Can Women Lawyers Have It All?

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The July/August issue of The Atlantic features the article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a lawyer, Princeton professor and former director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department. Already the article has provoked a firestorm of controversy in print and online, as women and men weigh in on Slaughter’s bottom line: having it all in a rarified top tier job is not currently possible, but could be if we make some much needed changes to society and workplaces.

Slaughter begins the article by describing her own conflict between her dream foreign policy job with the State Department, and her then 14-year-old son who had been acting out at school back in Princeton, New Jersey. Slaughter was working in Washington D.C. during the week, leaving her husband in charge of their two boys; she would return home each weekend to be with the family. Although Slaughter had always assumed she would continue in such a dream job as long as her party was in power, she found that not only did her family need her at home, but she wanted to be there for them. Consequently, as soon as her two-year tenure at the State Department was over, she returned home to Princeton and resumed her work as a tenured professor.

Recognizing that she had – and has – more education, a more flexible workplace and more options than most women have, Slaughter nevertheless did some soul-searching about her decision to return home to mother and to teach at Princeton, and why it had to be that way. First, she examines what she characterizes as dearly held half-truths: that it’s possible to have it all if you are committed enough, marry the right person and sequence child-bearing and career in a good way. She concludes that no amount of commitment will make up for jobs where face-time is valued more than productivity and schedules are inflexible. Similarly, the most supportive spouse in the world cannot change the fact that sometimes a kid wants his mother and sometimes she wants to be there with him. Finally, there is no perfect sequencing of careers and kids – have kids too young and you miss the opportunities that come with youth, wait to have kids too long and you may face infertility, not to mention heavy child-rearing responsibilities coinciding with what are usually a worker’s peak years.

Many women currently in their 50s and older have made tremendous sacrifices for their careers, and many feel that educated women like themselves let down other women by scaling back or dropping out of high-powered careers. Slaughter describes reactions from other women her own age or older as “rang[ing] from disappointed (‘It’s such a pity you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (‘I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great.’)” She points out that while all of the men on the Supreme Court are married with children, two out of the three women justices are single and have no children. The exception, Justice Ginsburg, had her children young, and single-mindedly pursued her career later. Slaughter also argues that in a macho 24/7 work culture, time away from work to be with children is viewed as a sign of lack of career commitment, while time away for other pursuits (she uses the examples of training for a marathon or strictly observing the Sabbath) is viewed with admiration. She concludes that only if society as a whole values family time and the pursuit of happiness as legitimate objectives will we see any difference in the range of choices available to women in the workplace.

I must say that her characterization of workplace demands and how they conflict with family duties rings true in the context of the legal profession, or at least my experience of it over the years. When I worked at a large law firm in the 1980s, there were few women partners, and most of those who were there at that time were single or childless. Sadly, some of them were the most inflexible of task-masters with other women: I am not sure whether this was because they were afraid of seeming soft or because they had sacrificed so much that they felt other women should sacrifice too. Still, no one quite matched the inflexibility of one male partner who declared that he would not bother training me because I would only get pregnant and leave the firm, and thus it would be a waste of effort. In fairness to him I should mention that two years later, I did exactly that, figuring that it would be a good time to have a baby before pursuing the academic career I had wanted when I went to law school. Yet, if it had been possible to work part-time I might have stayed longer.

Slaughter’s observation that time away from work to nurture a family is less acceptable to most businesses than other reasons for absence also rings true to me. At the same firm, another women’s request for part-time hours while her children were small was turned down because, as one partner put it “You can’t be a part-time, big-time lawyer.” Yet we women were not convinced by his logic since the same partner approved part-time work for male lawyers who took academic or government appointments.

At this point you may be thinking that this was all a very long time ago and things have changed. True, this was a long time ago, but it seems that things have not changed enough. Recently, a former student of mine informed me that she had switched from a part-time to a full-time job, because the part-time job was just as many hours with less chance for advancement. The dead-end nature of many part-time positions reflects the suspicion that people who choose it are not serious enough about their work. When we recruit new teachers, women candidates often confide (when pressed) that their firms require time commitments that preclude spending daily time with children. Of course, some women fashion solutions with dependable nannies, after-school enrichment programs and supportive spouses – but the success of these also depends on having a healthy and easy-going child, which is more a matter of luck than parenting skill, whatever such parents may tell you.

Still, there are options for women who want to have families too. Slaughter acknowledges that even a high-powered academic position carries a lot of flexibility, and I would agree. Many universities (including Marquette) take family and gender-equality issues seriously. In addition, the sort of research and writing professors do can be done at home, allowing women and men alike to care for kids or aging relatives more readily. Certain firms and companies also allow some work to be done at home by men or women, and technology makes it possible without missing a beat with clients. Of course, working non-stop at home while ignoring the family hardly solves the problem and it remains taboo to admit that one is taking off time for family responsibilities. So, clearly, many issues remain.

The fact is that, for financial reasons, most men and women have little leverage when it comes to the hours and conditions of their workplaces. Ultimately, women with families have to come to individualized conclusions about how to balance their family lives with their work lives. Slaughter’s article is provoking some much-needed discussion about what social changes might help those decisions for the good of all.

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2 Responses to “Can Women Lawyers Have It All?”

  1. Tom Kamenick Says:

    I started to read her article and gave up after about going through 5,000 words and only being about a third of the way through. I’ve talked to a couple people who summarized it for me. I agree with the starting premise – nobody can “have it all,” because there’s only so many hours in the day, and by definition, time you’re spending at work is time you aren’t spending with your children, your spouse, your pets, your hobbies, etc.

    I think helping people realize that is far more important than where Slaughter took this article – “Oh, if only X and Y, then we could have it all!” It’s like she doesn’t believe herself.

    I think, too, that part of this angst comes from the mistaken belief that men somehow have it all and women should have it, too. The simple truth about the math of a day’s available time applies equally to men as it does to women.

  2. I agree with Tom that the real value in the Atlantic article by Anne-Marie Slaughter is helping people realize that finding the right balance is a very personal journey. The Best Friends at the Bar project is all about helping young women lawyers find the balance and stay in the profession, one way or another. I spoke at Marquette University Law last year and also visited in Professor Phoebe Williams class. It was a great experience, and I keep up with some of the folks there. After all, I am a Wisconsin girl through and through!

    My second book, Best Friends at the Bar: The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business) comes out in July 2012 and will be a great resource for finding balance in practice and exploring alternatives to the law firm experience. Watch for it on the web site.

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