a small army waiting to pick apart the argument. Too utopian! Too elitist! Too pessimistic! Too…well, you get the point.
My sense as to why this topic gets everyone hot and bothered is because it is notoriously difficult to get right. And although it is a side effect of an entrenched societal problem (gender inequity in the workplace), everyone seems to go through their own internal war to figure it out, which leaves behind a lot of guilt and self-doubt. Personally, I am yet to experience the ‘real deal’, given that we don’t have kids, but it’s safe to say that I’ve had many questions about how to balance family and a meaningful career, sooner than I expected to.
The latest chapter in this debate is being written at this very moment, with a virtual tête-à-tête taking place between what can be broadly defined as two camps – Anne-Marie Slaugther’s realists and Sheryl Sandberg’s trailblazers. Though not mutually exclusive, the root of the disagreement between these two camps is where change needs to happen. Slaughter suggests that workplaces need to be intrinsically more adaptable to women with families, while Sandberg posits that women need to ‘own’ their careers and assert themselves in their roles.
First, some context. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, veteran of Google and Larry Summers’ protégé, gave a much-needed talk at a TED conference titled, ‘Why we have too few women leaders’. This is a must watch and you can find it below.
Sandberg makes tremendous sense when she talks about why women need to assert themselves more in the workplace. As she says in the speech, “No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table. And no one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success or they don’t even understand their own success.”
However the underlying message of Sandberg’s talk is that women somehow are responsible if they do not succeed at work. And the lesson drawn from it is that you can write your own success story if you as a woman make changes to how you think and act, as a mother, partner and employee. This idea is what Slaughter eloquently takes issue with in her piece for the Atlantic, titled, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is a highly-regarded foreign policy expert at Princeton and until recently was a top ranked official with the State Department. Slaughter’s article is a provocative and practical counterpoint to Sandberg’s belief that women need to dig in their heels at work. It’s a long read, so suggest you print it out, settle into your couch and have at it.
Slaughter’s piece, while a bit of a wet blanket, brims with practical advice for what women face in their struggles to balance work and family. Slaughter takes issue with what one journalist termed Sandberg’s motto of ‘higher-harder-faster’, saying that women pay too high a price for having it all, one that is fundamentally at odds with our visions of success, and that is, an unfulfilling, unsatisfying family life. She suggests that instead, workplaces need to adapt to a new reality and actively promote flexible hours, teleworking and ‘stair-stepping’ career trajectories. And she bravely writes that we are entitled to happiness, whatever that means for us, and not the dream version that is peddled to us by highly visible women leaders.
As someone who is going to face these challenges in a few years, I draw lessons from both sides. Sandberg’s words about striving for success and ‘keeping your foot on the pedal’ definitely strike a chord. It is a reminder that if we choose a career path where we seek success, we need to constantly remind ourselves that our talent is valuable and that we can make a difference in our chosen fields. Slaughter on the other hand provides that much needed reality check, one that makes me feel no less of a woman for wanting a deeply satisfying family life and a great career, even though it might not happen all at once. And through the journey, I look forward to more frank discussions (hopefully from women of all standings, not just the privileged few) of what it means to be a working woman in the 21st century.
The title of this post is a great Whitney Houston song, and so I’ll end with another one. Enjoy!