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Why Can't Women Have It All? It's Not You—It's Discrimination | The Nation

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Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert

Lady business with equal parts lady and business.

Why Can't Women Have It All? It's Not You—It's Discrimination

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 do—“it all,” which is assumed to mean a successful career and a happy, healthy family. But as the cover story in the latest issue of The Atlantic points out, this question has too often been seen as an individual one. While dressed in controversial framing—a reference to “having it all,” a cover depicting an unhappy-looking baby stuck in a briefcase—author Ann-Marie Slaughter's article successfully turns our attention from the isolated “failings” of women who can’t swing both a high-powered career and raising kids to why our society and economy make this impossible.

So how do we challenge—and ultimately change—the structures that make women feel they have to 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 the 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 important to first 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 whom 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; that the world’s parliaments are only 13 percent female; and that 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” on the part of these women. The numbers are too low, and that just gets us 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 excluded. Research done by Catalyst shows that in business professions, what's at fault isn't a leaky pipeline in which many women eventually opt out of careers to care for their families. Given that half of middle managers are 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 let them move 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: women 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 for parents, giving 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 this cause. “Slowly, change is happening,” Slaughter says. But it seems to be occurring at a snail’s pace. What’s going to motivate a more widespread change in workplace rules and expectations? If the answer is that more women will take jobs higher up in these companies, the clogged pipeline makes the prospects for that option seem dim.

Slaughter 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 on those of 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, we’ll have to put the spotlight on the structural barriers that women continue to face in politics and in the workplace.

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