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Debate over work-life balance hits a 'tipping point'

The debate over whether working women can have it all and who’s to blame if they don’t is getting lots of attention this week because another high-powered woman entered the fray.

“I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured,” writes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former U.S. State Department official, in an article titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in The Atlantic this week.


Courtesy of Princeton

Anne-Marie Slaughter

Slaughter is a Princeton politics professor who left her job last year as director of policy planning in the State Department in part to spend more time with her family. Her essay has brought the issue to the forefront nationally, creating a dialogue that could be a watershed moment for the work-life-balance wrangle.

With women now making up about 50 percent of the workforce, working mothers are brushing aside the mommy wars and finally asking hard questions about whether the 1950s "Company Man" model needs a serious retooling. Given that women still make less than their male counterparts and hold fewer than 20 percent of the corner office seats, everyone is wondering when equity will finally come to the workplace and make it more friendly for working women.

Slaughter sees her piece as a call to action.

"What we know about culture change is that there are tipping points," she told the New York Times' parenting blog Thursday. "Norms can change dramatically. On the one hand, it’s harder because we can’t point to very specific things and say, change that, but once it starts changing, it’s likely to change much faster than we’d expect. I’m basically trying to give people the space to start demanding those kinds of changes." 

The key question, what needs to change? 

Two well-known successful women with divergent thoughts on the issue are at the heart of this debate.

In one corner is Slaughter, who believes working moms have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to work-life balance. In the other corner is Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, who’s gotten work-life-acclaim for her candid views during an Internet video TED Talk in 2010, and subsequent speeches, on how women can juggle it all if they work hard enough.

Mike Segar / Reuters

Sheryl Sandberg

From Slaughter’s article:

“I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.” 

From Sandberg’s talk:

“If two years ago you didn’t take a promotion and some guy next to you did. If Three years ago you stopped looking for new opportunities, you’re going to be bored because you should have kept your foot on the gas pedal. Don’t leave before you leave. Stay in. Keep your foot on the gas pedal until the very day you need to leave to take a break for a child.”

Slaughter actually called Sandberg out on her statements, writing: “Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach. We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: ‘What’s the matter with you?’”

On Friday, the New York Times weighed in on the issue with its own piece titled “Elite Women Put New Spin on Old Debate Over Balancing Work and Family” by Jodi Kantor.

Slaughter’s article, Kantor writes, “added to a renewed feminist conversation that is bringing fresh twists to bear on longstanding concerns about status, opportunity and family. Unlike earlier iterations, it is being led not by agitators who are out of power, but by elite women at the top of their fields, like the comedian Tina Fey, the Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg and now Ms. Slaughter. In contrast to some earlier barrier-breakers from Gloria Steinem to Condoleezza Rice, these women have children, along with husbands who do as much child-rearing as they do, or more.”

While women like Slaughter and Sandberg have the prominence to get their voices heard, are they really speaking for average working women? 

We’d love to hear from all of you on what you think needs to be done to accommodate women in the workplace today. Please share your ideas with us on how your employer can better help you juggle work and family.