On having it all

The best thing I read this past week was Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, in The Atlantic. (Thank you, Stephanie Burgis, for linking to it on fb!) It’s a long, thoughtful, nuanced article that, despite its deliberately provocative title, is a powerful argument for fairer, more flexible working conditions for Americans.

Essentially: nobody who is tied to a rigid work schedule can hope to “have it all” – by which Slaughter means professional success and work-life balance. And while Slaughter is talking primarily about women like herself – affluent, powerful,¬†highly educated mothers, the kind who most people see and marvel, “How does she do it all?” – it’s also applicable to men.

Are you up for a long read? If so, I’d love to discuss it with you. My main questions so far are:

– Slaughter is a seriously elite academic, talking about other super-high-powered women. What does her argument mean for average workers – for example, someone who works in retail and has to be in in the workplace in order to work?

– Why hasn’t Slaughter questioned the very idea of the mega-hour work week? Is it really an achievement to work from home if you’re still sending email at one a.m.?

What are your thoughts and questions?


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6 Responses to “On having it all”

  1. Natalie says:

    Excellent musings. Actually, the first thing I thought of when I read Slaughter’s piece earlier in the week was the average worker – obviously, there are going to be differences between what a woman (or a man) experiences while working in an elite academic setting as opposed to someone who works in a retail setting. Slaughter’s argument doesn’t apply to parents in retail, at least as far as I can read. She is talking about an elite group. My number one question, however, is this: what does “having it all” even mean, on either the theoretical level or the personal level?

    For example, I completed my master’s degree but am holding off on my PhD, because of the birth of my son (in fact, I defended my thesis while suffering from severe morning sickness!). I find myself longing for the doctorate at times, but at the same time I remember the stress that graduate school involved, and I enjoy spending time with my son. I wanted to find myself conducting research in a top-tier research university at one point. To keep myself “in the game”, I teach adjunct classes at the local university in the evenings, work as an at-home research assistant, and compete for grants for my own book project. And…I like it. I’m constantly asked when I’m going back for my doctorate by colleagues, and am urged to slow down by those who see me solely as a mommy. I dislike being viewed in either light. The fact is, I realize that I am happy at the moment, and it is only when others remind me of “what I could be doing” that I begin to stress about whether I am happy or not! I have my personal life and my professional life, and I take great satisfaction from both. I will reach my goals in my own time, at my own pace. Of course, I also know that part of my ability to feel content at the moment comes from the stability of my husband’s job, too – if he had a string of contract or adjunct work like I do, this would be a different conversation.

    What I come to is this: the “having it all” argument seems like a straw man. In the context of Slaughter’s example, I agree, it isn’t possible to have it all – something has to give. But each person’s definition of “having it all” varies widely, I’m sure.

  2. Mary says:

    Thanks so much for bring up this discussion in the writing for kids world. I have seen references to Slaughter’s article, but hadn’t had time to read it. I will now. and I’ll be back to chat about it.

  3. Natalie says:

    Although, I do want to add one other point – I completely agree that the US needs fairer, more flexible working conditions for all Americans, both men and women. As an anonymous example, I can name one man who was asked by his female boss, “Just when do plan on returning to work?” in a very condescending tone three days after his son’s birth, when she knew the child was having problems with a heart condition and jaundice. It would seem that the “average” work (ie, one not in an elite setting), cannot hope to see such changes until the elite level experiences the change. Eesh.

  4. Ying says:

    Natalie! Thanks for your very thoughtful points. I agree that Slaughter should have defined “having it all” more clearly. In the context of the article, I interpreted it as “having the satisfaction of working and achieving to the best of your ability, while leading a balanced life outside work”. I’m guessing that Slaughter would have loved to continue in her dream job, had she been able to balance it with her family’s needs. And I think, using my unwieldy definition, that you’re clearly having it all. You’re also doing what she argues should be possible for more women: waiting until your son is a bit older before devoting even more time to your career.

