Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On "Why Women Can't Have It All"

Have any of you read that article in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter, "Why Women Can't Have It All"? 

It has sparked a lot of discussion on various radio / tv / newspapers and it's also sparking this blog entry.  I've actually wanted to write this for a while so I'm thankful to Ms. Slaughter for the inspiration. 

I'd like to preface this by saying that I'm not a particularly power hungry or non-traditional person in many ways.  I simply aspire to be happy and productive in my career and in my life.  Also, I know men have many challenges these days as well, but I can only write from my own perspective and you know....I'm a girl....

Stereotypes / Women in Math and Science

When I was growing up, my mom was strict about making sure that I didn't fall into certain gender stereotypes.  She would read children's books to me and point out that even though the doctor was a man in the story, that women were doctors too.  She would tell me that a book was sexist if there were too many passive female characters in the background.  As a token of her feelings towards prescribed roles, I carry her last name (which has caused endless confusion throughout the years!).  My mom, like many other women in her generation, wanted to make sure that I didn't grow up (as she probably did) believing that all women became wives, secretaries, or teachers. 

My parents also encouraged me and my brothers to work hard in my science and math classes.  Success in these subjects was the key to getting a good job.  I never really seriously considered studying anything else.  Just decide what kind of engineer you want to be.  

When I got to college, I met so many smart friends, both guys and girls.  My engineering classes were dominated by guys even though my field, chemical engineering is a relatively female-heavy engineering field.  I started noticing a gender gap though.  In classes I doubted my ability to succeed. True or not, the guys just seemed better at engineering as a whole.  Additionally, there was a lack of female role models.  In four years of classes, I had one female professor in a technical class. 

I graduated and out of the five girls who I graduated with, only one is still an engineer.  (Of course a lot of the guys aren't engineers either, but the attrition rate for women in engineering is pretty high.).  

Why is there still such a gap for women in math and science?  Why don't girls go into these fields at the same rate as guys?  In this crappy economy there's probably no better favor a 19 year old can do themselves than to major in something that has jobs and pays well.  With the huge rate of women going to college these days, there's no reason why women shouldn't be dominating math and science fields. 

As An Adult

Fast forward past business school and now I work in fashion marketing.  It goes without saying that I'm not a minority there. 

However the older I get, the more I notice two things:  1) The lack of women in higher management positions and 2) The amount of ridiculously smart girls who have, for a variety of reasons, deprioritized their careers.

I'll address number two first because I want to make sure I don't sound judgmental.  There's nothing wrong with deciding family is more important than a career and I actually find it to be a pretty noble choice.  I could easily make the same choice in the future and I understand that marriage and starting a family is a cornerstone of life.  I just get frustrated when I think of the great things that so many women would have done otherwise (because they are so talented) if they had pursued their original career dreams. 

The Lack Of Women In High Management Positions

This is a huge can of worms and I can't presume to understand every factor as to why this is.  The statement that annoys me the most when this gets addressed, however, is that "Oh those women grew up when there weren't opportunities, it will be different soon". 

I find that hard to believe.  Nothing is changing that quick, and I will be shocked that if in 30 years there is near equal representation in the highest positions in government and in business. 

I think some women take themselves out of the race to the top intentionally to spend more time on other pursuits - whether it be family or other interests.  Or maybe they are less aggressive when it comes to asking for promotions and raises. 

But I also think there's a social structure such that it's difficult for women to rise beyond certain levels.  Top business positions are often filled based on relationships.  While I'm not really at that level yet,  I'd like to be and I am pretty sure it's more awkward to go out for drinks or go golfing or whatever with a group of guys if you're the only woman.  And yeah that stuff matters. 

And women who do rise to these positions are often unmarried or without families.  It's like they had to choose one or the other.  

So where does this leave me in my rant?  

I don't really know.  I could go on about this forever.  It's also a conflicting topic for me because in my own personal life, I follow some gender roles happily.  I like to cook for Anthony and I expect him to open doors.  But I also want little girls to feel like they can excel in any subject and many women in positions of power who balance their families and careers.  I hope we get there one day. 


  1. Can I tell you what bugs me? No? Too bad, I am anyway. (lolz)

    I actually HATE HATE HATE the "can women have it allll" expression that just. won't. die. For one, what the hell does it mean? Does it mean that it's not possible to be content with career only? Because it's just not something DEBATED with men. It's assumed their content no matter what they choose.

