A Response to “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”

(Nick Schcolnik)– In case you have not read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in the July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine, I strongly urge that you do. It is worth the time for more than its thought-provoking ideas, but particularly because the issues Slaughter covers implicate everybody in their tacit approval of our social and economic structures. Basically, her article cuts to the core of an important discussion in which I feel everybody ought to partake.

To summarize, Slaughter, a mother and former director of policy planning for the State Department, recounts how she learned that “the feminist credo” stating that “women can have it all” is misleading and empirically incorrect. Having it all, Slaughter writes, means that women may advance their careers while simultaneously enjoying stable and fulfilling family lives; more precisely, having it all means that women are not asked to balance work with family, but can instead have as much, or as little, of both. Because she grew up with it, Slaughter writes that this credo shaped the way she understood her world and opportunities as a woman, anchoring her worldview and influencing the way she went about her career and family life.

To support her claim, Slaughter cites her own experiences, saying that more and more women with whom she speaks find themselves disillusioned when they realize that they don’t have it all; the notion that women can have it all is misleading not only because it falsely gives women hope for a happy medium between work and family, but also because women unable to attain happiness in both feel as if it is their fault. While there’s nothing wrong with this ideal of equality, Slaughter notes that it is unrealistic and ought to be questioned:

“I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”

In Slaughter’s words, “it is time to talk.”

I want to preface the rest of my writing by noting that on a very fundamental level, there is an aspect of Slaughter’s article with which I do not feel I can identify. While I can appreciate what she says (thus this article), I feel that as her experiences color her perspective, my experiences as a man also color my perspective. In an essential way, I do not completely understand where she comes from because I have never been confined to the stereotypes she has and grown frustrated with the same inequalities—something for which I recognize I am privileged.

I bring this up because it influenced the way I understood her article. As I read, I felt myself getting defensive not necessarily because I disagreed with her argument, but because I felt accused of a wrong I felt I did not commit. It seemed to me that being a man or a woman had no influence on one’s ability to “have it all” because couldn’t her definition of having it all include things that, regardless of gender, were unreasonable? Would anybody say that having it all means being able to work on the other side of the country and fly home every night for dinner? Likewise, to expect not to have to make sacrifices, as a parent, a worker, a friend, seems preposterous simply because we make these types of choices everyday. (e.g. I did not choose to fly home for both of my parents’ birthdays this year because they live across the country. Differently, though, I don’t see this as sacrificing my family life for academic, or work, life. Rather it’s a cost of choosing to go to a school far from home.) What did this have to do with gender?


After more thought and a discussion with classmates and a professor, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not the point that she intended to make. Slaughter’s article, I think, is really about the fact that men are far less likely to make the same compromises that women make, which necessarily affects women’s opportunities. In other words, this is a question of empirical fact:

“Still, the proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case.

Here I step onto treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes. From years of conversations and observations, however, I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.”

Which leads me to what I really found meaningful about Slaughter’s article: do men really choose not to make sacrifices simply because they know women ultimately will? Slaughter answers this question by saying that men are socialized to prioritize differently than women, but if that’s really her perception of men, I feel ashamed to have to defend myself as somebody who (at least in theory) would be willing to make similar sacrifices to ones that I ask of others. Keeping in mind that I’m barely out of my teenaged years, single, and not planning to have children anytime soon, I would like to think that, yes, of course I would make the same sacrifices as, for example, my wife, because I would be entirely unwilling and uncomfortable doing it any other way. But is that unusual? Slaughter says it is, which, as a man, left me feeling as if I powerlessly fell into a category of people who take advantage of others.

Thinking ahead twenty years, I expect raising kids to be a shared responsibility (even if it means I stay home). Maybe it’s just me, but I would never expect my wife to take care of our children if for no other reason than because I too want to be taking care of them and because I would never want to put my own “life,” my own career, above that of my wife. And so this all boils down to the same question: do men really expect women to make sacrifices that men are unwilling to make? I hope not, but if so, I don’t have much to say other than I think that is ridiculous. I want to make sure I don’t become a man who is any less likely to make sacrifices than women because, if nothing else, is it really unusual for me to expect the same from myself as I do from others?

Postscript: I talked to my mom about this article, and she seemed to agree that the reason I feel the way I do is because I am only 20. Not sure how I feel about that, but an interesting thought nonetheless.

Image from: http://www.todaysparent.com/blogs/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all