Can Women Have it All? The Leadership Gap

Informed, insightful, sometimes despairing, heartfelt, and deadly honest reflection by Ann-Marie Slaughter:

We’d like to hear how women have experienced the dilemmas of mothering and vocation, and wonder how men have adjusted so that together, a family can promote career satisfaction… which makes me wonder if “career” culture needs to be adjusted by males/fathers toward their families, which might create a more family culture in the business world. Slaughter proposes women having more leadership positions in order to help establish a more family-friendly culture. Quite the piece… here’s only a few paragraphs.

The striking gap between the responses I heard from those young women (and others like them) and the responses I heard from my peers and associates prompted me to write this article. Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.

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. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed….

But precisely thanks to their progress, a different kind of conversation is now possible. It is time for women in leadership positions to recognize that although we are still blazing trails and breaking ceilings, many of us are also reinforcing a falsehood: that “having it all” is, more than anything, a function of personal determination. As Kerry Rubin and Lia Macko, the authors of Midlife Crisis at 30, their cri de coeur for Gen-X and Gen-Y women, put it:


What we discovered in our research is that while the empowerment part of the equation has been loudly celebrated, there has been very little honest discussion among women of our age about the real barriers and flaws that still exist in the system despite the opportunities we inherited.


I am well aware that the majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable. But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.

Millions of other working women face much more difficult life circumstances. Some are single mothers; many struggle to find any job; others support husbands who cannot find jobs. Many cope with a work life in which good day care is either unavailable or very expensive; school schedules do not match work schedules; and schools themselves are failing to educate their children. Many of these women are worrying not about having it all, but rather about holding on to what they do have. And although women as a group have made substantial gains in wages, educational attainment, and prestige over the past three decades, the economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson have shown that women are less happy today than their predecessors were in 1972, both in absolute terms and relative to men.

The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone….

If we are looking for high-profile female role models, we might begin with Michelle Obama. She started out with the same résumé as her husband, but has repeatedly made career decisions designed to let her do work she cared about and also be the kind of parent she wanted to be. She moved from a high-powered law firm first to Chicago city government and then to the University of Chicago shortly before her daughters were born, a move that let her work only 10 minutes away from home. She has spoken publicly and often about her initial concerns that her husband’s entry into politics would be bad for their family life, and about her determination to limit her participation in the presidential election campaign to have more time at home. Even as first lady, she has been adamant that she be able to balance her official duties with family time. We should see her as a full-time career woman, but one who is taking a very visible investment interval. We should celebrate her not only as a wife, mother, and champion of healthy eating, but also as a woman who has had the courage and judgment to invest in her daughters when they need her most. And we should expect a glittering career from her after she leaves the White House and her daughters leave for college….

We’ll create a better society in the process, for all women. We may need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart. But when we do, we will stop talking about whether women can have it all. We will properly focus on how we can help all Americans have healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people they love as much as the success they seek.

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  • Jeffery Ferrell

    I take issue with the idea that anyone can “have it all”! I think we as a entire society have bought into the falsehood that “having it all” is possible for anyone regardless of gender. Because we define ourselves mostly by accomplishment and assets its impossible to be what might be consider successful by societal standards and still do well at the primary responsibilities of being a good spouse and parent! Maybe “good” is the wrong word, maybe we should say “intentional” or “purposeful”!

  • Kristin

    I’m still trying to figure out what “all” is. If it’s simply having a healthy balance between career and family then I’m not so sure we should idolize super women with lots of money like Michelle Obama. I would agree that corporate culture has many strides to make to support men and women with families, but we shouldn’t lose sight that our solutions should apply to people from all social classes, not just the elite. Not everyone has the opportunity to simply switch jobs to the University of Chicago (and presumably pay for private child care). At some point we need to encourage people to be content with their life and not look down upon themselves because someone else is more successful in their career, or takes more family vacations, or has smarter children, or whatever. If “having it all” means having a life like Michelle Obama then we’re all miserable failures!

