Guest blog: The Having-it-all Debate

by Emily on July 6, 2012

Marina v. N. Whitman is Professor of Business Administration and Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Her memoir, The Martian’s Daughter, which focuses on her relationship with her father, the mathematician John von Neumann, and its influence on her many-faceted career, will be published in September by the University of Michigan Press. Here, Whitman, who became the first woman on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in 1972, weighs in on Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent Atlantic cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter takes issue with the belief that women can have it all, just not all at once in her much-debated recent article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in the Atlantic magazine. My own experiences have led me to think differently.

It’s true, as Slaughter says, that there’s no perfect time to start a family. Having children early, as I did, means that one gets exhausted trying to nurture small children and launch a career at the same time. But by postponing the career until the kids start school, we run the risk of getting behind our peers on the competitive ladder. Waiting until a career is successfully launched, as Slaughter did, runs an even more painful risk of failing to beat the biological clock.

When I was invited to become the first woman on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in 1972, my husband and I were both professors at the University of Pittsburgh with two children about the age Slaughter’s were when she went to head the State Department’s Policy Planning Council. Like her, I had an enormously supportive academic spouse, healthy children and full-time household help. Yet I would have felt compelled to turn down the position, which became the launching pad for my subsequent career as a senior automobile executive and director at Alcoa and Procter and Gamble, had my husband not decided to relinquish the chairmanship at his English department and move with me and the children to Washington for the duration.

Our older child fared no better than Slaughter’s: After being moved back and forth between Pittsburgh and Washington twice in two years, he came down with what would today be recognized as adolescent depression, marked by a plunge in his stellar grades. Every afternoon, he would return from school gray-faced from headaches. He called it “the most miserable year of my life.”

Both our children have gone on to satisfying and productive lives as adults, but the scars on my psyche remain.

I am a generation older than Slaughter. When I started graduate school in the 1950’s, I faced explicit barriers that have long since fallen. A recruiter for one major corporation ended a job interview by saying, “We don’t hire engaged girls.” One president of a leading university told me that I was the wrong sex to be admitted to its PhD. program. And I was assured by people ranging from my mother-in-law to perfect strangers at cocktail parties that I would ruin the lives of my husband and my children if I pursued my education and career goals.

Life is never perfect, but for most of us it is longer than ever before, and job commitments that seemed impossible while children are at home become viable once the children have moved on. Slaughter herself says as much when she talks about “redefining the arc of a successful career.”

The barriers we fought and overcame have made some women of my pioneering generation complain, according to Slaughter, that younger women like her are “not committed enough.”

To me, “liberation” means precisely the freedom to make choices and trade-offs freely, without running into legally or socially-imposed barriers. My own daughter has chosen a work-family balance very different from mine. She is a skilled, caring physician and teacher who has decided to work part-time for much of her professional life, forswearing the opportunity to climb the academic ladder in favor a being a far more hands-on mother than I ever was. She once said to me, “Thanks, mom, for being a pioneer, which has freed me to make my own choices.” Bravo!

Slaughter offers more hopeful signs than her stern title suggests by recognizing the advances that are being made in reducing the barriers for women like us and providing sensible recommendations for further progress.

The biggest challenge now is to ease the burden for the many more women, and men, who haven’t the luxury of such choices, who juggle work and family responsibilities because they have to for economic survival.

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