The phrase “having it all” rears its ugly head again

The phrase ‘having it all’,  the famous tagline coined by the original Superwoman  Shirley Conran,  has plagued us since 1975 which truthfully started all this nonsense. I had hoped it had disappeared for ever.   It conned women into believing that we could ‘have it all’  when it actually means ‘doing  it all’ or ‘managing it all’.  It has now reared its ugly head to probably do the same level of disservice to women everywhere, as it did first time round.

Another high-profile  writer has  caused a storm. Anne-Marie Slaughter was the  first woman director of policy planning at the State Department  and in ” a foreign-policy dream job that traces its origins back to George Kennan.” She has stepped down for family reasons which has precipitated a flow of unprecedented angst on behalf of ” women”.  In the Atlantic July/August “Women  still can’t have it all”   Ms Slaughter basically reiterates the  many truisms that most talent management specialists, as well as both women and men everywhere,  have been saying for years when dealing with the challenges of the 21st century workplace.

Important issues
There is no doubt that a highly visible woman publically targeting the key issues  both men and women face in their careers today is beneficial.   But sweeping, emotive, headline- grabbing generalisations from women of privilege do other women everywhere a disservice, not just in the upper echelons of  U.S. government administration. This headline is being picked up and syndicated globally to become a stand- alone #trending news item. 

What is “having it all” anyway? Should  Ms Slaughter’s headline become a defining slogan for all women?  I don’t think so. But sadly, it probably will be applied to all women,  all over the world, just as Conran’s did before her.

Out dated business models
Corporate business models are currently generally based on two factors:  a fully functional  nuclear family which in many societies is significantly reduced  and there being a distinct divide between  domestic (usually childcare) and revenue generating responsibilities, with one partner today tending to assume point roles on each side of that divide,  women focusing on childcare and men on revenue generating.  This model which exists to various degrees in different parts of the world is outmoded and impacts both men and women equally:

  •  Global economies are dealing with skill set shortages, declining birth rates and aging populations. We have essentially created a cultural conundrum. Economically we need women to have children.  We cannot support an aging population with an insufficient economically productive base. 60% of graduates are now female,  those skills are under utilised with developed economies filling key gaps with migrant men.
  • A presence  rather than result focused business culture in today’s hi-tech,  super- communication age is also out dated.  Organisations can be effectively managed without all personnel being in the same place, 24/7/52
  • A macho work culture where ” pulling all-nighters“, working 15 hour days and not taking time off at weekends and vacations is glorified and seen as a “good thing”,  rather than acknowledged as increasing the incidence of risk for error and being potentially damaging to both physical and mental health.
  • Men and women are both refusing to relocate for family reasons and have been for some time,  as any search specialist will tell you: spousal professions, housing costs,  education, single parent status and child and elder care are the 5 reasons most often quoted to me.

Extreme commuting
The extreme weekly commute from Trenton to Washington Ms Slaughter was undertaking seemed to be at the root of the issues  and anxiety she was facing. She makes no mention of why her husband and family didn’t move with her.  Many families relocate with children aged 12 and 14.  I would imagine the job of her husband  Andrew Moravcsik ,   who “supports ” her career as a Princeton Professor was a criterion. Perhaps it wasn’t feasible that he move to Washington. Perhaps he didn’t want to.  But an increasing number of men are re-locating to support their wives career progression.

Nor do we know what emergencies caused her to rush home  mid-week and why her husband was unable to handle them.  As Conran famously quipped  “you don’t need  a pair of breasts to take a child to the dentist

Children –  a corporate inconvenience
Fathers in the workplace tend to be viewed more highly,  not just  above women, but also above men without children. So although we hear about the “Daddy Factor” where men are perceived positively for family involvement, most say that if this manifests itself in a substantial time commitment, then that perception would rapidly shift to become career suicide.  For our businesses to survive and to maximise the potential of both men and women in the work place, we cannot continue to relegate child care to the level of corporate inconvenience.

