Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Anne-Marie Slaughter on “having it all” (“Top Women” and the “Ambition Gap”)

In the prior post, I wrote about Dr. Slaughter’s opinion that the professional culture that so dramatically devalues family over work “cannot change unless top women speak out.”  I noted that I tend to agree, but as Dr. Slaughter herself acknowledges such “top women” were in a generation where they were forced to make family sacrifices that few women in younger generations are willing to make.  As a result, in my observation, such “top women” rarely are willing to fight for changes to help the younger generations avoid such Hobson’s choices.

Moreover, regardless of gender, those who make it to the “top” of an organization, in my experience, typically live for their jobs.  They live and breathe work.  Frequently, they don’t have all that much of a private life.  As a result, it can be a challenge for such individuals to conceive that others might be professional and very dedicated, but might have a less consuming view of work.  Such individuals sometimes cannot understand why others might actually have interests outside of work.  Such persons at the “top” of organizations are also hyper-dedicated to the mission of the organization.  It can be difficult for them to see beyond that mission when they are so focused on achieving the organization’s goals. 

Additionally, when we use terms like “work-life balance,” the issue sounds soft and not terribly important to many in “top” positions.  It sounds like we’re talking about mere hobbies that can be easily marginalized to squeeze a bit more productivity out of employees.  To people at the top of an organization, “work-life balance” can be a difficult concept because it implies less than 100% focus on one’s job and many “top” people may not understand that lack of total focus.  Moreover, in my observation, they often look down upon it.  The unwritten rule is that “real professionals” don’t let anything divert their attention (even slightly) from their job.  Because of these realities, I think we need to be careful of our terminology. If we couched the issue in terms of gender equality in the workplace (which has legal and public relations implications) instead of amorphous, soft concepts of “work-life balance,” perhaps we’d get a little more attention to these issues.

Dr. Slaughter’s article goes into what she describes “half-truths we hold dear.”  One involves this issue of professional focus.  She writes about the “half-truth” that that women are “not committed enough” to make the trade-offs and sacrifices that the women ahead of them made.  Dr. Slaughter notes the very small numbers of women who make it to leadership positions in corporations or government—about 15-16% of all such positions are filled by women.  She then observes that most women occupying such positions are “genuine superwomen” who have been Rhodes Scholars, Pulitzer Prize winners or other similarly noteworthy individuals.  Dr. Slaughter laments that we can’t insist that all professional women be such “superwomen.”

Even more insightful, Dr. Slaughter notes that of the few high-ranking women, few have families.  She points out, “Every male Supreme Court justice has a family. Two of the three female justices are single with no children. And the third, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, began her career as a judge only when her younger child was almost grown. The pattern is the same at the National Security Council: Condoleezza Rice, the first and only woman national-security adviser, is also the only national-security adviser since the 1950s not to have a family.” 

I thought these examples were really revealing and with them Dr. Slaughter makes a critical point.  Not only do “top women” have to be super credentialed, they also apparently need to be celibate and childless.  That latter requirement is just not attractive to most women. 

Despite these depressing trends, things have improvements in some ways for women in the workplace.  My grandma was a grade school teacher at a time when women were forced to resign when they got married.  When my mom was a grade school teacher, things had improved to a degree.  My mom was allowed to be married, but was forced to leave without pay or any guarantee of future employment when her pregnancy became visible.  (Apparently, even in the late 1960s, the sight of a married woman with a pregnant belly would have been injurious to the students.) 

Obviously, in the twenty-first century, there are no longer written, explicit requirements that women must forego a partner and/or offspring to achieve professional success.  But clearly something is causing this trend.  It is imperative that we dig deeper to figure out what is going on structurally and culturally to weed out women with families from the professional world.  This trend is just not something acknowledged much in discussions of diversity.  It is also not something the leadership of the women’s movement has raised much as a real priority.

Dr. Slaughter notes that in the 1980s, the gender gap in graduate schools had evaporated such that there should not be such a gender divide in professional ranks today.  Dr. Slaughter observes that “[s]omething derailed that dream” of gender equality.  Dr. Slaughter rejects Sheryl Sandberg’s assessment of an “ambition gap,” and identifies as “’mundane’ issues” such as inflexible schedules, unrelenting travel, face-time pressures and incompatibility between professional and school schedules.  In essence, Dr. Slaughter pins the blame on the gender gap on structural insensitivity that disempowers women.  It comes down to logistics and finite time to attend to too many responsibilities.  Based on my own experiences and observations, I think Dr. Slaughter has hit the nail on the head.

Genesis 1:27
So God created humans to be like himself; he made men and women.

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