May 22, 2013 | 02:54 PM (BD Time)
22 May, 2013 Wednesday
The great debate on women and work
Luisita Lopez Torregrosa :
FEW THINGS can stir up American elite feminists like having one of their own turn on another. Disputes flare up with some regularity because the debate over why women can't have it all is not only inconclusive but apparently irresistible - everyone wants to have her say.
The latest salvo was fired last week by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a well-known Princeton professor and former top aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the State Department. In a cover story in The Atlantic titled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," she tells of a bifurcated life, workweeks in Washington, weekends at home in Princeton, a helpful husband but a troubled teenage son. Eighteen months into her foreign-policy dream job, she decided to quit and come home.
Now, based on her experience and from her vantage point as a hyper-educated successful woman, she examines the question that has bedeviled women for decades - can we have it all? She answers with a definite "no."
Her article immediately set off a firestorm (much of it in her favor) in the blogosphere, was featured in the Sunday political talk shows and in a front-page piece in The New York Times and its global edition, the International Herald Tribune.
But it really settles nothing. As the columnist Peggy Noonan said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, the article offers "a slightly limited view of what women are, what choices they have, and what they might want to be."
It did, however, challenge a new feminist icon, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and one of the few powerful women in the high-tech industry. Sandberg, the mother of two young children, has built a following with videotaped speeches exhorting young women to assert themselves with confidence, to follow their ambition, and to look for life partners who will share the load equally at home.
Slaughter, who says that workplaces and society have to change to accommodate the needs of women and families, criticizes Sandberg for suggesting that women are not committed enough to their careers but concedes that Sandberg has a point.
"Instead of chiding," Slaughter says, "perhaps we should face some basic facts. Very few women reach leadership positions. The pool of female candidates for any top job is small, and will only grow smaller if the women who come after us decide to take time out, or drop out of professional competition altogether, to raise children.
That is exactly what has Sheryl Sandberg so upset, and rightly so."
Sandberg, speaking at Barnard College in May 2011, told graduates, "We have to admit something that's sad but true: Men run the world." She cites figures to drive home her point. "Of 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13 per cent of those seats are held by women. Corporate America top jobs, 15 per cent are women, numbers which have not moved at all in the past nine years."
Though the two women may seem to hold nearly irreconcilable differences, they both want more women in power, more women in politics and business, and more women in decision-making positions. Sandberg worries about women dropping out once they decide to have children and prods them "to lean in," saying, "Leadership belongs to those who take it."
But Slaughter suggests that women's maternal instincts will usually override their drive for success and power, which may seem to run counter to her stated wish to see women at the top. She goes on to say that "among those who have made it to the top, a balanced life still is more elusive for women than it is for men."
"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," Slaughter says. "Men are still socialised to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver." In her view "there's really no choice" for women between work and home. "The maternal imperative" has the upper hand.
Praising Clinton, Christine Lagarde and Angela Merkel, she says, "These women are extraordinary role models. If I had a daughter, I would encourage her to look to them." But, she adds, "I also want a world in which, in Lisa Jackson's words, 'to be a strong woman, you don't have to give up on the things that define you as a woman."'
She seems to suggest that "the things that define you as a woman" don't include the exercise of leadership and power.
Slaughter, who admits she's treading on "treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes," gives examples, cites research, quotes other women and proposes that society must change to value putting family ahead of work - nothing short of a revolution in values.
"The best hope for improving the lot of all women," she says, "is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women."
But how can women rise to the top in all those fields without sacrificing home and family? It's a circular argument, and Slaughter offers no clear answer.
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