Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Anne-Marie Slaughter on “having it all” (generational divides)

I could empathize with a part of the article when Dr. Slaughter wrote:

“I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (“It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (“I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great”). “ 

Dr. Slaughter is older than me, so she is referencing women who were on the front lines of breaking the gender divide in professional ranks.  I too have some experience in such circles, albeit less prestigious ones. 

I too have noted such negative attitudes from older professional women.  I don’t condone such attitudes, but I can understand them to some degree.  Admittedly, such women had it REALLY tough.  They were not welcomed into the professional world, they were sometimes harassed and demeaned.   And I’m not talking only about explicit sexual harassment.  I’ve heard anecdotes from co-workers of nonsexual practical jokes and sabotaging of meetings where the “girls” had to present their work product or coordinate a team’s activities. 

And then there were demeaning circumstances unrelated to co-workers.  When you work in an environment where all the men are lawyers and the few women are typically all support staff, it ain’t easy being a female lawyer.  It is common to be mistaken for an administrative assistant.  I have great admiration for administrative assistants, but it is pretty embarrassing to be the one lawyer that guests always go to when they need to find a restroom or want a cup of coffee.   They never seemed to ask my male colleagues, not even the junior ones. 

And I was once yelled at for not knowing the details of my boss’s travel arrangements while he was on a business trip.  I was gracious to the yeller, but for the life of me I couldn’t understand why anyone would think I’d have his flight information or know the hotel where he was staying.  I just couldn’t fathom why I’d be blamed for such a lack of information.  Not until later did I realize the yeller had thought I was my boss’s administrative assistant, not one of his attorneys.

If I got mistaken for administrative assistants in the twenty-first century, I can only imagine how much worse things were a few decades before when "lady lawyers" were an even rarer novelty.  Back then you didn't even have the more recent pop culture icons that make the gender of an attorney a less noticeable thing.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the media images of attorneys were exclusively male (e.g., Perry Mason, Atticus Finch).

When I practiced in Houston, there was a popular club for businessmen and professionals in the dominant local industry.  That club restricted its membership to men for many years such that the first wave of female lawyers, accountants, engineers and executives couldn’t even network there unless they were the guest of a colleague or client.  Not until a major economic collapse in the industry (and a resulting loss of dues paying members) did the club opt to allow women to join.   Dire financial problems were ultimately responsible for opening up membership to women, not a concern for diversity or equality.

The bottom line is that women entering the professional and business world in the 1960s and 1970s were the first wave, and they were not embraced with open arms.  My hat’s off to them for even sticking around.  Understandably, many of their female peers did not.

But so often, I’ve been disappointed that the intelligent, strong women who did stick around have not been more supportive or even understanding about work-life balance issues facing more junior women in the workplace.  In my observation, those women in the first wave had to make a lot of sacrifices on the family front if they stayed active professionally.  However, I’ve witnessed that they don’t like to admit they had to make such sacrifices.  They’ve had so much judgment from others as they’ve raised their kids.  So they often put a brave face on, brag at their kids’ successes and gloss over their family failures.  My sense is that deep down such women really resent the family sacrifices they had to make.  As a result, they seem unsympathetic to those younger women who are not willing to make the same sacrifices.   Perhaps it seems unfair to women in the first wave that the next generation might have it easier in some ways.

I appreciated Dr. Slaughter’s honesty in saying that she had often been on the other side of the coin, looking down on women who decided to “take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family.”  She wrote about the “dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession.”  She seems to be referencing the female brain drain among professionals when the workplace is overly demanding and inflexible, leaving no time to raise a family.  I wrote about that brain drain last year in an article that is going to be published this fall.  (See http://works.bepress.com/claudine_pease-wingenter/7/.)

I appreciated the part of the article when Dr. Slaughter wrote: “I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot). “  I think those lines say it all.  Women today are expected to do everything and be everything.  It is just not possible, but our culture makes it sound like it is our fault as women if we don’t live up to the impossible bar that has been set.

Dr. Slaughter described giving a speech on work-life balance to a young group:  “Just about all of the women in that room planned to combine careers and family in some way. But almost all assumed and accepted that they would have to make compromises that the men in their lives were far less likely to have to make.”  Again, Dr. Slaughter is not clear what she means in this passage.  But later she talked about work circumstances that are “typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be.”  In that vein, she also quoted Mary Matalin: “Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.” Dr. Slaughter’s thesis is that we can “have it all,” but “not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”  I’ll explore the repercussions of this thesis in later blog posts.

Ephesians 6:4

Parents, don’t be hard on your children. Raise them properly. Teach them and instruct them about the Lord.

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