The great work-life balancing act

Can women (or parents?) ever have it all?

by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer

Erin and Lituya at Malaspina glacier, Alaska

Erin McKittrick and her daughter Lituya at remote Malaspina glacier on the coast of Alaska. Credit, Erin McKittrick,  Bretwood Higman,  Ground Truth Trekking, 2011.


The trials of balancing a competitive research career on top of the other demands and joys of life, most prominently family, is a perennial obsession of ESA’s Ecolog-L listserv. This April, a passionate conversation emerged in response to a question about taking children into the field—sometimes angry, and often heartfelt. It eventually spawned a related conversation about “work-life balance” for women on academic career tracks.

A similar conversation has been storming through blogs and news columns over the last few weeks. It seems like everyone everywhere (at least among the chattering classes) has been talking about the Atlantic’s July/August cover story “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” At over 775,000 views it is the most-clicked article in Atlantic history. It ran with an incendiary cover photo of a naked toddler in a briefcase (none of author Anne-Marie Slaughter’s doing I’m sure).

The “still,” Slaughter told Hannah Rosin emphatically on Slate’s June 27th Double X podcast, is essential to her thesis. Because she is not making the categorical statement that women can’t have it all. The article is a commentary on the current US situation as she sees it and has experienced it, and wants to see change.  The “still” is important “because otherwise I’m a poster-child for saying women can’t have it all, when I want to be saying women can, and men can, but we have to make a whole bunch of changes to get there,” she said in the interview.

Following her dive into feminist politics, Slaughter kicks off with her personal revelation that for most of her career, she had an unusually good deal: as an academic, she enjoyed a level of control over her time that is far from universal for working parents. Her workload wasn’t exactly light as a full professor and dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, but it was malleable to interruptions for teacher-parent conferences, soccer games, family dinners, music lessons and sick children. She could work from home after hours, and work around daytime errands. Her flexible schedule, she writes, was key to having it all, but she did not appreciate her privileges until she left the ivory tower and spent a couple of years in Washington, working long days on the rigid office schedule expected of most of the American workforce.

In January 2011, after two years under Hilary Clinton as director of policy planning at the State Department, Slaughter headed home to Princeton to resume her duties as a mere law professor—with a full teaching load, TV and radio appearances, opinion columns on foreign policy, and a book in the works. And as a mom to two teenagers.

The article poured forth from a deep reservoir of pent-up frustration with the impossible choices her role in Washington demanded of her, and frustrated rage at the disappointment and condescension her peers met her with on her return to Princeton. She admits, with some chagrin, “All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange.

I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

But if frustration powered her polemic, a keen analytical mind guided it. The long article is more nuanced than many of the reactions would lead you to believe. Slaughter believes that a cultivated set of well-loved half-truths bolster the faith that success in having-it-all requires only commitment, ambition, and choice. She lays them out and stomps them with lawyerly efficiency. Women cannot get around the demands of biology by engineering the perfect sequence of pregnancy and career advancement. (Slaughter advises, with horrifying pragmatism, that ambitious young women freeze their eggs for later.)  Finding a complementary, involved partner in parenthood may be necessary, but it isn’t sufficient to support a high-powered career (or perhaps she thinks it improbable that social norms will produce a husband willing to take on the classic support role of the traditional wife).

She dares to swim out into murky, contentious territory, “mined with stereotypes,” to observe that though the tension between family life and career ambition exists for men as well as women, women appear to feel it differently.  And to respond differently, often seeing a choice between attention to a child or attention to a job as no choice at all. Powerful people often describe their work as essential, life-saving service, and their role as indispensable—their time away from home a necessary sacrifice for themselves and their children. Women more commonly, and with greater social acceptance, come to the conclusion that hundreds of competitors could (and would kill to) take their place in the White House, or at the operating table, or on the lectern, but not in their family. To their kids they are truly indispensable, and time with children is irreplaceable. I didn’t have to go home to my family, Slaughter says, I wanted to go home. Soon my children will be grown, gone.

Slaughter is cognizant of men’s struggles too, and cites a number of male role models and case studies. But for Slaughter, the career-crushing difficulties of managing the dual demands of work and family are empirically a woman-problem. Women are not advancing in the ranks in proportion with their numbers and promise. Women are choosing to leave graduate school, drop out of research at the post-doc level, accept part-time positions in their husbands’ labs.  This is a problem to the extent that it represents thwarted ambition and lost talent. It’s a problem for those of us that feel we would benefit from having women in leadership, even if we don’t ourselves aspire to lead.

Slaughter’s prescription: cultural change, starting with the elites in leadership—the deans and managers and senior partners who have the power to set examples and establish workplace policies. “I am well aware that the majority o f American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place.”

She says we can start by making work hours flexible to the extent that flex is possible. Obviously, we can’t make everyone academics. There needs to be a solution for the majority of the working men and women out there, who are constrained by limited personal control over their working hours. Expectations of face-time in government, and in many high powered careers like law, are extreme. But this attitude is not universal. Expectations of face-time are less stringent at Facebook, she says, than in the White House. Silicon Valley trusts its executives to put in the after-hours hours from home.

Inflexible schedules cannot be the only problem. Women academics are clearly struggling too, to judge by the attrition of women from the upper tiers of the biological sciences. Perhaps we need more flexibility in our judgment of career arc and accomplishment. Workaholics may win the race up the career ladder, but is the race the best arbiter of leadership quality? Are workaholics always the most creative CEOs and politicians and PIs? Does more hours always equal more accomplished?

Taking time for family should not be a blot on your resume,” Slaughter writes. It should be possible to re-enter the rat race after taking several years out to focus on parenting or caring for elderly parents—or exploring tangential career paths, for that matter. Because this is not just a matter of fairness, but of squandered talent. It doesn’t make sense for a business, or a university, or for society at large to squander talent by pushing parents out of the game.


  • Read Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” at The Atlantic.
  • Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, TEDWomen 2010: “women are not making it to the top of any profession, anywhere in the world. The numbers tell the story quite clearly.” Why we have too few women leaders: Sheryl Sandberg on “Success and likability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women.”
  • Complementary buzz on Tim Kreider’s NY Times complaint about “The ‘Busy’ Trap”: less bragging about our busy business, more time for chilled pink minty cocktails.



Author: Liza Lester

ESA's Communications Officer came on board in the fall of 2011 after a Mass Media Science and Engineering fellowship with AAAS and a doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Washington.

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  1. Thank you for the thoughtful article. I just wanted to alert you to two minor typos that you may want to fix:

    paragraph 1: “work-like balance” -> work-life balance

    paragraph 8: “horrifyingly” -> horrifying

    I don’t actually intend for this comment to be posted, but I wasn’t sure how to email you directly.

  2. Thanks Amber, I made the corrections. It would have been wise to have a colleague copy edit my text before publishing. But I am only intermittently wise 🙂

    The photo caption was also missing a link to the exact source of the photo: the Life on Ice photo album at Ground Truth Trekking.

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