Several years ago, American public servant Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an article that raised the eyebrows of feminists everywhere. Slaughter said the unthinkable. Women cannot have it all. Around the globe, women were polarised. After years of telling little girls that they can be whatever they want and still get home to bathe and feed the kids, Slaughter's article skewered their dreams with a bitter-tasting dose of reality.
The background to this article is that Slaughter, a high-ranking foreign policy official, stepped down from her trailblazing job to better look after her teenage sons. She had become tired of the act of being pulled in every direction, spreading herself much too thin. In the face of pity, disappointment but also support, she left Washington with the realisation that while women can achieve like never before, our society still exists in a way that means having it all is a tough gig.
Women are graduating with more degrees than ever, armed to the teeth with education and knowledge that should guarantee success. We hold high-ranking positions in private and government agencies alike. We are increasing in number alone in traditional male bastions. Despite the advances women have made in the workplace, choosing between career and a personal life is a conundrum faced by many.
In our society, we still hold a belief that women are the primary caregivers, housekeepers, house managers and child-care agents. In the book, The Changing Face of Medicine, women physicians in the US were more likely to do the lion's share of the housework or care for relatives (children or elderly). Women were also more likely to leave a prestigious career pathway for family or personal reasons, even when her career held more 'prestige' than her partner's. Women doctors are more likely to be married to other doctors whereas the male doctors are often married to women with more predictable career-lifestyle such as nursing.
Annabel Crabb's excellent book, The Wife Drought, echoes the cries of many professional women: "I need a wife." Many of my generation still grew up in households where our mothers worked less than our fathers, allowing them to raise us and take care of the household but also the father. Running to the post office during the day was not a conundrum in my household -- my mother did it. I am always grateful for the fact that my mother was at home after school.
In the space of one generation, we have done a complete about turn. With women in the workforce in higher numbers and higher levels, the dynamics of marriage and family have shifted. Now with often both parents working, the change is unsettling to many. Society may judge the working woman (or equally, the full-time mother), relationships are strained and outsourcing is normal. While the leaps are amazing and wonderful for women in the workplace, has this come at a cost to the rest of our lives?
In surgery, women surgeons are more likely to be divorced or unmarried. They are more likely to have delayed having children and fewer have a stay-at-home spouse. In a recent study of heart surgeons, 26 percent of the women were married, where as 62 percent of the men were. Is having a high-flying career in our supposedly modern society damaging our personal lives?
With so many young women still feeling that they have to choose between having a career or having a family, there is something untoward happening here. Are we telling our girls that they can have it all, when we should be telling them to be reasonable about their expectations? Are we still labouring under a patriarchy that has allowed unconscious bias to hamper our attempts to be complete humans? Are career women sacrificing their personal lives for their professional ones? Are men still so strongly expected to be masculine that the successful woman is a threat to that?
As a woman who has often thought of the cost of my sacrifices on my personal life including relationships, health and sense of well being, I'm not sure we're doing this right. I believe we should make sure everyone is aware of Slaughter's premise of balance rather than everything. I believe we should all learn the art of compromise, both in the office and at home. I believe that our society and our workplaces should actively move towards change that allows women to take a bigger cut of life, both at home and work, without the guilt, judgement or sacrifice that can sometimes accompany it.
The 'having it all' debate is an uncomfortable one, that is for sure. It may be seen as admitting defeat or admitting weakness. However, with talented women in the workplace, it is imperative that we work out how to give them most of what they need and want. Our fathers and grandfathers have benefited from the freedom to have whatever they need or want, it's time we make the same allowances for our mothers, daughters and sisters.