Women, Can We Really Have it All?

06/02/2015 10:26 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016
Hero Images

When I was 4 years old, I told my mother that I wanted to be a nurse. My father was a doctor, and I was surrounded by doctors in my family, but they were all men. I just assumed that I had to be a nurse. She looked me straight in my 4-year-old eyes and said very clearly, "If that's what you want, you can be a doctor, just like your Daddy." I had no idea that was even possible.

I was raised with the idea that I could have it all. I could do and be whomever I wanted to be, so I did become a doctor, then a cardiologist, where only 18% of the field is made up of women. It didn't occur to me that being a woman might be an issue. I simply was not raised that way.

But I wanted more than just my career. I wanted to get married, I wanted to be a mom, I wanted to have a family and a home and furthermore, I didn't think that would be a problem. I was told, in an era of women's lib and working moms and an increasing awareness that women could do what men do, that I could do everything.

Maybe that was true, but it didn't take long for me to realize that I could only have it all if I played by the rules. And the rules were written by men. If you want to have it all in your career, that often means missing school drop-offs, not attending school plays or events and certainly never getting to be the mom who drops in for cupcakes at school during lunch on your child's birthday. Those privileges were for moms that didn't work. Or so it seemed to me. Which means that in reality, no, you can't actually have it all. Something has to give.

Somehow, I navigated through, made my own course, paved my own way, had my career, my child, my family, my house -- and lost some of it along the way too (the marriage), as I navigated the curves and bumps in the road. But I'm still here to talk about it.

Now, every so often, something happens to remind me how little we have grown in all these decades that women have been in the work force -- and how much we have left behind the women who were told they can have it all. A recent article in the New York Times Sunday Business section entitled "The Problem With Work is Overwork" depicts the imbalance between women and men in the work force, with the underlying theme that women really can't establish that balance between work and home life without hugely sacrificing one or the other:

Men and women dealt with the pressure differently. Women were more likely to take advantage of formal flexible work policies, like working part time, or move to less demanding positions that didn't involve serving clients or earning revenue for the company. Decisions like these tended to stall women's careers.

Women are spending more time working than ever before. Compare annual hours worked in 1975 to 2013: women increased their hours from 1,394 to 1,711, while men increased theirs from 1,869 to 1,955. A woman can definitely do the same job as a man -- she can break through the glass ceiling if she's lucky, and she might make as much money or more, but if she does, that will come with a lot of compromise. She will compromise time with children (or having children at all). She will compromise time at home and time for herself. A man compromises these things too, if he is going to be ambitious and career-driven, but society still judges him much less harshly when he does so. It is expected of him.

This sacrifice also comes with another, frequently overlooked price tag: "Stress." I know because I am one of those women taking care of the hearts of thousands of women leading the same stressful lives as their fathers, brothers, husbands and boyfriends.

Stress has a multi-faceted impact on life. It affects self-care in the form of poorer diets, lack of exercise, increased weight leading to elevated blood pressures, cholesterol and sugar levels and a simple lack of taking care of oneself. This can lead to unhealthy behaviors like smoking (even bumming one off a friend counts!) or not sleeping well, or binge eating, just to get a break from stress, or to stay awake to get the work done.

But we aren't giving up. A full 25% fewer men than women are graduating college, even though there still is a huge discrepancy when it comes to women in the workforce. In a study published in 2007 by the UC Davis Graduate School of Management and the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and Executives, 400 of the largest publicly-held corporations in the state of California compiled the third annual "UC Davis Study of California Women Business Leaders: A Census of Women Directors and Executive Officers." According to this study, more men were in executive positions compared to women (10:1), with 30% of the companies having no women in the top executive positions or on the board of directors, 50% having no women among their executive officers, and 47% with no women in their boardroom and 13 of these 400 companies have a woman CEO.

Can we do something about this? Can we find a way to give women the career opportunities they deserve without compromising the family goals they have? I think it is time we look at all the brilliant women whose executive skills, creativity and work ethic have landed them in leadership positions, and start working on ways to make their lives better. Women have different needs than men, and excel in leadership positions in different ways than men -- ways that could benefit many companies and the marketplace in general. But their families need them, too. What can we do about this, without spreading ourselves too thin?

The answer involves looking at the situation from a new perspective -- from a woman's perspective. Women don't want to be men. They don't want to give up mothering or caregiving or having a huge role in taking care of their households. They don't want to lean in more, or compromise a little more. They don't want to "figure it out" or "suck it up." They just want to thrive and excel and achieve and also love and care and nurture. Surely, there are solutions. For example, why not start a board meeting at 9:30 a.m., after morning drop-off? Why not make lunch breaks during after-school time? Why not shorten the workday for everyone, to give people more motivation and energy to work smarter rather than longer? There are solutions, people. We just have to be creative. Clearly, the men at home need to chip in a bit more too, but not every woman has someone to delegate responsibilities to, so we can't depend on that as a solution.

It's our time, ladies. Let's change the rules just a little bit, putting our hearts right in the center. When we live from our hearts, from our intuition and our sense of how to best do it, that's when we excel. Doing what it takes, having it all, might just be a matter of doing things slightly differently. Changing the rules, rewriting the playbook. Let's hope the world will be open, as we move forward into the future, to seeing work and family in a new way.