Any re-location specialist would have suggested that this arrangement whether for a man or woman, was potentially fraught with difficulties for all  involved, without significant workplace concessions.  Astonishingly,  this seemed not to be part of any sign-on package.  Although men who work away from their homes and families putting in punishing hours, might appear to do so more willingly, they are not unscathed,  reporting significant damage to their relationships and health and are afterwards filled with regret.

Wanting too much
Ms Slaughter’s regular job is as University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University where she  says  ” I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book”

By most people’s standards male or female, she already had it all. The suggestion  that she didn’t, creates a benchmark for inadequacy.  Did she simply want too much and have unrealistic expectations?

But above all  letting the mantras and experience of  famous,  well placed, individual women, whether Conran or Slaughter become global catch phrases for all women is high risk.  This is damaging to the men and women who would, and do, make  entirely different choices. They will inevitably be tarred as flight risks by that same stereotyping brush when applying for senior positions.

What does ” having it all ”  mean for you?

21 responses to “The phrase “having it all” rears its ugly head again

  1. Rebecca Jones

    Dorothy – this is an excellent post. On the one hand Anne-Marie Slaughter really just pulls together what you and many individuals and organisations have been saying for a long time. Where has she been for the last 10 years?

    But her personal choice and the publicity it has now generated will indeed highlight what changes need to be made within organisations, but it will also label many women as potential flight risks when they are not at all.
    – some women don’t want children.
    – some women can’t have children.
    – some husbands will re-locate either permenantly or take leave of absence.
    – some 8th graders will accept their Moms are working in another city and adjust and not act out.
    – some husbands want to be involved in child care and will either negotiate flexi conditions or be happy with a restricted career.
    – women execs will negotiate better deals for themselves with some remote working, extra vacation etc.

    On balance did she do women any favours? Not so sure.

    • Thanks Rebecca for your comment. You’ve created a great list of where the stereotypes will be applied when they shouldn’t. Also add
      – single women with no kids
      – and families who have no choice and need the money.
      Yes of course a senior woman should highlight the organisational infra structure issues and values which mitigate against women and men in the workplace .

      But like you I feel this phrase a carries a mixed and loaded message and as you say why hasn’t she stepped up before?

  2. Great post Dorothy on an important subject. Integrating home and work life has become such an important issue for women that I’ve decided it is going to be a key focus of my work as a coach for the foreseeable future.

    The reality is that “having it all” is as you suggest a meaningless phrase. What is the mystical “all”? If it is about knowing our own values and living in accord with them then yes that is achievable. But wanting to be at the top of some beanpole as a perfect chief executive, parent, spouse, chef and housekeeper is setting either sex up for disappointment.

    The odd thing about the “pulling all-nighters“/working 15 hour days culture is that it is often policed at quite junior levels in the organization. A period doing it is regarded as part of working the apprenticeship! In reality, working smarter, making sure that what you deliver is visible, networking and managing office politics will get you further. Having said that, there are hard choices to make for parents and in most families the burden of that still lies with women.

    • Hi Wendy – I agree – the these words should be deleted from our phrase books. Meaningless, misleading, unmeasureable and now this has gone global will have repercussions on women who are willing to be professionally mobile.

  3. Hi there – Rebecca makes a good point – women don’t need senior role models who throw in the towel and leave jobs that make unacceptable demands on employees. We need them to make a stand while they are still in post and change things. Will the US administration do anything about it now? No, but they might have done if she still worked there. I’m not sure why Slaughter’s piece is getting this level of traction. Most of the women I know feel disappointed.

    • Thanks Patti. The article is a solid and provocative piece and hopefully will draw attention to corproate culture that impacts family life for both men and women rather than detract from women’s roles at senior levels.

      What is dishearenting is that Slaughter’s personal choices ( her WISH to be close to her children) will become benchmarks for other women ( probably most). “Having it all” is still a meaningless and misguided tagline as it was 40 years ago.

      Only recently a client was asked (illegally) in an interview how she could manange a senior commercial position with 4 children and husband living in another country. She is the primary income generator and within their couple the father is the principal “carer”. Another client (male) relocated to support his wife’s high level diplomatic job. He will probably struggle to re-integrate on his return in 2 years, because of the same unconsicous stereo-types.

