Elite women put new spin on an old debate

They have children, along with husbands who do as much or more child-rearing than they do
Last Updated 24 June 2012, 16:00 IST

If a woman has a sterling resume, a supportive husband who speaks fluent car pool and a nurturing boss who just happens to be one of the most powerful women in the world herself, who or what is to blame if Ms. Supposed-to-Have-It-All still cannot balance work and family?

A recent magazine article by a former Obama administration official blew up into an instant debate about a new conundrum of female success: Women have greater status than ever before in human history, even outpacing men in education, yet the lineup at the top of most fields is still stubbornly male. Is that new gender gap caused by women who give up too easily, unsympathetic employers or just nature itself?

The article, by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor who recently left a job at the State Department, added to a renewed feminist conversation that is bringing fresh twists to bear on longstanding concerns about status, opportunity and family.

Unlike earlier iterations, it is being led not by agitators who are out of power but by elite women at the top of their fields, like comedian Tina Fey, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg and now Slaughter. In contrast to earlier barrier-breakers from Gloria Steinem to Condoleezza Rice, these women have children, along with husbands who do as much or more child-rearing than they do.

The conversation came to life in part because of a compelling face-off of issues and personalities: Slaughter, who urged workplaces to change and women to stop blaming themselves, took on Sandberg, who has somewhat unintentionally come to epitomise the higher-harder-faster school of female achievement.

Starting a year and a half ago, Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, injected new energy into the often circular work-or-home debate with videotaped talks that became Internet sensations. After bemoaning the lack of women in top business positions, she instructed them to change their lot themselves by following three rules: Require your partner to do half the work at home, don’t underestimate your own abilities and don’t cut back on ambition out of fear that you won’t be able to balance work and kids.

The talks transformed Sandberg from little-known executive to the new face of female achievement, earning her untold letters and speaking invitations, along with micro-inspection of her life for clues to career success. The response and scrutiny were so overwhelming that she hired a sociologist, Marianne Cooper, to help her get the research and data right.

When Sandberg confessed in a recent interview that, contrary to her harder-faster-higher reputation, she leaves work at 5:30 pm to eat dinner with her children, and return to a computer later, she earned yet another round of attention, and her words were taken as the working-mom equivalent of a papal ruling.

Spurring skepticism

But in the fast-whirring world of online feminist debate, her advice also spurred skepticism: By putting even more pressure on women to succeed, was she, even unintentionally, blaming the victim if they did not?

Enter Slaughter’s article, in which she described a life that looked like a feminist diorama from the outside (a mother and top policy adviser for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton) but was accompanied by domestic meltdown (workweeks spent in a different state from her family, a rebellious teenage son to whom she had little time to attend.)

As she began questioning whether her job in Washington was doable and at what cost, she began hearing from younger women who complained about advice like Sandberg’s.
“Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with ... because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation,” Slaughter wrote. “But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating ‘you can have it all’ is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.”

“Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach,” Slaughter continued, summarising Sandberg’s approach as “‘What’s the matter with you?”'

Instead, Slaughter said, the workplace needs to adapt, and women who opt out have no need to apologise. In an interview, Slaughter added that she was motivated to write in part by her concern about the number of women serving in high posts under president Barack Obama – and now that the first round of female appointees is leaving, she said, they are mostly being replaced by men.

“I don’t think there is sufficient appreciation across the administration as a whole of the different circumstances facing women and men,” she said.

Unlike in earlier eras, when Germaine Greer would publish one book and then Betty Friedan would weigh in months later, a new crop of feminist bloggers and writers now respond instantaneously. The women they were writing about followed along in real time Thursday as well, reading the debate as they were living it, inhaling Slaughter’s article and the responses as they stole a few minutes from work or raced off to pick up their children. By Thursday afternoon, Slaughter’s confession-slash-manifesto was breaking readership records for, where it appeared, according to a magazine representative.

Many responded with enthusiasm for Slaughter’s recommendations (more latitude to work at home, career breaks, matching work schedules to school schedules, even freezing eggs). Some expressed solidarity with their husbands, who they said feel just as much work-life agita that they do. More than a few said they were irritated by what they called outdated language (“having it all”) and cliched cover illustration (Baby, check. Briefcase, check.)

“Irresponsibly conflating liberation with satisfaction, the ‘have it all’ formulation sets an impossible bar for female success and then ensures that when women fail to clear it, it’s feminism – as opposed to persistent gender inequity – that’s to blame,” Rebecca Traister wrote in an article on

For her part, Sandberg remained silent, declining a request to address the Atlantic article. But Slaughter said in an interview that the Silicon Valley executive was one of the many readers who emailed her as soon as the article came out. Her message: They had to talk more about this, and soon.

(Published 24 June 2012, 16:00 IST)

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