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Kathleen E. Christensen Headshot

Let's Talk About Work & Family

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One of the most popular articles on the Internet this week has been Anne-Marie Slaughter's provocative Atlantic essay, Why Women Still Can't Have It All. The article has broken traffic records to the Atlantic's website and inspired responses from thousands of working women. Much of the coverage has focused on the differences raised between Slaughter, a high-ranking Obama administration official who left her State Department position to return to Princeton University's faculty and focus on her family, and Sheryl Sandberg, the C.O.O. of Facebook, who famously said that she manages her responsibilities while leaving work in time to have dinner with her family.

While some have framed Sandberg and Slaughter as arguing from opposite sides of the spectrum, I would posit they are both essentially saying the same thing: women--and men--can indeed have it all, but only if we can commit to talking about what must change in order for this to happen. Both of these women deserve credit for doing just that: talking about the conflicts they face in balancing work and family, and discussing what can be done to solve them.

Every working parent, and in fact, every employee, not only those who help run countries and $100-billion companies, makes sacrifices to balance work and family, but few feel comfortable talking about these struggles. For far too long, people have viewed work-family conflict as private, individual problems. Sandberg herself noted that is was only in the last year or two that she felt comfortable talking about these struggles publicly. Most people view their work-life conflicts as private problems that are their own burdens to solve. Those who have found appropriate solutions--such as adjusting when, where and how their work gets done--tend not to talk about these solutions publicly or with their co-workers for fear that they will be viewed as less-than-fully-committed to their jobs. This remains true despite a growing body of evidence showing that:

1) Work-family conflict is not a private problem experienced by some, but a societal issue affecting everyone, including men and women, parents, children, older workers and those with elder care responsibilities.

2) Allowing flexibility in when, where and how work is conducted not only helps individuals solve these problems, but has positive outcomes for businesses in the form of increased morale; decreased turnover, burnout and absenteeism; and higher productivity.

For her part, despite having understanding employers, Slaughter felt the need to leave the workplace in order to properly care for her family. However, her article is somewhat misleadingly titled in that, despite her own struggles, she goes on to very adeptly describe how women--and everyone--can indeed have it all, but that this will take some structural changes, including rethinking the culture of face time, allowing employees to have more say over their own schedules, and redefining the arc of a successful career.

These changes will not happen unless all employees, from C.E.O.s to hourly workers, can "come out of the closet" to talk about their work-life conflict and what needs to be done to address it. In a positive development, the tremendous response to both Sandberg's comments and Slaughter's article shows that people are eager to do just this.

As Slaughter wrote, "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."
Both Slaughter and Sandberg deserve praise for talking about their work-life struggles and not pretending they are private problems to be dealt with individually, rather than a societal dilemma that is taking a toll on the health of our families and prohibiting the growth and success of our businesses.

For the sake of families, employees and business alike, we must all continue to talk about our work-life conflict and how workplaces can change to address the way people live today.