      It’s too bad that she didn’t attempt to change the culture while in position as you say, negotiate a better deal for herself or simply re-locate her family.

  4. Dorothy – great post. The heart of the matter is as you say perfectly, out dated business models which relegate childcare to the level of ” corporate inconvenience” (love that phrase). How can you educate women in many cases to a higher level than some men and then let them become economically less productive? You are right we have created a “cultural conundrum” (another good phrase). Where are the think tanks in this? Oh yes… no women on them!

  5. Myriam Dressler

    Hi Dorothy – well said. Crying ‘no fair’ after the fact is tantamount a cop out and in my view IS adapting to male dominated corporate business models, the very action that Ms Slaughter discourages us from doing. At best a mixed confused message certainly – worst potentially damaging.

  6. Hi Dorothy — Call me optimistic, but I think Anne-Marie’s piece is encouraging change, even if it comes at a cost. Some organizations are VERY slow to change, and her thoughts may provide an opportunity to sway or influence public opinion, or, at the very least, fuel the debate. This, can effect change, even if it is over the long term, and could benefit others in the process. Having said that, I do have issues with a few things that have already been very well addressed by some of the readers in the comments section. We don’t all want the same things, but I think the more we speak up, either individually, or as part of an organized group, the quicker we can arrive at more equitable solutions.

    • Thanks for your comment Elizabeth. These issues have been debated for years as any seasoned campaigner will testify. They are not at all new. But this story has gone viral and is being talked in global terms, about all women.

      I think any widespread debate on these issues is always good but there are so many aspects of this emotive header and Ms Slaughter’s own story, plus employment conditions and culture which are specific to the US that will skew the ensuing result for all.

      I agree with my commentators so many questions that you wonder why such a well placed woman didn’t deal with the issues at the point of offer or even during her period in post.

      One thing for sure is that The Atlantic is getting a lot of publicity.

  7. Dorothy – you get to the heart of the matter!

  8. Great article, Dorothy. I just quoted you in my ForbesWoman post. http://www.forbes.com/sites/gloriafeldt/2012/06/26/think-women-cant-have-it-all-she-means-business-aims-for-more/ It’s about She Means Business: a project to boost women entrepreneurs, and it’s one positive step women are taking to create businesses where they can create new structures and choose how they wish to have — whatever.

  9. Pingback: Think Women Can’t Have It All? She Means Business Aims for More | 9 Ways

  10. Fabulous post, Dorothy. It reminded me of one of the men who was on a panel at the JUMP Forum in Brussels in May. He described the (reverse?) discrimination his wife got as being a “bad mother” when she was late picking her kids up from school. But, when he was late, the teacher was all sympathetic and lovey-dovey saying it was no problem and what a great dad to leave the office early to pick up his kid, etc.

    This article has truly sparked the debate wide open again and I welcome all the comments and insights because I think both men and women may have very conflicted views on the subject, drifting between the traditional, conservative values and roles and the “more modern”, liberal, updated(?) ones. The biggest issue for me is to have the social and cultural structures in place so that both men and women can work (if they want to) and still have and raise a family under less stressful conditions with understanding, compassion and no punishments for taking kids to the dentist or the doctors or the shrink or whatever.

    As you know, I’m currently reviewing the market for my next professional opportunity and I can guarantee you that these factors will be paramount in my decision of which company and what kind of people I will work with next.

    Last note, I don’t know if you saw the next article in the Atlantic from the Single Father entitled: “Having it All? How about doing the best that I can?” I found it a very nice addition to the discussion. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/06/having-it-all-how-about-doing-the-best-i-can/258898/

    • Thanks Megan – you are right. What was interesting was how the Slaughter article meant different things to different people and the global debate it has sparked. Perhaps that is also a takeaway that women are prepared to debate these topics from the whole range of stand points. It is essentially a male culture which men have largely accepted with minimal questioning for decades.

  11. Pingback: Children: A corporate inconvenience? | Dorothy Dalton

  12. Pingback: Why couples need congruent not dual career strategies | Dorothy Dalton

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