Tuesday, August 14, 2012

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

In her article, another “half-truth” that Dr. Slaughter rejected was that one can have “it” all if one just sequences “it” correctly. 

The article explains that the first wave of women in positions of power had their children in their 20s and 30s--as was the norm in prior generations.  But Dr. Slaughter notes this is no longer the norm for “many high-potential women” because they are marrying later and because having children earlier makes it difficult to get a graduate degree, get a good first job and advance in the “crucial early years of your career.”  Dr. Slaughter also points out that the lower incomes earlier in one’s careers make it harder to hire “the help that can be indispensible to your juggling act.” 

But Dr. Slaughter also opines that advising women to raise children first, then begin careers is not ideal.  She raises the concern that getting a late start will foreclose many career options.  Dr. Slaughter doesn’t state it explicitly, but her focus seems to clearly be on getting women to “the top.”  I think that what she is saying is that you aren’t going to be the CEO of a public company or appointed to the Supreme Court if you don’t start your career until your 40s.  Fair enough.

The reality is that women today are putting off having children until later, which creates all kinds of issues.  Dr. Slaughter describes her own struggles and franticness to conceive in her late 30s, as well as the reality that she will be fairly old when her kids finish school.  More troubling perhaps is that she notes that “in the prime” of a woman’s career, she will often be declining opportunities because her children or aging parents need her.  Nonetheless, Dr. Slaughter concludes: “Given the way our work culture is oriented today, I recommend establishing yourself in your career first but still trying to have kids before you are 35—or else freeze your eggs, whether you are married or not.” 

Yikes!  For some people, this idea of freezing one’s eggs is a non-starter.  Egg freezing is not a cheap endeavor, so for economic reasons it is simply not even an option for many women.  Additionally, many have religious or ethical concerns about the practice.  Freezing one’s eggs simply cannot be seen as a panacea to solve the structural issues women face in the professional world.

However, I do agree with Dr. Slaughter that this issue of sequencing is a big deal.  When I was in law school and beginning my practice, the general consensus among women was that you finish school and get established in your career first, then you take on motherhood.  I think most of us recognized that the workplace wouldn’t accommodate us if we tried things in the opposite order.  But a significant number of my female colleagues in law school got pregnant in their last year of law school, bucking that common wisdom.  It was controversial and even some of their closest female friends disapproved of their decision. 

Several years later when I was in practice, a newly graduated former law clerk reported to work full-time as she prepared for the bar exam.  Many in our office were stunned that she was quite visibly in her third trimester of pregnancy.  Again, she bucked the trend and it was quite controversial, though no one told her to her face. 

I didn’t (and don’t)  judge those women who bucked the common wisdom about sequencing.  I just know I couldn’t have taken their path and had the career I’ve had.  During the mini-baby boom in my 3L year, my husband and I talked about trying to get pregnant ahead of schedule, i.e., prior to my graduation.  Ultimately, we just didn’t think that would be wise and we opted to not begin a family until I had practiced several years.

I appreciate Dr. Slaughter’s concern about getting women to “the top.”  But, personally, I’ve just never been ambitious in that way.  In practice, I never wanted to be a partner at a big firm or a manager in-house.  I enjoyed lawyering and didn’t want to be taken from that to be a rainmaker or administrator.  As an academic, I’ve never had the faintest interest in becoming a dean or associate dean.  I like the process of teaching and doing scholarship. 

But even though I personally don’t want to get to “the top,” I appreciate Dr. Slaughter’s concern.   It is not healthy for organizations when there is such a structural imbalance in gender.  Something is out of whack when women are disproportionately the worker bees and rarely included in the decision-making.  That happens in almost every line of work, however. 

A large part of it is due to the issues Dr. Slaughter raises in her article, but a lot of it may also be that many women have attitudes similar to mine.  Making it to “the top” is not necessarily appealing to all of us, and in my opinion part of it has to do with desiring to have a life outside of work. 

I’m not just talking about having kids.  That is the prime focus of Dr. Slaughter’s article.  But I’ve known plenty of brilliant professional women who are not partnered and have no kids, but want some part of their day to devote to other things they enjoy.  I had a co-worker who jealously guarded her off-time because she was a marathon runner, volunteered every week to minister to the dying in a local cancer hospital, spent time with her siblings and their children, and practiced her religion.  There was no way she was working round the clock to sacrifice all that.  I’ve had other professional female friends who make time for community theater, caring for sick relatives, serving on the boards of nonprofits, singing in the church choir, doing pro bono, camping, spending time with beloved pets, and starting their own side businesses to explore a particular non-lucrative passion of theirs.  Paid work is important.  But so are other activities.

Ecclesiastes 3:3-8

Everything on earth
has its own time
and its own season.
There is a time
for birth and death,
planting and reaping,
for killing and healing,
destroying and building,
for crying and laughing,
weeping and dancing,
for throwing stones
and gathering stones,
embracing and parting.
There is a time
for finding and losing,
keeping and giving,
for tearing and sewing,
listening and speaking.
There is also a time
for love and hate,
for war and peace.

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