Posted on 18 April 2013.
For Princeton University professor and former US State Department official, Anne-Marie Slaughter, it has been a busy year. Her manifesto chronicling the struggle of today’s professional women attempting to achieve work-life balance, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” (July 2012), quickly became the Atlantic’s most viewed article of all time (The Colbert Report interview, July 16, 2012). Professor Slaughter’s article is credited, along with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In, with reinvigorating the debate about gender equality in the new millennium.
On April 3rd, the same day she was announced as president of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy think tank, Professor Slaughter spoke to a standing room only crowd at the Tuck School of Business. Her lecture was a part of the Leading Voices in Higher Education series, which developed out of strategic planning efforts early last year, with the goal of bringing leading scholars and authors to Dartmouth.
For the first half of her talk, Professor Slaughter presented the range of reactions she has received for her Atlantic piece. Not surprisingly, they generally group into two major categories: positive, in the form of gratitude for addressing the challenges that career women face, and negative, broadly that she is “setting back the women’s movement” and “reversing what we have gained.” A third reaction category that Professor Slaughter discussed is that which she receives from men, specifically, from fathers. Either these men are disheartened to see their high-achieving daughters start to struggle with work-life balance, or, they are young men saying that due to social stigma and societal pressures, “men can’t have it all either.” For example, if a woman leaves work early to care for a child, it is expected. However, if a man leaves, he is perceived as not committed to the job, and is “not really a guy.”
Over half of all people receiving bachelor’s degrees in the United States today are women. Overall, the numbers are similar for those earning advanced degrees. Despite these advances, women remain under-represented in high-ranking jobs. For example, according to Professor Slaughter, there are only 21 female CEOs amongst the Fortune 500 companies. Furthermore, the number of women leaving the workforce after having a second child is the same today as it was 20 years ago. Knowing and understanding the challenges is only a part of the battle. In the second half of her lecture, Professor Slaughter addressed how we might continue to strive toward true gender equality moving forward. Her mantra centered around three major things: paid leave, good day care, and flextime.
In addition, Professor Slaughter stressed the importance of valuing breadwinners and caregivers, as well as individual time spent in each capacity. Our society was designed with the notion that one person, typically the woman, would be the caregiver, and one, typically the man, would be the breadwinner. However, with 70% of woman in the workforce, that model no longer applies. Professor Slaughter suggests that instead of dividing roles by gender, couples should instead consider additional factors, such as which partner earns a higher salary, has a career they can leave and more easily return to, works with a more understanding employer, etc.
Professor Slaughter addressed the importance of giving men, as well as women, more options, and told the audience that if taking time out to start a family, “don’t drop out, defer.” She acknowledged that some careers are more amenable to this than others, but said it is important to “stay in the game” in some capacity during any time away. Finally, she ended her lecture with two thoughts. First, that her work, and management, style has always been that “Family comes first. If family comes first, work does not come second. Life comes together.” And second, that as a society, we all need to slow down, stressing the importance of nourishing our souls, whether that be with family or something else, as we move along in our careers.
The academic lifestyle was discussed in detail during the question session following the lecture. Professor Slaughter emphasized that the academic life affords a level of flexibility in time management that is not easily accessible to all careers. Her husband is also a professor at Princeton University. When specifically asked, she said that the best time for career women to have kids is 30-35 years old, one of her reasons being that an “independent me” is a good idea before bringing people into the world. If not possible, she suggested that freezing eggs is an alternative, since fertility issues can be devastating.
Furthermore, academic institutions are beginning to make changes. For example, Princeton University automatically awards both men and women an extra year on the tenure clock after the birth of a child. However, as a current graduate student myself, it is hard to imagine that the demands of a functioning scientific research lab—advising graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, writing grant renewals, teaching, publishing manuscripts, etc.—could easily pause for any stretch of time. This idea gets back to the core of Professor Slaughter’s lecture, which is that gender equality and work-life balance issues are bigger than individual institutions. Overall, we need to create more affordable, flexible day care options, redesign the workplace, include men in all discussions, and value caregiving as a society. Only then, can we truly begin to have it all.
You can find Professor Slaughter’s Leading Voices in Higher Education lecture online.
by Jeanine Amacher