Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” caused quite the stir when The Atlantic hit newsstands in July. “Thank you for putting this out there,” Generation Y would say. “Why did you put this out there,” older women would ask, claiming Slaughter was hurting the cause. Then the men would chime in: “Well, we don’t have it all either.” But, if anything else, at least Slaughter started a conversation.
The former Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department spoke at Harvard Business School last night, kicking off a year-long celebration with the Women’s Student Association of 50 years of women at HBS. Slaughter explained why she wrote the article, the response she’s received and where she thinks we should all go from here.
Had someone told Slaughter in her thirties she’d, one day, leave Washington D.C., return to her job as a Princeton University professor and focus more on her children, she admits she would have said, “You really don’t know me very well.” At dinner parties, when women told her they wanted to spend more time at home, Slaughter thought they’d just given up on their career.
Yet, one day, something surprised her. “What shifted were my own feelings about what I wanted,” Slaughter said. She started to see the decisions of women around her differently. “I wanted to be at home.”
At dinner parties, she was now the one telling women that despite her two-year public-service leave from Princeton being up, she still would have come home to raise her teenage boys. “What a pity,” women would respond, leaving Slaughter infuriated.
And those comments haven’t only affected Slaughter. After the article was published, other women started sending Slaughter heart-wrenching stories that opened with, “I cried when I read your article.” The narratives recounted how they felt as though they had betrayed their younger selves by staying home. Slaughter said their response to her article was then: “Thank you for not making me feel like a failure.”
Of course, not all the responses were as positive. Some readers told Slaughter she was discouraging all younger women, while a lengthy list of men pointed out women can’t have it all, because nobody can have it all and that it was harder for men to break the gender stereotype.
Slaughter can agree, telling the crowd, “This isn’t a women’s issue. This is a human issue.” Considering there’s still only 35 Fortune 1000 companies run by women, however, we still have a lot of work to do.
To Slaughter, what “having it all” really means is having a career and family—not everything you’ve ever wanted in life. Yet, to achieve even a semblance of balance, what Slaughter says you need is flexibility, whether that be the flexibility to work from home or the ability to dial up or dial down your work. On top of that, women need to elongate the arch of their career.
“The idea of sitting there from [ages] 60 to 100, no chance,” Slaughter said, laughing, claiming if the average life expectancy of a 20-year-old is 100, then we shouldn’t think our lives need to end the day we say goodbye to 59. “Eighty is the new sixty,” she said.
Slaughter also pointed to politics, reminding the crowd, “We don’t tend to elect leaders who don’t have families.” But why? Likely because we want to see politicians have those human connections. The problem is: “We need to live up to the values we espouse.” When the person standing next to us at a dinner party admits they want to spend more time with their family, we can’t stop and sneer.
Luckily, Slaughter said she’s optimistic. She can see the change in times and later drew a comparison to smoking. Just a decade ago, smoking was in vogue. Now, Slaughter claimed, it’s something even those that do it feel ashamed to admit to.
“Ultimately, I wanted to start a conversation,” Slaughter said. And whether you agree with her or not, that’s exactly what she did.