  • Kristin

    The closing sentence sums it up nicely. That should be the goal, at least. (Though, I’m still not sure idolizing super women is the way to get there)

  • Red

    Kristin said:

    “At some point we need to encourage people to be content with their life and not look down upon themselves because someone else is more successful in their career, or takes more family vacations, or has smarter children, or whatever. If “having it all” means having a life like Michelle Obama then we’re all miserable failures!”

    First, let me say that I SO agree with this! I think our country has an unhealthy obsession with huge success and the corporate world. And yes, that was the perspective of this author, and it was the main POV that she adressed in the article. However, I think the article is fundamentally about something else, and for that reason, I think Kristin’s observations are good ones but incomplete.

    The truth is that, no matter what type of career you have, men are not encouraged to consider how to balance that with family time, while women are encouraged to do “whatever sacrifice is necessary.” This is an imbalanced attitude, and it is true for people in the corporate world AND in average lower-middle-class working families too.

    I know some stay-at-home moms who suffer from depression and low feelings of self-worth because, truth be told, they are mentally healthier when they can get out of the house, do valuable work, and bring home a decent paycheck. Many of them continue to stay home full-time in lives that they don’t enjoy because they and their husbands have been trained to believe that men can/should work as much as they want and women can/should make all the career sacrifice necessary to raise children.

    By the way, I recognize that lots of stay-at-home moms enjoy their life and wouldn’t have it any other way! I’m just speaking of the ones who don’t. Everyone is different. 🙂

    What I’m saying is that this imbalanced attitude can and does hurt people, even people who aren’t career-obsessed corporate execs. The imbalanced attitude needs to change whether you’re a high-end lawyer, a gas station attendant, a librarian, an astronaut, or whatever.

  • Megan Hopkins

    I was raised over the last 20 years in a wonderful loving family that included a successful working mother. I believed I could have it all and never considered the possibility that I would stay home to raise a family. Only after my child was born in 2010 did I realize how difficult it is to properly raise children in our culture. For example, the standard 6 weeks is not enough maternity leave under any circumstances; when working moms need to pump to replace feedings, they are more likely to lose their milk supply; and the statewide standards that child care centers must meet are far below what educated mothers would require. Thanks to a flexible job near home and the grace of God, I have not sacrificed my child’s mental or physical health by maintaining my career. Had I known the truth, I would have planned all along to raise a family at home and built my career around that choice.

  • Megan Hopkins

    I like the solution of women in leadership over the solution of men becoming more involved in their families. My husband and both brothers-in-laws are outstandingly involved fathers, and they benefit their working wives and children tremendously, but until fathers can incubate, birth and breastfeed babies, they simply cannot have the insight and bond that mothers have with their infants.

  • RJS


    I don’t think that is true. To make this claim not only fails to give full value to the bond developed by fathers, but it also fails to give full value to the bond developed by adoptive mothers who never “incubate, birth, and breastfeed” their babies. The bond happens in a variety of ways – and is not guaranteed by the ability to “incubate, birth, and breastfeed” as a reading of the news will quickly tell us.

  • John Inglis

    Of course it is possible for various categories of people to have tight and intimate bonds with infants, but it is inaccurate to say that the bond is in all cases the same. Scientific research belies any such assertion.

  • Scot,

    I so appreciate the variety of issues and articles you feature on your blog and also the thoughtful and generally non-contentious responses. It’s refreshing. And RJS – thanks for your sensitivity towards adopted mothers.

    I had read this article in the Atlantic and felt it long over due. I remember having a conversation with a close friend when she was pregnant in which she expressed disbelief and a little judgment that some of her close friends were giving up their careers to stay at home with their children. We were both intense feminists and had taken many women’s studies courses together in college. Yet I remember thinking, “It’s not always possible to have it all. Children need parents to be present in a way that communicates a certain degree of inner spaciousness and focus. And when we’re depleted and distracted, kids know it. They know when we’re not emotionally available.” I knew this from my first hand experience of being a child and also and from working with scores of children/teens/adults as a psychotherapist. And while I’m not saying every family system has to have a June or Ward Cleaver at home, all of us have to make choices about what we can and can’t realistically accomplish throughout the day – whether we have kids or not. Because the cost of trying to do everything can take a tremendous toll on health (physical and emotional), relationships, spirituality and productivity/creativity.

