Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dana Shell Smith’s Take on Family and Work (Criticism)

One of the many responses to Dr. Slaughter’s article was written by Dana Shell Smith, a career Foreign Service officer and a mom of two minor children.  Her article for the Atlantic is available at the link below.

Interestingly, Ms. Smith disagrees with Dr. Slaughter in many ways.  She and her colleagues puzzled “why Dr. Slaughter’s experience had so contrasted with ours.”  Ms. Smith queries whether it could be that Dr. Slaughter had been spoiled by her experience in academia or because Dr. Slaughter’s family was in another city. 

But one thing that Ms. Smith seems to overlook as she argues that one can “have it all” is that Dr. Slaughter was in a particularly elite position at the top of the State Department working under Secretary of State Clinton.  It is like comparing the experience of the vice president of a corporation with that of a supervisor of one small department. 

Ms. Smith lectures readers (and Dr. Slaughter) that to have it all you must “own your decisions,” which seems to mean making career sacrifices to accommodate family needs.  She appears to pat herself on the back for putting her foot down and taking time off when her family relocated or she had babies.  A couple aspects of this annoyed me. 

First, not everyone can take time off at such times.  Many employers do not permit such flexibility.  Even those that do often permit only unpaid time off on such occasions.  That is not a realistic option for people who are not independently wealthy or live paycheck to paycheck.  As a result, I don’t appreciate Ms. Smith lecturing people to follow her noble example when not everyone has the ability to do so.

Furthermore, if you are at the top of an organization, you may not have that luxury regardless of the employment policies and the ability to forego pay for a period of time.  There are many more people depending on you when you are the top of the food chain.  Moreover, there are fewer who can step in and fill in while you attend to family matters.  This is a critical point with respect to Dr. Slaughter.  As I understood her article, her underlying concern was that there weren’t enough women rising to the elite ranks of the professional world; family balance issues were impeding women from becoming the decision-makers in business and government.  By contrast, I understand Ms. Smith (as a Foreign Service officer) to be a fairly privileged work bee within the State Department.  I am sure she does important work, but she is one of many in similar positions.

Matthew 7:1

“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.”

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