Reframing the “Having It All” Discussion

10 Mar

By Sumegh Sodani

Back in October 2012, Hillary Clinton implicitly criticized the “having it all” discussion taking place in foreign policy and national security circles:

“I can’t stand whining…I can’t stand the kind of paralysis that some people fall into because they’re not happy with the choices they’ve made. You live in a time when there are endless choices…Money certainly helps, and having that kind of financial privilege goes a long way, but you don’t even have to have money for it. But you have to work on yourself…Do something!”

“Some women are not comfortable working at the pace and intensity you have to work at in these jobs. … Other women don’t break a sweat…They have four or five, six kids. They’re highly organized, they have very supportive networks.”

Although Clinton’s pointed criticism catalyzed serious discussion, Clinton’s colleague Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former Director for Policy Planning at State, must also be given her due: by titling an article on work-life balance Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, she sparked a conversation whose repercussions still reverberate throughout the media and society. Personally—and I think there are a number of men and women who agree with me—the article resulted in a poorly framed back-and-forth that did not substantially elucidate the framework for a future conversation, forcing America to spend months wading through crass while waiting for the media to reframe the discussion in a way that could first delineate the actual issues at hand and subsequently link philosophy, reality, and policy.

NPR published an excellent piece that articulates the premise that Ms. Slaughter’s argument is based upon: making the fateful decision to have a family (though I prefer NPR’s phrasing: When There’s A Baby Between You and the Glass Ceiling). Slaughter’s argument convolutes the discussion of gender equity and family rights by proceeding from the assumption that all women have families. It’s a broad assumption that does not fully acknowledge to what extent sexism limits female advancement versus the opportunity costs women and men face due to family responsibilities.

NPR’s article seems to indicate that maybe the direction of the conversation should be about distinguishing between gender equity and family rights, while allowing us to critically explore how they intersect, in a manner that is intelligent and inclusive. In the immediate aftermath of Slaughter’s piece, that may have been a reasonable departure point, but now I am not so sure. For instance, proceeding from the family rights perspective as Slaughter tried to do excludes single workers or couples who decide to (or unfortunately are unable to) have children. To be fair, I don’t know how many of them would react to the “can’t have it all” argument other than with ambivalence or hostility.

Concerns could be raised when proceeding solely down the gender equity route. For instance, economists Claudia Goldin, Lawrence Katz, and Marianne Bertrand found that an institutionalized male patriarchy is not the contributing reason for wage disparities and male-domination at the executive level. Rather, the main reason for the glaring disparity was due to women having career interruptions, often because of children. The researchers summed it up best:

Women have more career interruptions, and work shorter hours, including more work in part-time positions and self-employment. Although these differences are modest, the remuneration disparity they entail is exceptionally large. […] Any career interruption–a period of 6 months or more out of work–is costly in terms of future earnings, and at 10 years out, women are 22 percentage points more likely than men to have had at least one career interruption. Deviations from the male norm of high hours and continuous labor market attachment are greatly penalized in the corporate and financial sectors.

Gender equity, family rights, etc. are all facets of a broader and more inclusive discussion—rethinking and modernizing the workplace social contract. This serves as a philosophical departure point for articulating what employers can reasonably expect from workers and vice versa. In some ways it is far more challenging than simply legislating entitlements as it requires negotiation and dialogue between stakeholders to envision a comprehensive, inclusive, equitable, and just contract.

Yet, these issues are also aspects of another discussion—actively discussing the familial contract. I think it is a fair assumption that most couples do not negotiate and articulate expectations and responsibilities for their relationship. This is important as it forces women and men to make decisions about the value of their careers relative to the value of their relationship/family. Holding sexism or “corporate responsibility” accountable for individual choice undermines our personal responsibility for aligning our available means with our expectations and objectives; as I pointed out earlier these choices can directly impact parity between men and women in the workplace. So have that dialogue with your significant other, especially if you want to pursue that dream career. But please, let’s not expect society to be responsible for all our growing burdens so that we can “have it all.”

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One Response to “Reframing the “Having It All” Discussion”

  1. Alissa Orlando March 11, 2013 at 3:07 am #

    Sumegh – While I agree that the “having it all” conversation should instead be two separate conversations (gender equity and family rights), I don’t agree with some of your arguments within those disparate conversations.

    For example, you say that economists “found that an institutionalized male patriarchy is not the contributing reason for wage disparities and male-domination at the executive level.” Although SOME women (those who decide to have children) may decide to have “career interruptions” there are several other reasons (I’ve written posts, for example, on leadership style and mentorship) why women are not in the top positions which have NOTHING to do with having children. Saying that having children is the only (or even primary) reason why there is a stunning wage and leadership gap between women and men is an unfair diagnosis that does nothing to help ambitious women.

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