    To that end, the most depressing part of my already depressing life is the fact that I'm quickly catapulting into middle age with nothing resembling a career, though that's neither here nor there. I only mention it because it depresses the hell out of me that I have absolutely NO aptitude for math/science and play into stereotypes that I hate. I can't help but wonder if I'd have done better in a different environment as I grew up in a place that was pretty backwards and unevolved. I mean, 30% of my high school class went to college and that was considered a BIG DEAL since it was the highest percentage ever. (And most of them flunked out or didn't end up going.) I have to assume there was a lot of shit I missed out on when you consider I had no idea that there were things like SAT prep classes. Hell, I barely knew SATs existed since it wasn't really advertised at my school. But again, off track.

    It's actually quite interesting that you bring up lack of women in management. Women DOMINATE management at my current job (even the technical side!) and while I was poking around on a certain career website I saw someone complain about that with the disclaimer that they were "okay" with diversity but enough was enough. The implication that having women in management is...diverse bothers me because it clearly shows the kind of institutional bias that goes on. There are still people that assume a man would have been first choice for these positions for whatever reason.

    Also interesting note about Chem E. Now that I think about it, almost every female engineering major I knew went into Chemical Engineering.

    Sorry. This rant is not helpful.

    1. That's interesting about the comment about "diversity". I hear you on where you grew up. I wanted to go into education at some point and I think it's huge what sort of opportunities kids are exposed to.

  2. Honestly, men can't "have it all" either. The grass is always greener on the other side. We don't really even know what "all" is and it is different for everyone.

    Personally, I don't ever see myself in a managerial role. I'm certainly smart enough to do it, but I don't want that in life. I don't love my current field and I don't want to waste my life there even though it would seem to be more prestigious. I want a job where I can help people and I think the best way for me to do that would be through fitness. Yeah, I'll make less money. Yeah, I'll be "just" a personal trainer/coach. But, it's what I want out of life.

    It's interesting that you bring up the possibility that women may be less aggressive in asking for raises/going after promotions. I think there is some truth to this. Last year we were awarded a large contract and it made me highly visible to several people up the chain of command. My marketing manager (female) told me to ask for whatever I wanted because I was in a good position to get it. I told her that I didn't think I deserved anything and I wasn't confident about the whole thing. She said that in all her years of working, women would react the way I did but the men would strut around like they were the best thing to ever happen, even if they were screwing up.

    Like everything in life, you have to have priorities. I'll make an absolutely horrible running analogy. If it's the day before your 20 miler, you are probably not going to stay out all night drinking. If you do your run will suffer. It's just a fact of life that one aspect of your life may have to be sacrificed for another.

    Last rambling thought - in general, I resent the implication that by not getting advanced degrees and trying to be a CEO that I am not reaching my full potential and am setting women back. I don't believe that the goal in life is to rack up titles. (This has nothing to do with what you wrote, it's a general statement about life).

    1. I too agree with your last rambling thought. I chose to be a mom and by so doing I don't have 'titles' or what not. But, to me, that's not what life is about. I think if you want a family your children should be your main priority, they will be the future and I can contribute to my society by raising children that maybe will go on in business and gain those 'titles.' That is, if that's what they want out of life. Either way, I think you need to choose what you want to do in life and do it well and to your best ability. I know I didn't want to have a career and be a mom because I didn't want someone else raising my child. I'm blessed to be able to do so.

    2. Glad this is generating discussion! And I'm glad you've been able to be a stay at home mom. I'd love to hear from a stay at home dad to get input from that side as well.

      I think the issue is where there are are women who want both a career and a family but end up having to choose one over the other. I know life is about compromise, but I'd argue things are still tougher for women to achieve the balance they desire.

    3. I do agree that women should have the choice to do whatever they find most fulfilling, whether it is succeeding in business, taking care of their family, or some thoughtful combination of both. But what bothers me (a little) is when people decide that once you have a family it is more important to raise them and not continue to make yourself successful at the same time if you have the education and background to do so. Maybe these children WILL go on to be in business and gain the 'titles' you mention. But, if they follow the example of women staying at home to raise their family,daughters may end up being stay at home moms right away as well.

    4. I think raising my children is being successful. At the same time, I see what you may mean. Even though I have a son, I still find time to do what brings me joy and what helps me be me. For me, that's running. For other women that might be having a career. Success to me isn't having a career, but that's just me.

