Is There No Way to Win?

Is There No Way to Win? July 18, 2012

Stop the madness.

I would love to get Anne-Marie Slaughter and Marissa Mayer in a room together.  They could commiserate about how their personal life choices are the subject of such public scrutiny and criticism.  They could play a drinking game wherein every time someone cheers for them to succeed they take a shot.  Every time someone insists they’ll fail (or has already failed) they take two shots.  Before you know it, they’d be sitting back-to-back on the floor, totally blitzed and eating pizza and giggling at crazy cat videos on YouTube.

Need me to back up for a sec?  Okay.  I am talking about two women who have caused quite a stir in the last month or so:  Anne-Marie Slaughter, for leaving an extremely high-powered job in Washington, D.C. to be more present for her teen-aged sons and to return to her (merely) extremely demanding job as a full-time professor at Princeton; Marissa Mayer for taking an extremely high-powered job as Yahoo!’s CEO at the same time she announces she is pregnant.

These women can’t win for trying.  Anne-Marie Slaughter is honest and forthright about the toll such jobs take on a parent, and realistic about what is best for her family.  Marissa Mayer is brilliant and ambitious – much the way I imagine Slaughter was at the same age – and confident in her ability to manage an insane career with having a new baby (her first, by the way.)  Both are being cheered and jeered – just from opposite sides.

Prof. Slaughter faces criticism and condescension from her peers and fellow feminists for asserting that women can’t have it all.  She is being thanked by exhausted women who sacrifice for their kids, either by staying home with them or having a job, or both at the same time.

Ms. Mayer is criticized by women who are smugly saying “You think you’ll be back to work after 3 weeks?  You’ve NO earthly idea what is about to hit you,” and judgmentally saying “Fine, I guess if you never wanna see your baby and have him raised by strangers, go for it.”  She’s garnering praise from the same group criticizing Slaughter – “She’s the poster girl for having it all!  She’s the beneficiary of all we’ve worked for!  You GO, girl!”

Let me propose an alternative response to each.

To Anne-Marie Slaughter, I’d say, “You are a brilliant, incredibly accomplished woman.  You’ve shined a bright light on some of the real problems even successful working women face.  You’ve politely and respectfully asked millions of woman to step back and evaluate their choices and paths, without being judgmental of others who choose differently.  You should be supported and applauded as you make this transition out of public service and back into private education and a closer family life.  Use your considerable power for Good.”

To Marissa Mayer, I’d say, “You are a brilliant, incredibly accomplished woman.  You’ve shattered the glass ceiling in the heavily male field of technological innovation.  You’re about to have a baby.  You should be supported and applauded as you try to forge a workable balance between career and new motherhood.  Use your considerable power for Good.  (And if when the baby arrives, you decide you need more than three weeks of maternity leave, I hope you allow yourself the flexibility to take it.  I hope the those on Yahoo!’s Board of Directors collectively chuckle and say, ‘We thought you might need more than three weeks.  Take as much as you need and your job will still be there for you.’)”

To Yahoo!, I’d say, “Great job hiring the best person for the job, even though you knew she is pregnant.  Now’s your chance to make a high-profile and meaningful change to improve the lives of working mothers in your company, and set a real example.  Like my new friend at Lizrael Update insightfully advocates, help her show the world that Corporate America thrives when its families do.  You can do it.  Be like this guy, who pays his employees $7,500 to take their vacation time, and use it to really get away from it all.  Take care of your own.  Because seriously, people, today’s workplace culture and economic climate are not exactly cutting it.

Understandably, cries of classism permeate the discussion of both women.  For Prof. Slaughter, it’s “Sure – she has a CHOICE of picking the job that lets her spend more time with her kids.  Must be NICE.”  For Ms. Mayer, it’s “Sure, she can stay at her job – she’s a BAZILLIONAIRE, and can have nannies out the wazoo.  Must be NICE.”  No matter how justified the resentment, this attitude is toxic and counterproductive.  I wish it would stop.

People, you want these women to meet with success in whichever path they choose.  Here’s why.  We NEED women in high-power positions to succeed.  We NEED them to run for office.  We NEED them to have a seat at the table so they can advocate for a supportive workplace culture.  We want them to thrive so that they can put in place innovative policies that TRULY support a work/family balance that works for BOTH genders.  So they can fight for fairness in health care and family leave, and fight against discrimination in the workplace.  So that every woman, every family, can have at least a few healthy and fulfilling life options to pursue.  THAT would be true choice, would it not?

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