I have been following the media dust-up over Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” story in The Atlantic with much interest. As a former CEO, a member of several boards, and dean of the only business school in the country designed for women, I’m all too familiar with this topic.
Slaughter’s admission that being a top professional and a mom is a perennial struggle is quite accurate. It’s a topic that consistently comes up among our students – many of whom are at the beginning or mid-level stages of their business careers and are already juggling the demands of careers and families. And it is a hot topic with the executive women who take part in our corporate women’s leadership programs. I want to share a few thoughts on this matter.
Women further down the ladder suffer more. While much of the discussion prompted by Slaughter’s article has been on high-powered women executives and members of senior management, it is important to note that women further down the ladder are suffering more, especially in this long period of economic recovery. Their unemployment rates are higher than those of men of the same age, and women have disproportionately felt the strain of layoffs that continue in such women-dominated fields such as state and local government — teachers, and administrative workers, for example.
“Having It All” is possible, but not all at the same time. And, if you include in that concept having rich lives outside of work, this may be true for men, as well as women. Time is on our side, however. Given the possibility of lengthy careers, women can focus on a variety of work options that meet their needs over the course of their lives. Perhaps they can workfull time right out of college and shift to part time when their children are in school, or when they might need to focus on caring for elderly loved ones. They also may just want to take a break and explore the non-profit or volunteer world, and then return to full time again.
I know of several women who have resumed very successful ful-time careers later in their lives, or, as I have done, even taken on a second career. The key is to stay engaged in the field of your choice. We are lucky that technology makes it easier these days.
Now is the time to encourage organizations to support all employees. The involvement of the corporation or organization is necessary to make a variety of work options available for women and men. Despite more than 40 years of women in the workforce, companies are frustrated by the lack of progress they have made in realizing the full potential of women employees. Organizations invest in recruiting high-powered women, train them and try to bring them along, but many leave anyway. While there are many reasons for this, and often family needs are cited, it is also true that subtle barriers keep women from realizing their potential. These barriers include a lack of access to informal but important networks, and the fact that women are often evaluated for promotion on performance, while men are measured against their potential. Now may be the time to take advantage of corporate frustration and to work with companies to sort out both what makes women fail, and what makes them succeed.
Slaughter is not the first woman to raise these issues. Clearly, more research is needed, especially research focused on what has worked for women rather than what has caused them to fail. I would hope that we could use these conversations as a catalyst for change in our corporations, our culture, and our economy, so that both men and women can thrive.
Cathy Minehan, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, is dean of Simmons School of Management.