Work-Life Power: Why Sandberg & Slaughter “Have It All” Wrong

5 years ago

Last week, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton Professor extraordinaire and former State Department Policy Director, took a break from writing about Syria and US-Mexican relations to write a sincere and heart-felt article in The Atlantic lamenting the reality that as women move into powerful positions – the kind that demand “no life” of whoever takes them regardless of gender – “having it all” becomes impossible. She questions whether we’ve sold Gen-Y women a load of bunk with the “you can have it all” claim. The article, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” also gently takes Sheryl Sandberg (COO, Facebook) to task for encouraging young women to lean in and go for the top spots as though if they don’t it’s a bad thing (as expressed most clearly in her TED talk and Barnard graduation speech last year.

I read Slaughter’s article and, other than being glad that she had voiced her frustrations so clearly and honestly, didn’t think much of it. I tweeted it out and forgot about it. But the internet buzz since the article posted has been pretty impressive so I took another look and probed my reaction more deeply. Upon reflection, I realize that I have much the same ambivalence to Slaughter’s approach that I first felt to Sandberg’s call to arms – because in both women’s contributions to the feminist dialog, they fail to call out the personal acts of power available to women facing the tough choices of managing work-life conundrum some call “balance” (I call it baloney). In this sense, I think they are unconsciously contributing to the powerlessness many women feel when it comes to thinking about “having it all.”

Where Slaughter and Sandberg “Have It All” Right

As research demonstrates women face extra burdens when it comes to making it to the top, and the challenges come in many forms: public perception, social support and our own challenges in personal confidence. There’s no question that women in leadership are good leaders and good for business, but based on the dismal statisticsof women in actual leadership positions, this data by itself isn’t persuading organizations to find ways to prepare and promote women any more than it’s convincing women to fight past the cultural hurdles in large numbers.

In fact, many women are leaving corporate America when they reach the mid-management ranks - not just because it’s so hard to stay in, but because there is so much potential joy and power to be found outside the confining walls of corporate thinking.

Where They “Have It All” Wrong

And this is where both of these accomplished ladies – and many others in this debate - have it all wrong. They are stuck in the debate as it was framed by our mothers’ feminist movement. To them, “having it all” seems to mean achieving the same kind of power our fathers valued (wealth, hierarchical title and authority as recognized and bestowed by a patriarchal society) and the same personal satisfaction our mother’s valued (raising healthy balanced children and keeping a warm and inviting home as recognized and utilized by family and friends). All at once. With the full support of our society, culture and family. With little conflict and less mess.

Life isn’t like that now and it never was - even for our fathers when they were running the world. Achieving that level of power and satisfaction at home and the office generally takes a team – a woman and man working together – regardless of how they split up the duties.

If you read that description of “having it all” above, you’ll notice an intentional omission, which is the happiness of the woman on the see-saw herself (or man!)

Increasingly, to many women – especially younger women - this is what counts most: happiness and satisfaction with the life you choose to build.As one 30-something I know who successfully dumped the corporate life for an entrepreneurial dream put it, “Why should I hang out and work for “the man” who doesn’t appreciate me when I can go out on my own, have more fun and make more money?”

The act of choice is an act of power. If you believe you have no choice, then you believe you have no power.

What I would like to hear from the Slaughters and Sandbergs of the world is a celebration of their choices, and the choices of other women who choose differently. In our choices we cobble together our own unique work-life patchwork of experiences. This is where we find our power and where we find our strength. In our choices we learn to appreciate all kinds of power and we become capable of wielding power in organizations even more effectively, for the benefit of the organization and the people in it.

The Can’t-Get-There-From-Here Flaw in Slaughter’s Argument

As I said above, I really honor Slaughter for putting herself out there so honestly. I can imagine her personal struggle and challenge as a senior government official focused on international policy affairs. I live in DC; I’m married to an international government policy expert and my neighbors have been ambassadors, White House staffers and Supreme Court justices. What happened to Slaughter happens to men and women here all the time. Being a powerful government appointee is harder than being a corporate big-wig in my opinion and Slaughter jumped into a situation where any career diplomat will tell you that work-life balance in the sense we can know it in academia and business simply isn’t an option. That’s part of the price of that kind of power, and men pay that price as dearly, often and devastatingly as women. But as women, we notice it more. It’s less “normal” and so we can see and lament the tragic personal cost more clearly. I’m very glad that Slaughter swallowed hard and showed the world the personal cost of public service.

But I take issue with her attempt at remedy. In her closing paragraph she calls for the elevation for women at the top to be the solution to our challenge. “The best hope for improving the lot of all women…is to close the leadership gap. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.”

I agree that a society that works for women will work for everyone, but to me she’s got her logic backwards. If her personal experience teaches me anything it teaches me that the women that fight their way to the top of a broken system risk becoming broken in the process.

Thankfully, Slaughter herself gave two good years of public service to her country and switched out before she and her family broke, and for this I honor her and celebrate her choices as acts of power. She’s done a valuable service to her country, is investing in her family and still teaching and thinking in ways that serve her students and the public dialog on important subjects. To me she did not fail to have it all, she had it all and then some!

When Slaughter, Sandberg – and every other woman and man inside and outside the system – can own this power they have to choose how to spend their energy, and talk about it in powerful ways that honor people’s choices, then we’ll begin to build a culture that honors, supports and encourages the “balance of powers” needed at the top.   Then we’ll celebrate the women leaving middle management to “have it all their way,” as heroines, and we’ll strategize organizationally on how to keep that energy and talent in our leadership stream. Then we’ll build a culture that honors women and sees them more clearly as leaders. Thenwomen will rise naturally into leadership and continue to create this system that works for everyone.

By owning our power of choice, and speaking of it as power, I believe that as a woman you can begin to fix the system no matter where you are today, right now. There is no need for us to be elected King to begin. When the Slaughters and Sandbergs of the world – who have the power and broad reach of their voice – begin to do this, many more will learn how.

I look forward to that day, and am personally working to bring it about.

What's your experience and perspective? How do you experience the work-life balance of power? Do you think we're selling ourselves a bunch of bunk by believing we can have it all? Share your thoughts in comments.

Dana Theus

Founder, InPower Women - Check out my free video series on the 5 Principles of InPowerment

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