    Reading your comment reminds me of something else I was troubled by: Slaughter’s assumption that once elite women achieve this kind of flexibility and respect, it should trickle down (argh, hideous phrase) to “the women working at Walmart”. Um. That’s a lovely idea, but it certainly doesn’t work like that in academia, where tenured and tenure-track professors (in my experience, anyway) are largely untroubled by the vast chasm that separates them from adjuncts. To give just one example, a friend of mine won a teaching award – only to be told that she couldn’t accept it, because she was an adjunct. I’d love to hear your perspective, here.

    Mary, I look forward to hearing from you!

  5. Natalie says:

    Sorry for the late reply, it’s been a busy weekend! As to the adjunct point – it is a shame that your friend was not allowed to accept the award. Good teaching should be rewarded, regardless of one’s “official” title. I suspect it was a matter of pride and expectations on the university’s part – the school might anticipate the public expecting a tenured professor to win the award, because shouldn’t someone with a doctorate be a better teacher than someone with a master’s degree (or, a full professor be a better teacher than an adjunct)?

    In reality, it can be just the opposite. I’ve seen fantastic teachers come from both groups, and I have seen terrible ones, too. The facts are these, however: tenured professors at research universities (especially Tier 1) are encouraged to “publish or perish.” As such, that can affect one’s teaching performance. On the other side of things, the academic market is swamped. There are lots of academics without jobs. They know they have to perform well, because there are ten (or more) people who can take their place in a moment. That thought is in the back of my mind every year when I put together my lesson plans, and I work in a good environment.

    I’ve had the good experience of working with professors who praise their adjuncts and who admit that, as a group, adjuncts typically work harder and carry more responsibility than should be asked of them. I’ve also had good conversations with these professors, and I know they have spoken up for the adjuncts before. Of course, I work at a small university. I know plenty of other adjuncts at larger universities who share your friend’s experience. One, who although she has her PhD, is abandoning academia for library science. She would love to be a full professor, but she has spent years waiting for a position to open up. There are hiring freezes everywhere, and she couldn’t justify waiting for an opening any longer – she has two young girls. It’s an awful position for her to be in, but I understand why she is doing what she is doing. I am not certain that I would do things any differently if I was in her position.

    I think more attention is being called to the question of fairness to adjuncts, however, so I do not think it is a conversation that tenured professors can tune out of for very long. Additionally, I have also heard some talk that both tenured professors and the recently hired are worried about the increasing number of adjuncts in universities. They fear that universities will view adjuncts as a more cost-affective solution to hiring more full-time positions. This in turn causes animosity towards adjuncts, too. Which, to me would be funny if it was not so sad, as it reminds me of other work relationships in US history – for a random example without a modern context, let’s say animosity towards Irish girls accepting lower pay than their US counterparts in the mid-1800s. Let’s not look at what’s wrong with the system, but blame those who “threaten” the jobs!

  6. Ying says:

    Natalie, I completely agree with your conclusions and I love the random example you give. My friend’s experience was an extreme one, but at the time I left academia, I certainly witnessed a lot of complacency about the working conditions and pay of sessional instructors. I’m glad to think it’s likely to start changing. I just hope that after we recognize problems in the system, we also have the will to fix things.

    One final thought about Slaughter’s article: she seems to assume that it takes two full-time-working adults to support a family. This is certainly true in many, many jobs, but probably not for tenured professors at Ivy League colleges. Where do you think she stands on stay-at-home parents, or families with one freelance parent who could never pay the mortgage on his/her salary alone? Maybe the ultimate flexibility would be to take a multi-year unpaid parental leave, with the option to return and – this is the tricky bit – be considered as relevant and competitive as your colleagues who were there all along. When I was talking to my grad school advisors about leaving the academy, I was strongly warned that I would “never” be able to return, as though academe was a Garden of Eden. But who’s holding those flaming swords?

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