NEW YORK (Reuters) - Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent tell-all in The Atlantic magazine - “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” - is adding fuel to the long-simmering debate about managing a family and a career.
Slaughter, a politics and international affairs professor at Princeton University, said the two years she spent in a high-powered State Department position were hard on her family, particularly her teenage sons, who are 13-1/2 and 15-1/2.
Slaughter’s piece, which became prime blogosphere fodder, elicited a record 1.3 million hits on TheAtlantic.com. It attracted upward of 2,100 comments, more than 175,000 ‘Likes’ on Facebook - often with long threads - and 6,700-plus Tweets.
Here are edited excerpts of an interview with Slaughter, 53, about what’s next.
Q. What’s your reaction to the reaction?
A. I wanted to launch a conversation, and, boy, did I. I’ve been profoundly moved by the number of stories I’ve received from women who all start by saying “thank you,” and then go on to tell me these stories of how they’ve tried to make things work, and how badly so many of them feel that they aren’t living up to the expectations of where they thought they’d be when they left school. It just makes me want to cry.
These women were raised to believe they could compete on any terms they want - their teachers, parents, and society expected it. Through no fault of their own, they are finding they simply cannot do what they want to do on the work and family front.
Q. Whose response surprised you the most?
A. I knew I’d hear from younger men, but I didn’t expect to hear from so many fathers. They came of age in one generation and are sharing in the career dreams of their daughter’s generation. They see that their daughters don’t have great choices.
Q. You’ve done a bunch of interviews and written a response to your article. Why did you feel the pressure to back off from your original premise that women can’t have it all?
A. I‘m not backpedaling one bit - only agreeing with many of the critiques around the phrasing of “having it all.” Clearly, that phrase is misunderstood. I talked to too many people of my generation - I grew up in the 1960s and the 1970s - about the title. What I didn’t realize is that so many younger people hear it as wanting perfection. It’s not perfection - it’s about having the same career and family choices as men.
No one can have everything they want. That’s ridiculous, but in this country we believe you should have a level playing field to pursue your dreams.
Q. How can we fix the problem?
A. We need better choices for women and engaged parents. Men who want to spend more time with their families are part of this equation. They are going to need better options as well.
We need to offer more flexibility in the workplace so people can stay in the game. And we need to make sure people don’t pay a penalty down the road when they make a lateral move for family reasons - it just means they are delaying a promotion.
Q. What career advice would you give to women who are just entering the workforce?
A. You are going to feel different at 35 and 45 then you do at 25. At 25, kids were so far from my mind. I couldn’t imagine how much I’d want them at 35. When I was 35, I couldn’t imagine at 45 and 55, that no matter how committed I am to my career, I’d also feel that fulfilling personal goals and responsibilities are as important as fulfilling professional goals and responsibilities.
Try to have kids before 35, if you can, especially if it means you can avoid the agony of infertility treatments. Also understand that child rearing is non-linear. When your kids are teenagers, they can get themselves into messes that a Band Aid and a hug will not get them out of.
And, finally, ask for what you need.
Q. Many people have questioned why you didn’t ask for what you needed when you were working at the State Department.
A. I did everything I could possibly do for two years to make it work. But you cannot be at top of the State Department and ask for more flexibility. It’s like saying to the Egyptian government: “Can you hold that revolution?”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might have let me work from home one day a week, but I wouldn’t be doing the job she expected of me.
Moving my family to Washington from New Jersey would have been disastrous. It would mean putting my older son, who was having problems in school, in a completely strange environment without the support systems we have in place.
Some jobs simply don’t have flexibility. A woman surgeon wrote to me and said, “What am I supposed to do? Tell them to make an appointment for their appendix?”
Q. What do you think of the competitive Tiger Mom phenomenon?
A. It’s bad for our children. Kids need time to be kids. Downtime as well as creativity are both things we need for the future of our economy.
On the other hand, raising children takes a lot of discipline. You have to be willing to have them not like you part of the time. My husband is sort of the Tiger Dad in our family, and I‘m greatful for it.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I‘m back at Princeton, and I‘m sorting out exactly what I want to do to turn this conversation into action. I‘m certainly contemplating a book; I‘m equally contemplating how to develop what could easily become a platform for publicizing a lot of great work that’s been done. I can convene, connect and curate the voices of powerful women who are willing to tell their story.
I’ll spend the rest of the summer trying to read responses to the piece and trying to figure out where we go from here.
Q. What haven’t I asked you?
A. I would never gotten where I’ve gotten without very important and powerful male mentors. Abram Chayes at Harvard Law, Robert Keohane at Princeton, my husband and my dad are all men who so believed in the cause of women’s rights.
People say my article was an attack on feminism. It makes me crazy. I grew up in Virginia in the 1960s. Women were supposed to be seen and not heard. From my earliest age, I remember thinking I don’t fit here.
Now I look around Virginia and everywhere, and I see so many talented, articulate, educated women. I know it’s a cigarette ad, but I want to say: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” It’s time to make the next round of change.
The YOUNG BUCKS column appears monthly and at additional times as warranted. Lauren Young tweets at www.twitter.com/laurenyoung. Read more of her work at blogs.reuters.com/lauren-young
Editing by Linda Stern, Jilian Mincer and Steve Orlofsky