    I am not a parent yet I find myself constantly modulating my energy, schedule and work. I find it can be helpful to track one’s internal and external rhythms, which cues us into knowing when to push and when to scale back (within our certain given economic realities). When the goose is expected to lay too many golden eggs a day – day after day after day, eventually there is no more gold. And one of our greatest tasks is finding out just what the gold within us is.

  • Holly

    I like Michelle Obama. I think she’s a pretty good role model in general!

    But to use her as an example in this specific instance is not that great of an application, imho.

    She gave up her career at this point in life to further her husband’s job – not just to be a mother to their children. Also, when the time is right, post-White House, she absolutely WILL be able to step back into the work force (likely several steps ahead of the game than she would otherwise) – and that simply is not the reality for most women.

    Having it all is not all that it’s cracked up to be. I’m an educated woman, a wife, a mother. “Having it all” is not even on my radar. I could have had a great career and a very good salary. Finding contentment, love, joy, peace – no matter the situation? Investing in people, people that God places in front of me (whether mine biologically or just those God has brought my way…?) That’s worth so much more than “having it all.” (And honestly, in reference to #4, investing in growing healthy people actually *is* valuable work whether it’s done by a man or a woman or is a joint effort…)

  • Steph

    “All” is a relative term that is distracting to the discussion. We do have it “all,” though, women and men and children, and we owe it to a woman who served twelve terms in the House. (See below, Mary T. Norton.) She had a vision for *more* and for *better,* a vision for reform, and seeing how basic we now consider these protections to be, I don’t think any of us should be poo-pooing the concept of having it all. (The word poo-poo comes to you courtesy of the time I spend with a four-year-old.) In light of the info in the paragraph below and the stresses on many families due to the work/life balance, or lack thereof, I think we need a vision for another good dose of “all,” “more,” or “better.” We also now have the reality of more single parents, and a better work/life balance would go far in making day-to-day experiences better for them too. Time for reform. So, more power to the malcontents. One of them will hopefully bring change to a neighborhood near you….

    “Norton’s crowning legislative achievement came with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which she personally shepherded through committee and onto the House Floor for a vote. The only significant New Deal reform to pass in President Franklin Roosevelt’s second term, the act provided for a 40-hour work week, outlawed child labor, and set a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour. To get the controversial bill out of the Rules Committee, which determined what legislation was to be debated on the floor and which was controlled by “anti-New Deal” conservative Democrats, Norton resorted to a little-used parliamentary procedure known as the discharge petition.9 She got 218 of her colleagues (half the total House membership, plus one) to sign the petition to bring the bill to a vote. The measure failed to pass, but Norton again circulated a discharge petition and managed to get a revised measure to the floor, which passed. “I’m prouder of getting that bill through the House than anything else I’ve done in my life,” Norton recalled.10 In 1940, she teamed up with Majority Leader John McCormack of Massachusetts to fight off revisions to the act and scolded her colleagues for trying to reduce the benefits to working-class Americans, among which was a $12.60 weekly minimum wage. Norton declared, it “is a pittance for any family to live on … I think that when Members get their monthly checks for $833 they cannot look at the check and face their conscience if they refuse to vote for American workers who are getting only $12.60 a week.'”11

    This is my first time quoting and linking to Jesus Creed and I’m sure there are preferred ways to do so….. Here is the source for the passage above, with its endnote sources.

    We have only had it all since 1938. It would be nice to introduce a new version of having it all before the 100-year mark.

