Having It All: An Impossible Goal

A response to Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic piece on women and career goals.
Contributing Writer, SmallBizTrends.com
July 13, 2012

There have already been innumerable takes on Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” some supportive, some mocking, but all thought-provoking—at least for me. In case you missed it, Slaughter, an accomplished academic and the former (and first female) director of policy planning at the State Department, bemoaned the fact that women (with the exception of a few she dubbed “genuine superwomen”) haven’t yet figured out the secret to “having it all"—meaning balancing the challenges of a fulfilling career and raising a family.

After reading the article, I wanted to yell, “Stop!” Before I go on, it’s important you know I don’t have kids, so some of you may think I have no right to comment at all. But I’ve been at the forefront of the entrepreneurial women’s movement (first creating a magazine for women business owners back in 1985), and have gained some valuable perspective.

Superhuman, Rich or Self-Employed

Slaughter’s conclusion that women can’t “have it all” is based on her time spent working for the State Department, while commuting on weekends back to her New Jersey home where her husband and two teenage sons continued to live. But she seems to undercut her own argument by implying that now that she’s returned to her job as a professor at Princeton University, and has “control” over her schedule, she “has it all.” And her article starts with the premise that there are women who have managed to find the Holy Grail and “be both mothers and top professionals.” They are the “superhuman, rich or self-employed.”

Did you catch that? The “self-employed”—that’s you. Do you feel like you have it all? More important, do you think that’s even possible?

In her defense, after the storm that greeted the publication of her article, Slaughter, acting on the advice of writer Rebecca Traister in an article on Salon.com, says she’s going to “stop using the term ‘having it all’” because Traister wrote that it makes women seem "piggy.”

Stop Trying

Years ago I was at a conference in Bloomington, Ind., where a woman business owner told me of her struggle to attain work-life balance and asked how can she “have it all.” My answer then—and now: “You can’t, so stop trying.”

The very concept of “having it all” is sexist, since no one ever wonders if men can reach that pinnacle. It implies that in order to be equal, women need to be better.

I don’t know many (if any) entrepreneurs who achieve “work-life balance” on a daily basis. Balance means 50/50, and it usually takes more than half the hours in a day to run a business. We entrepreneurs know that, but non-business owners look at us with envy because they assume that, since we control our businesses, we also control the clock. Sure, business owners don’t need permission to go to a Little League game or piano recital. But the trade-off for that is responsibility.

Rethinking the 9-to-5

Earlier this week on OPEN Forum, Danielle Schlanger and Aimee Groth explained the many ways we small business owners can implement policies to “dramatically improve a [woman employee’s] work-life balance.” While I might argue that we should strive to improve the lives of all our employees, implementing ideas like flextime, telecommuting or job-sharing will make your company a more attractive place to work for everyone.

Essentially, entrepreneurs need to, wherever possible, rethink the 9-to-5 workday mentality, and not worry about when the work gets done, as long as it gets completed on time. (A word of warning: As wonderful, and important, as it is to have family-friendly policies, it is equally vital to take care of employees who don’t have families, or resentment will arise.)

As entrepreneurs, we can take another approach to Slaughter’s grievances. Where others see problems, entrepreneurs see solutions. Many of the working moms I know are concerned about what their kids are doing after school, about summer day camps that don’t even extend through business hours, and about not having enough time to spend with their children. How can your existing business—or even a new one—solve those challenges? Day-care centers (or summer camps) with longer operating hours would help millions of women who struggle to get to work on time. After-school educational offerings appeal to parents who don’t want to leave their kids home alone, and who want to provide them with more learning opportunities.

We are all very busy. What can you offer that makes life more convenient for your customers? That could mean opening earlier, offering delivery options or adding online shopping. Restaurants might add more kid-friendly food choices so it’s easier for families to dine out together.

Looking Back—and Forward

In her article, Slaughter noted that “when we look back to the 1980s…we were sure then that by now, we would be living in a 50-50 world. Something derailed that dream.” She’s right about that. But we also thought back then that by now women would own half of the nation’s small businesses, and that the lending gap would no longer exist.

It is no doubt frustrating that we women are decades behind achieving parity. But it was less than 40 years ago that women were granted equal access to credit. That’s not an excuse; it’s reality. In the reactions to Slaughter’s piece, some younger women claimed things are different today, that their spouses co-parent, which gives them more time to devote to their careers—and no one felt guilty about that fact.

So perhaps the Millennials, many of whom (both men and women) were raised by working moms, hold the key. They will be the ones who demand—and get—what many of us have been fighting for over the last several decades. Slaughter suggests, “We may need to put a woman in the White House before we can change” conditions for all working women. I don’t think it will take a female president (and I’m not optimistic that will happen anytime soon).

Rather, it’s about realizing that “having it all” is an impossible goal, and that we entrepreneurs have the power to cause real change, both for our employees and for all Americans.

How do you feel about the concept of "having it all"?