Men Don’t Have It All, Either

Anne-Marie Slaughter
’s heavily Tweeted cover story in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” publicly and very personally acknowledges what most women in the corporate trenches already know: it is incredibly difficult to climb the professional ladder and be a hands-on mother.  I agree. What I take issue with is not her contention that women can’t have it all, but the implication that men can.

Yes, women are wildly under-represented in the corridors of power and over-represented on the carpool circuit. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the men in the top ranks of business and government who work 70-hour weeks or travel constantly and hardly see their partners and children have it all any more than the women who choose the “mommy-track.” If “having it all” means succeeding in a top job in business or government and being an active and connected parent, very few women or men meet those criteria. All of us – men and women – are making trade-offs. The modern workplace demands productivity and rewards those who are most available and work the most hours. Typically, women have valued spending time with their families and have not wanted to sacrifice the well-being of their families for their careers, while men have been willing to make that trade in the name of professional advancement. Thus, though women have been 50% of graduating classes for decades, they still represent fewer than 20% of corporate boardrooms.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg calls this difference between men and women an “ambition gap.” She takes women to task for making excessive professional concessions for their family and urges them to “raise their hands” and step into more leadership, suggesting that if they just marry the right man and time things right, they can make it work. Slaughter, a professor at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department under Hilary Clinton, is more sympathetic to women’s choices. Taking issue with the “myths” that finding the right partner and good timing are the solutions, she suggests remedies such as redefining the arc of a successful career and changing the inflexible corporate structure to be more accommodating of the needs of families. Both Slaughter and Sandberg, however, frame the discussion primarily as a women’s issue.

I would like to re-envision the issue in a way that explicitly includes men. It is all too easy to vilify men, the “oppressors” who apparently benefit most from the inequalities of the current set-up. A more nuanced view recognizes that many men feel quite constrained by both social and economic pressures to achieve in the workplace and to maximize earnings, and instead sees them as potential allies.  Men have as much to gain from Slaughter’s proposed changes in society and the workplace as women do. After all, while women are missing out on leadership and power, men are missing out on their children’s childhood.

The stakes are high. In the 2011 book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,  Bronnie Ware, who worked for years in palliative care, writes that the second most common deathbed regret she heard was “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” She writes: “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.” I don’t know how often she heard this regret from women, but I’d wager it was less common.

I am reminded that the goal of feminism is not to free women to be like men, but to liberate women and men from gender bias so that they are free to make individual choices. That is not just a women’s issue.