Waiting for Superwoman: Is Work/Life Balance a Myth?

The Atlantic has done it again – ignited a controversy with an article about women and the workplace.  Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” is giving Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men” a run for its is-feminism-bad-or-good-for-women-in-the-workplace money.

There has been a lot of conversation lately about women in the workplace, work/life balance, and a few flare ups from the mommy wars set.  My partner sent me an article about the rising stress level of women in their late 20’s and early 30’s (as a hint, maybe?) and I have written previously about burn-out in young women professionals.   This topic seems to be touching a nerve with a lot of people.

Slaughter was a former high level official at the Department of State who went back to teaching full time at Princeton to spend more time with her family.  Her experience left her feeling that holding an executive level profession in government and raising children were incompatible, unless as that tag line to the article reads, one is “superhuman, rich or self-employed.”

Slaughter writes in detail about the struggles of spending week days in Washington DC and weekends in Princeton, NJ with her family and having a job that has little vacation time or the inability to take time off.  Working class and poor families face these same struggles, often as parents hold down more than one job.  But what’s interesting about Slaughter is that she is a woman who has attained a level of professional success that very few people, men or women, ever accomplish.   She’s a certified wonk rock star.  It’s not the typical voice telling younger women “it’s impossible – even when you get to the top.”

As a woman who aspires to an executive leadership role, Slaughter’s words “I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet” made my blood run cold.  But I have a hard time believing that feminism, or being a woman, is what’s causing these issues.   Stephanie Koontz wrote an excellent response titled Why is ‘Having it All’ Just a Women’s Issue? re-framing the issued as inadequate work policies that negatively impact all workers.  But I think women should stop thinking that “having it all” means doing it all.



Both Slaughter and Koontz offer great alternatives to current unnecessarily rigid work schedules and leave policies.  And both point out the penalties women workers face by men and women managers for appearing too focused on their children or from leaving the work force for periods of time.  But I think what’s missing from pieces like Slaughter’s is the conversation about why male executives don’t feel the same type of work or family pressures.   Maybe women should relax a little bit about the ridiculously high bar we have set for motherhood, or stop thinking every career choice we make is a political statement about the plight of the American woman.

I believe that a small percentage of jobs require tremendous time and energy, and that any person in that job along with their family will have to make some sacrifices.  I believe every person and every family has a limited amount of bandwidth.   I don’t believe in supermen or superwoman.  I wonder if Slaughter’s experience would have been different if her husband had stayed home full-time, or if she had moved her family to DC, or if she would have hired someone to help with her errands.  I wonder if she ever had a conversation with her husband and her children to discuss the support she would need from them to make their family run well.  Yes, I said ‘her children’ – teenagers are capable of contributing to their household.  I can’t buy that women, with the same level of support at home, can’t happily perform in high profile or high stress professions.

I support  flexible leave policies and work schedules.  I think we need family leave and health care reform so working parents are better able to balance their needs.  All workers would benefit from an overhaul of the American work culture that increased flexibility – whether to be a caregiver, work on a degree, do something part time that you love, maintain health insurance, save commute time, or whatever needs or wants are on their plate.  Employers gain an edge by having attractive retention and recruitment incentives – not to mention happier and often more productive workers.

But even if we gain those improvements and freshen up management practices, many executive level jobs are going to remain the same in terms of demands.  We will need to change our cultural assumptions about gender roles and our self-induced pressures about work and motherhood to make those positions attractive or possible for women.

We are in a tough place where we need to increase the number of women leaders at the same time we need to change current work practices in America to be more worker friendly.  But will we be able to do one without the other?





Photo Credit Jerry Bunkers via Creative Commons License.

Facebook Twitter Email

Tags: , , , , , ,

  • I so love this post!! My husband works full-time as well. We only see twice maybe 3 times a week if we are lucky. He also has to struggle with wanting to spend more time with his family and providing as well. So you brought up an excellent point. 

    Also I feel like “having it all” is different for everyone. I feel that I have it all, some may differ, I think we need define what it means for ourselves and our beliefs then set out to achieve it.