Anne-Marie Slaughter and the Trade-Off Ratio of Work Life Balance

by Chrysula on July 20, 2012 in mothering,women,work life balance

Recently I was invited to apply for a CEO position for a very cool start-up targeting new mothers. I pondered over it for 24 hours, googled everything I could find on the company’s founder and backers, and thought long and hard about two key questions.

  1. Was something I could do (did I have the skills and experience)?
  2. Was it something I wanted to do (the passion factor)?

Credit: iStockphoto.com

I discovered the first answer was a resounding and confident “yes” and the second answer was “no”. Why? Because I could not get excited enough about this product to say yes to the sacrifices I would have to make in my life. It wasn’t about being frightened of the work or the travel or the time away from my husband and children. It was that the product wasn’t important enough to me to make that necessary exchange — not my Yahoo Marissa Mayer moment! The trade-off ratio simply wasn’t worth it.

Which brings me to Anne Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”Atlantic piece. Some of you, dear readers, have contacted me to ask why a writer whose stated areas of focus are work life balance and mother’s empowerment, has not yet responded to this polarizing work life balance treatise!

There have been a vast number of brilliant discussions on the article. I’ve read most of them. I’ve waded through the dredging up of old “opt-out revolution” wounds, navigated the critique of those (like me) who left the traditional work place and consumed every important response as well as read and re-read Slaughter’s essay.

So what brilliant insight do I have for you? Everything and nothing. It seems to me that Slaughter’s trade off at the State Department was worth it for those two years. She did the job and did it brilliantly by all accounts. But then, matters called her home – and the trade-off ratio was no longer worth it. She took a different position (still full time, still very senior) to allow the ratio of trade-offs to settle in to a new level that worked for her family and her professional life.

Evidently, she did so with great pain at leaving her dream gig. And I hear her loud and clear. I’ve been through my own iteration of that choice more than once.

My entire body of writing is on how to make the world better for mothers and how mothers can make the world better. It begins and ends with how mothers are treated in the home and in the work place. The motherhood penalty is real. There is abundant data to support the experience of millions of returning to work mothers losing out on dollars, promotions and quality of work offered to them.

Organizations say they want women at senior levels. But mothers who dare to take a few years out find their skills are deemed obsolete, their education invalid. Perhaps in some very fast moving high tech environments there is a case to be made for skills not being transferable. But in most sectors, losing one’s edge is merely a perception. One that often becomes its own self-fulfilling reality.

Mothers returning to the work force have to manage their head game and their language as well as refreshing their skill set. But when the assumptions are made for you, and the rigidity of corporate life assails you, it is no wonder that so many ultimately walk away, or at least, rebuild our professional lives into a trade-off ratio that honors our nurturing and our education and skills.

I don’t agree with all of Slaughter’s arguments, but many of them resonate. And I’m grateful she has taken this conversation to an entirely new level of attention. My work and family life friends often talk about what will it take to make this conversation take hold at the grass roots – to the extent where men and women will engage deeply in the cultural, organizational and social shifts needed for a truly flexible workforce. I think Slaughter fired a massive cannon that is helping to take us to that tipping point. And I thank her.

Some of my favorite responses, each containing fabulous links to follow also:

P.S. For a fascinating conversation on what it means (or doesn’t mean) to be a feminist in light of new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s declaration that she is not one, check out Authentic Organizations.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Portia Mount July 25, 2012 at 12:46 am

Chrysula, I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve read and re-read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article and the spate of articles and blog posts it has generated. I think this is one of the defining challenges of our times. Her job at State worked for her until it didn’t and then she made a crucial decision to go where she was needed most. Frankly, as a mother (and as a career woman) I don’t think we can ever go wrong when we pick our children/family over our career ambitions as agonizing as it has to be when you land your dream job only to find that it just doesn’t work for the life you want to lead. And that is the critical choice.

Your notion of the penalty of motherhood is a really critical one. As enlightened as I think more companies and organizations have become, the reality is that it’s very difficult to have a high-powered career and raise a family. I’m following the Marissa Mayer story with some interest because on the one hand, I do think it shows progress (Pregnant CEO! Woman!) yet on the other hand I feel despair when I see that she’s taking a two-week “maternity leave” of which she plans to work through. How is exactly is this setting an example for women? I don’t know and I’m not judging her. I think the jury is out.

Maybe she will help model a new type of workplace flexibility that will in turn influence other institutions. Because I think you as correctly noted this is the dialogue that really needs to happen to move the culture. Thanks for a provocative post.

Reply

Chrysula July 25, 2012 at 8:24 pm

Portia I really appreciate your thoughtful response. The dialogue feels like it has turned a tiny corner in a meaningful way.

Slaughter of course freely admitted she was not addressing the needs of hourly workers and women whose jobs have zero flexibility because they have zero authority. And I chose not to as well for the purpose of this piece. But I do firmly believe that as we figure this out for women on “career” tracks, we will change the debate and the policies for women in more rigid parts of the economy. Perhaps this is trickle down economics for work life policy? I am hopeful.

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