  3. You bring up many good points! Your mom sounds like a wonderful teacher and example :) I think this change is gradual, and that, sometimes, makes it frustrating. The graduation rate in geoscience is now 50-50 male/female, but it wasnt that 10 years ago, so obviously there are more men at work in general and in management positions. I do find it a challenge to find a female that has made it high up and has a family, but they exist. I think things, at least in this field, will continue to change, but better support for new moms is needed bc that is where I see a lot of people just quit and never come back. The concept of the "good ol' boy" does frustrate me. I will never be one simply bc I am not male. Perhaps this is a blessing bc I probably would have been a good one, but I am so proud that I get where I am bc of my accomplishments. (Not to downplay the importance of proper networking, it just sometimes gets abused.) I find the whole thing conflicting, too, give me a promotion and hold the door open, please :). Anyways, I love being a woman and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. We are awesome!

    1. Agree you would have been a fantastic good old boy! Also totally agree with you on support for new moms. And yes we are awesome :).

  4. Great post Margo. Its definitly interesting for us being female lawyers, in a male dominated-industry. I feel like there are enough women in the legal profession to be taken seriously (honestly, I think our biggest disadvantage in being taken seriously is being physically small, and looking YOUNG).

    I reckon there is definitly a disadvantage for those who go the family/kids route. One of the reasons its easier in Australia, is that we have such a long (as long as 9months-1yr) paid maternity + paternity leave; you dont feel as disadvantaged in your career if you have kids and your employer is required to give you time off for it. That being said, I think it really really slows down women in their careers, even if they experience no discrimination or ill-treatment because of it.

  5. I'm one of those women who backed off of my original career goals (tenure-track professor, later it was university administration in student affairs) for a few reasons. I'm over 30, want to have kids and just done with the school thing in general. Not gonna say I'm crazy smart, but I know I could be doing a lot more at this point in my life.

    I know this topic has been done to death in academia. I've talked to grad students who discuss their career options and life planning. If you want to get tenure, you've got to work your ass off for your first 6 years of your assistant professorship. That ends up corresponding with the time where a lot of people want to start families. A lot of peers have small children, so it can definitely be done. The first two women I know to get tenure represent both sides. One is not married, childless. The other has been married throughout grad school and has two boys under 3. Still, it's surprising how many grad students (at least the ones I met doing research in STEM) don't want to go into academia because of the crazy amount of time and planning ahead for work/family balance. Some just say they'd rather work out in industry where there's less stress to publish or perish.

    There's less of a gender gap (at least in undergrad, grad school) for the life sciences. There are a lot of women there, but you'll find the gap is lopsided for tenured faculty.

  6. There seem to be a disproportionate number of bloggers who are or were chemical engineers. Weird!

    This whole topic is pretty anxiety-inducing for me. My husband and I both have careers (no kids yet) and we're finding that it's hard to balance just that! I took a job that required us to move earlier this year, and that will likely result in a relocation (to your neck of the woods!) this fall. My husband's in a bit of a holding pattern because of my career right now, and I feel guilty for the sacrifices he's had to make. I also recently contracted baby rabies, but I honestly don't know that I can be the wife, mother, and employee that I want all at the same time! Growing up I always "knew" that I would be a kick-ass career woman and could never stay home with a family. Nowadays, I feel more and more like I have to choose... or at the very least significantly compromise on all fronts, and have my husband do the same.

    I guess I really didn't have too much to add to this, but I really enjoyed your post.

  7. A view from an 'old guy' is that there has been significant improvement in female representation in management over the past 35 years. Google 'list of female ceos' for lots of examples. When I started my career, the reason commonly given for zero female ceos in major companies was that there was no 'bench' of available talent coming up through the ranks.

    This led to accelrated promotions of females (and some male resentment and some failed female careers). That created the talent pool of the women who are now ceos. Pepsi, Xerox, Archer Daniels Midland are a few that come to mind. These are not isolated examples; they are the result of a large pool of female talent that has developed in the middle and upper management levels.

    Then, there is one example I'm personally aware of that illustrates the magnitude of social change over that time. A married school principal was discovered to be having an affair with his secretary. When I was growing up, the outcome would unquestionably have been that the female lost her job and the male kept his. In this case, the role reversal happened - the secretary kept her job and the principal was fired.

    So, it seems that significant social change plays out on a time scale that seems glacially slow to each individual. Your post has caused me to look back on only 3 decades of change in this one area of life. The changes are stunningly positive on a macro level, though that view only comes into focus looking backward.