  • EAB

    Thank you for posting this article. I agree with much of what Slaughter says. I think she brings out three important points:
    1) the corporate world in America IS NOT “family friendly.” It is structured in such a way that individuals are influenced to give more time and loyalty to the company than to their family and/or personal lives. Day care costs are high, many companies don’t offer vacation—paid or otherwise, or health insurance. In short, corporate America makes high demands of individual time and resources while providing few benefits.
    2) We can “have it all” if we are willing to bring about change. Why should men work long hours, get no family leave, be shamed for not devoting as much time to the company as the other guy, and miss seeing his children grow up or spending time with those who matter to him? In the same way, why should women be expected to bear the greater portion of the child care to the detriment of their career opportunities. For that matter, why should either one be forced to make an all or nothing choice? Because that’s the way it’s always been?
    3) We need many more women holding high office in order to bring about change in the workplace. Slaughter’s assertion is born out by history. One example is sited by Steph (10:44) above. Another powerful example is the huge drop in maternal and infant mortality rate within one year of women gaining the vote. In 1921, just months after women gained the vote, the Maternity and Infancy Act was passed and maternal mortality rates dropped. By 1948 maternal mortality rates decreased by 71%, and by the end of the twentieth century, maternal mortality rate decreased 99%. Women’s involvement in leadership makes a difference. Why? Because they have a voice and representation. And usually, the things that are important to women are also important for their families and their communities—labor laws, living wages, and healthy mothers and children are all good for our communities.

    Right now, as things stand, one needs to have money (and lots of it) to run for office. So I am not as concerned that rich women are running for office as much as I am care that more women ARE running and getting elected to the highest offices. The fact is, if you don’t have a voice/place at the table, your concerns will not be addressed. When we have more women representatives, and presidents, we will have a better representation of our country overall. In the same way that the push for better maternal care benefited all families, and the push for child labor laws and living wage benefited all citizens, more women in high office can make the difference in addressing the issues that women and men,and their families, wrestle with today. And one of those things is a better balance between work and personal life. My hope is for a future which is better balanced for both men and women.

  • Sue

    Wolfers and Stevensons data is not fairly represented in this article. The data is here

    People should read this and become more aware of how data regarding women is manipulated in their disfavor.

  • Sue
  • Val

    Well, each society needs to find a place for children to grow and learn. For only a brief time in history in a small percentage of the world’s population has the nuclear family worked. It worked in North America because there was land to move to and build a new home after marriage. I lived in S. Asia for a time, and Mumbai could never support a nuclear-family society – Delhi, possibly, if everyone lived in a 400 sq. ft. apartment – so, it may be time to rethink it all. First, young couples can’t just afford a home, get a life-long career or support a family like they did a generation ago. Jobs, and careers are harder to come by, most families will find two incomes/careers necessary to make ends meet, as people find themselves having to change careers over the course of their working life. This means: wives will need to be income earners for at least some of their adult life – and children will need care too. So, perhaps extended family, communal living or the state will have to fill the gaps. It won’t happen in a generation, we may never see where it goes. I suspect it will change gradually, but it will change. The nuclear family is really the hight of luxury and excess. The Romans began to live in a similar way by the end of the empire – the patriarchal family would own several homes, sometimes in different cities/areas, and the sons would take mistresses to the other homes – or keep mistresses at the other homes, thus creating two or three “single” family homes – each staffed with slaves/servants. Then, the Empire collapsed – as the rich had grown too used to their pampered life to give it up and make necessary adjustments.

  • Val

    Just a quick comparison I read in an article stating why the birth rate was on the rise everywhere except Canada:

    France – High taxes, but free round the clock day care for parents, with free meals provided.
    the US – cheaper labour – cleaning, eating out, than most of the western world – to shoulder the working family’s load and lower taxes – income splitting between spouses, mortgages as a tax write-off.
    Canada – High taxes, year-long maternity leaves, and mandated full-day kindergarten at 5 but no income-splitting, no government help with childcare after a year (most people have no idea the costs involved from 1 – 4 years). I ended up making more money on my 2nd and 3rd maternity (4 months)/parental (8 months) leaves = 1 year, than I did when I returned to work with 2, and now 3 kids. That uncovered, very expensive cost (50% of my income) has kept the birth rate lower in Canada than any other western country, as parents are stretched to afford that more than once.

