First Anne-Marie Slaughter's controversial article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," went viral after appearing in the Atlantic in July. Ms. Slaughter argued that given America's workplace demands and priorities women can't successfully manage both high-powered professional positions and the needs of their children simultaneously.
Then we learned that Marissa Mayer, the newly appointed CEO of Yahoo, is six months pregnant and plans to take almost no time off when her baby is born. Suddenly the War on Women seemed to morph into Women Warring.
Tweets thrummed, the blogosphere went bananas and print editorials proliferated as pundits, professionals and feminists began to duke it out. Could women really balance work and family life without one or the other getting short shrift? Was Ms. Mayer, who plans to take only three weeks maternity leave, working all the while, setting a bad precedent for other career-minded moms? What kind of pressure does this put on high-powered career women, and what if Ms. Mayer fails in her new post, or needs to take a longer maternity leave?
Missing to a large extent in all of these debates, it seems to me, was the opportunity to address and advocate for some important issues that affect all our lives but carry particular urgency for women. For example, only four percent of Fortune 500 companies are currently headed by women. Aside from the obvious fact that means men control 96 percent of corporate America, with everything that implies about our capitalist/consumer culture, it speaks volumes about the lack of institutional support for both women and men in parenting, and in living sane, manageable lives.
To her credit, Ms. Slaughter, who forfeited a powerful position in Washington, DC to return to flexible academic work so she could be present for her teenage son, recognized the class issues inherent in her argument. "I am writing for my own demographic -- highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place," she wrote. That meant she had career mobility free of transitional issues. And like Ms. Mayer, who got a multi-million dollar five-year package, she could hire full-time childcare providers who do not have such choices.
But what an opportunity she and followers of Ms. Mayer's situation missed to underscore the absence of sound childcare policy in this country! Families seeking accessible, affordable, quality care struggle daily in search of safe, stimulating environments in which to entrust their children. And the need only grows more pressing as women enter the workforce in record numbers either from choice or necessity. Women with choices about childcare and workplaces are perfectly poised, and sufficiently secure, to raise awareness about these issues and to press for policies that address them. To do so would be the highest form of mentoring.
Unlike every other country in the "developed" world, we have no federal laws ensuring paid maternity leave for a reasonable amount of time and no laws allowing for appropriate paid leave to care for sick family members. As Allison Stevens pointed out in WomensEnews when the controversy over Ms. Slaughter's article erupted, our culture still frowns upon flexible hours, undervalues part-time work, and believes ""face-time' is more important than work product."
The feminists who reacted viscerally to Ms. Slaughter's article in the fear that it would be harmful to working women missed her message, in my view. She wasn't telling young women to stay home till their kids were grown. She was arguing for leadership that supports family-first values, underscoring that such support means seeing to it that more women are elected to policymaking positions. "We may need to put a woman in the House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart," she concluded.
The good news, as K.J. Dell'Antonia put it in a New York Times Motherlode column, is that we're starting to talk "openly and almost constantly about what people have to do physically to go to work and raise a family." Noting that help, structure and flexibility are needed if any woman is going to make family and career work, she said, "When we ask what Ms. Mayer is going to need, on some level we're asking what anyone who works and parents needs."
She's right, of course. But as the old adage goes, "Talk is cheap." We have a long way to go before we actually tackle legislatively the issues raised by this debate. Meanwhile, Ms. Mayer will give birth, and even she will realize how hard it is to be a good parent and a successful professional simultaneously in this country, Fortune 500 CEO or not.
Author Note: Also posted by Women's Feature Service, India.