    Thank you for your blogs - well written, thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable. You make the entire running experience more fun for all of us.

    1. Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment! Honestly it made my day. It's especially interesting to hear from someone who has a completely different perspective than I do.

    2. And this week Marissa Mayer, 37 y.o., engineer, pregnant, compensation approx. $60 M, has become CEO of Yahoo. The larger point remains not the individual at the top of the pyramid, but clear evidence that there is a pyramid of similar people moving up through middle and upper management levels enabling the selection of the individual at the top.

      For a direct view of astonishingly brilliant women at or near the top, watch Bloomberg TV and CNBC (esp. early morning). It is also interesting to watch the female anchors on these shows doing serious interviews with male guests and holding their own with their male counterparts.

      A fair number have families and sometimes discuss the subject on air. Are they happy and satisfied? What will their view be in 20 or 30 years? But, they did reach their current situation by choice & capability & some luck in 'right place, right time, right mentor'.

      Having highlighted one side of the discussion, I am also aware (personally & in general) of many cases of anti female bias in the chain of promotion and the crushing effect it can have on the women affected. If you watch closely, you will also see a bias against singles of both genders in business.

      You can tell that your blog on this subject has had 'staying power' as it rolls around in the back of my mind - - forever. Probably because both my wife & I are MBAs and we did the corporate thing for years. We've had many intense discussions on female success & progression in business. Running is now my retirement hobby.

  8. Here's my two cents.... I think it is tough for someone in their late teens /early twenties to decide what they want to be “when they grow up” I was a total feminist. My parents always raised me to reach for the stars and I could be whatever I wanted to be. I didn’t need a man to take care of me. In some ways that attitude hurt my development as a wife and partner. For the first few years of my marriage I felt like I was in a competition with my husband. I was working and I was a full time student. He finished school before I did and he went on to have a successful career. I was a stressed out mess (by choice) I felt that it would pay dividends later. I also didn’t believe that I would ever want children.
    Fast forward many years later and I managed to get a degree in finance that I’m not really using. I work in a different field. If I could do it all over again I would have chosen a career in fitness (personal training, coaching, etc.) something with more flexibility so I could be a stay at home mom. I know some career women look down on women that choose to stay home with their kids. But, it tears my heart out when I have to drop my kid off at daycare. And when I’m on my deathbed I’m not going to remember all of my fabulous career moments, I’m going to remember all of the good times I spent with my loved ones.

    1. Another interesting comment. I don't think being a feminist (or just someone who isn't very traditional) is exclusive from being a stay at home mom.

      I wouldn't look back and regret getting that degree though or your earlier ambitions. I would look at it as insurance. I think that even if I end up as a stay at home mom at some point, I'll know that I have a practical degree and work experience to fall back on should something really awful (my husband getting sick, losing his job, etc.) occur.

  9. This is interesting. I like being a stay at home mom. I did a collective 6 yrs of higher education (bailed on my master's program after 2 yrs). I'm no dummy. I find myself bothered also by that "having it all" expression and don't really understand what it means in that nebulous context. To me, "having it all" means having love in my life and a strong sense of myself. There is so much emphasis on money and power and status, it is sad but it is reality. The only thing that really truly bothers me is how parents who stay home with kids are marginalized. I know that people look down on me because I don't "do" anything. I have no problem with the fact that I am not using my education to make money...I am GREAT at helping with homework.

    1. Honestly, I would love to see a SAHM write about that experience. (feeling marginalized but fulfilled with that they do).

      Agree with you that the expression "Having it all" is loaded.

      I'm also starting to worry that the comments are focusing more on being a stay at home mom and less on the lack of women in math and science and in positions of power in business. This piece is in no way meant to be a commentary on women who chose to stay home and are fulfilled doing that.

    2. PS: I suspect you are the "cool mom" who all the kids want to hang out with :)

    3. P.S. I am super kick-ass at math and science except for physics (if I could eliminate my stubborness I'd probably get that too). In 8th grade, though, I was not placed in algebra. I was pissed. I ended up doubling up on math classes in high school, using an elective both semesters sophomore year to ensure placement in calculus as a senior. And no, I'm not the cool mom :( I don't let people get away with shit and I require respect and conscious behavior (age-appropriate, of course). My kids love it because it feels safe and good, but it's hard work and sometimes not all fun.