    Some thoughts, I teach in province with a very strong union, so I get full benefits in a part-time job. The ability to go part-time has helped more than any other incentive – although I would have taken a leave (another parental right in our union) if we only had 6 week – 3 month mat. leaves. The part-time job, keeps my foot in the door, and I have always shared my class with another mom, so it keeps us in the job-market when our kids get old enough to not need us at home. Some of my kids best teachers were moms themselves, so it is a benefit to the profession to allow mom’s the flexibility to parent and teach.

  • P.

    Like many people here have said, Corporate America is not family-friendly, and that needs to change. Now, just speaking for myself, “having it all” varies from person to person. Successfully climbing the corporate ladder is not “having it all” for me. Also, as a woman, I do get a little weary of “experts” including Christian experts telling me what to do, what I should want, etc.

  • JJ

    The point Slaughter makes is important. There is indeed a prevailing sense–at least among those who affirm the validity of career goals and career-oriented commitment for women in the first place–that women who want both a career and a family should be able to balance them almost by an act of sheer will, regardless of adverse circumstances inherent in current social realities. Women who can’t do so (or choose not to do so because they are aware that they can’t) without incurring damage to one or both are sometimes even viewed as weak, lacking determination. The unspoken judgment in such cases seems to be that if a woman has the audacity to “want it all,” she had better be ready to make whatever exertions and sacrifices are necessary to achieve it without expecting society to validate her “stubbornness” via more-than-minimal facilitation.

    As a female doctoral student nearing the end of my program, I’ve experienced this kind of judgment in a somewhat less common way. Knowing both myself and the well-documented career implications of child-rearing for female academics (though, happily, some superwomen do seem to make it work without significant detriment), I believe it is unlikely that I could both maintain the level of focus and dedication to my academic goals that I desire and give sufficient time and attention to raising young children. So, I have made a choice not to pursue marriage and family–certainly not for many years, and probably not at all. Responses I’ve received range from lighthearted teasing about choosing dead theologians over a living family to being asked (as a serious question) if I am lesbian. Although few people have objected explicitly to my academic goals as such, quite a few have seemed to feel it somehow wrong or unnatural for me to commit to those goals *instead* of family, rather than trying to balance them *in addition to* family.

    Slaughter’s argument that it will take women in positions of leadership to correct the social realities that compel women–so much more so than men–to make these kinds of decisions has merit. I think it will also take honesty on the part of women, honesty like that which Slaughter herself exemplifies: willingness to accept the risk of being judged weak in order to say, “Look – the way things are is not okay. What I have to do to make this work is not okay.”

  • RJS


    As a woman, an academic (full professor at a major University), and a wife and mother, your conclusions depress me a bit. A couple of observations – the first is that when I was a Ph.D. student I expected that I would not get married and have kids until I was tenured, if at all. Things happened differently – I never “pursued marriage,” but I did get married, our first was born while I was a postdoc and the second while I was an assistant professor. In the years since then I have talked with, mentored, and been involved in discussions of this at many levels. I would say two things – (1) no one can “have it all” there are always compromises, so part of the equation is always your personal circumstances. (2) Academia is one of the more friendly environments. Long maternity leaves are not possible, but there is usually a great deal of schedule flexibility. I know dozens of women who have managed – and only a couple are superwomen.

    Moving into marriage and famiy is fine, not pursuing it is fine. Waiting for children is fine – not waiting is fine. Go with the circumstance.

  • JJ


    Thanks very much for your insight. My intention was not to imply that female academics can’t (or shouldn’t try to) balance career and family; I am delighted for you that you have been able to find an acceptable balance. What I intended to communicate was that I do not think *I* could strike a balance that would be acceptable to me right now in light of relevant circumstances (several of which are gender-specific), and–more to the point–that I find the responses I’ve received to a career-based choice not to pursue family relevant to this discussion. Thanks again!