From “Baby Boom” in 1987 to “I Don’t Know How She Does It” just last year, we’ve long been obsessed with how women do—and, more often, don’t—“it all,” which is assumed to mean, for them, a successful career and a happy, healthy family. But as the newest cover article in The Atlantic points out, this question has too often been seen as an individual one. While dressed in controversial framing—referencing “having it all,” an unhappy-looking baby in a briefcase—author Ann-Marie Slaughter successfully turns our attention from the isolated “failings” of women who can’t swing both a high-powered career and raising kids to why society and our economy make this impossible.
So how do we challenge and ultimately change the structures that make women feel they have choose between work and home life? That’s where Slaughter’s structural argument stops short. While she envisions more women at the top, changing workplace cultures and policies, she fails to see the discrimination that still keeps them from reaching those lofty ranks. And her solutions also stop short of taking on larger, deep-rooted problems. While she begins a good conversation, she doesn’t quite take it all the way through to real change.
It’s first important to acknowledge what subset of women Slaughter is talking about. She herself makes sure to note that she is writing for her demographic: “highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place.… We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.” And it’s also these women that Slaughter sees as integral to creating the change we need. “The best hope for improving the lot of all women…is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 woman senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders,” she writes. “Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers we will create a society that genuinely works for all women.”
But she rightly points out that “very few women reach leadership positions.” Quoting Sheryl Sandberg, she notes that there are only nine heads of state who are women out of 190 around the world, the world’s parliaments are only 13 percent female and just about 15 percent of top jobs in the corporate sector are held by women. So why can’t we move up? Slaughter is rightly skeptical of the Sandbergian theory that it’s because of “insufficient commitment” from these women. The numbers are too low, and that just gets back to blaming women for their supposed failures. Slaughter’s explanation is that many of the women who make it to the top, particularly in politics, are “superwomen,” earning Rhodes scholarships and Nobel Prizes before even getting there, a standard far too high for most talented women to live up to. She also points out that while men in these top positions enjoy career success and a thriving family life, it seems to elude the women who make it there.
That’s likely true. Women have to overachieve just to reach par with men. They are also penalized for having families in ways that men are not. What this adds up to is discrimination, pure and simple. Yet Slaughter shies away from calling out the political and corporate structures that keep women out. Research done by Catalyst shows that in business professions, at fault isn’t a leaky pipeline in which women opt out of careers to care for their families. Given that half of middle management is female, yet women account for only 16 percent of board seats on Fortune 500 companies and 3.6 percent of CEOs, this is instead a blocked pipeline that won’t move them up. As Ilene Lang, president and CEO of Catalyst, previously told me, “Often women get stuck having to prove themselves over and over again. That’s a block; they’re not going up.”
There’s discrimination in the political realm too. Researchers recently pinpointed the seven major reasons women don’t run for office, and among them is the fact that they are less likely than men to receive the suggestion that they should even try. Things aren’t easy even if they do make it into office, though. They are perceived as more vulnerable, regardless of their margin of victory when elected, and therefore end up having more competition when running for re-election and a harder time raising money.
Given that Slaughter doesn’t spend time thinking about this structural discrimination, her solutions also ignore it. She has some insightful ideas about how technology can help the workplace better adapt to the reality of people’s lives, particularly parents’, and give them more flexibility. She calls for “changing the ‘default rules’ that govern office work—the baseline expectations about when, where and how work will be done.” But there’s no suggestion as to how we make firms take up that cause. “Slowly, change is happening,” she says. But that seems to be at a snail’s pace. What’s going to motivate widespread adoption? If the answer is that more women will take jobs higher up in these companies, the clogged pipeline makes hope for that option seem dim.
She also teeters on the edge of falling into the self-blame trap that she so wants to climb out of. Two of her big solutions focus more on women’s attitudes than the society around them. She calls on women to redefine success and happiness and to push for those around them to do the same. But while it is likely more emotionally healthy to have your ideas about those goals better aligned with the reality of your life, that doesn’t lead to others holding the same view. You may think it’s worth taking some time off to spend with your children, but that doesn’t stop the likelihood that your earning power will decrease because of it. Your role model may shift from childless Condoleezza Rice to First Lady and first mother Michelle Obama, but your employer might not share your affections.
Slaughter’s article certainly starts the conversation in a useful framework. But it takes more than framing the question to get us to real answers. To find those answers, we’ll have to put the spotlight on the structural barriers women continue to face in politics and the workplace.