      Maybe I'll write about that thing you said. Hmmm…

    4. XLMIC, You are my hero!!!

  10. I think woman can have family and career if the other half (husband or, I guess other wife) stays home with the kids. Then women can have the same flexibility men have when their wives stay at home with the kids. Otherwise, it's challenging for both halves if both work. We'll see how that goes for me because I can't stop working unless we want to lose our house, or short-sell and move into a cheap rental.

  11. Glad you wrote about such a thought-provoking article. I'm no longer working in big law, but when I did, there were a fair number of female partners that could be role models -- some didn't have kids, but most did -- but most had a supportive spouse that did the bulk of the "sick kid" pick-ups, arranging for child care after school, whatever.

    The response articles I liked the most:



    Especially that first article. As a woman who doesn't have or want kids, it does seem unfair that people with kids should be entitled the opportunity to work less, and/or have more flexibility, but still advance equally. It isn't fair to know that a colleague making the same amount of money as me works from home almost always, spends hours per day dealing with her kids, and carries a lighter caseload than I do. It seems like all employees should have the opportunity to balance career with other aspects of life, whether that's kids, running, travel, whatever.

    As in that first article, I think the goal should be flexibility for all.

  12. I could also go on FOREVER concerning this topic, thanks for the post! I'm an engineer and still work in the industry. I actually love my job and wouldn't change anything. I also love that you changed career direction based on what you wanted, very courageous.

    I honestly don't mind the disproportionate amount of women in my field, but hope that the reason is by choice. I never have felt unwelcome in my field or uncomfortable, but I do feel that I have to conduct myself in a more professional hard-working manner to gain respect that men automatically receive.

    Concerning "Women can/can't have it all"; this is something that is interesting to me. What is "having it all" anyway? Do ALL women really want to have professional careers while having children, or is being a parent what they feel they HAVE to do based on traditional expectations?

    I am 30, married, but have no kids. I don't want kids right now and don't have that strong of a desire to have kids anytime soon. I truly feel I "have it all" right now and am extremely happy in my life and what I CHOOSE to do with my life. I love working and I love the activities that I choose to do (running, hiking, skiing, camping, etc).

    With that being said, I feel that my Midwestern (traditional) parents and in-laws aren't proud of all my (and my husbands) accomplishments and the life that my husband and I have chosen. All they expect out of us it to "start a family" and view our active lifestyles as odd and wonder when we will "settle down." I wonder if sometimes the reason couples have children is not necessarily their strong desire to start a family, but because that is what is expected of them or pressures from others?

    Anyway, that was sort of off the subject. I guess what I am saying is that I hope women (and couples) are making choices based on what they WANT. I hope that they are able to do what makes them happy, whether it be working with no kids, having kids and staying home, or working and having kids. And that whatever they choose they are able to do, without judgement from others. In addition, I agree with Carina above and that whatever choice is made, there is fairness and flexibility for all.

    1. Oh and sorry such a lengthy comment, wow, that went on and on....

  13. In my very humble opinion, I think the "you can have it all" statement is incredibly unfair to both men and women. Sometimes you have what you choose, or what was chosen for you or what you feel you can handle emotionally and physically. Don't diservice yourself trying to "have it all". The real secret is to be happy with what you have, find joy in who you are and always work to better yourself in fullfilling ways that will add joy and meaning to your life.

    1. Definitely agree. We're all different. It's frustrating when I want to do more than I think I can though.

  14. After reading a number of the comments, I have to ask the question... who said anything about life being 'fair'? Is that too inflammatory to ask? If it is, I apologize and just delete this!

    1. Haha not inflammatory. It's exciting to me that people care about this post / comments.

      But is your point that "life isn't fair, society isn't always fair, get over it"? Want to make sure I understand...

  15. This is a topic I struggle with too. I have an accounting degree and an MBA and work in finance which is more men than women after you get past an entry level role. I have been successful at a fairly young age and also had kids at a young age. I am young for my position and surrounded by men.

    My kids are 7 and 3. They are only going to be this little for a small time. Before I know it, they are going to be in high school, I won't need to watch every sports practice, won't need to drive them everywhere. My dream job would be in a consulting firm, but that requires a lot of travel. When a job was posted recently I had to make the tough choice to not apply for it. In 15 years I could go for a job like that without any guilt, and I'll have plenty of years for a full career. But I'll never get these early years back with my kids. I make enough money, my job is challenging enough, it may not be the dream job, but when I look at the package, it's a dream life. In my case, I would say that I do have it all. I am choosing the best possible choice of the options that are in front of me right now.