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.