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Anne-Marie Slaughter: Why One Woman Reached The Top, Then Left

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The woman who is about to get a lot of attention for writing an article titled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All?" accepted her dream job three years ago, working for Hillary Clinton as the State Department's first woman Director of Policy Planning. It was exactly the kind of influential role that Anne-Marie Slaughter (whose other firsts include a stint as the first woman to run the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs at Princeton) had been aiming toward her entire career.

After two years, though, she left. She went back home where she rejoined the Princeton faculty as a full-time professor, rather than literally helping to run the world. And the "permission" to do so came from the one place she'd least expected it: Secretary Clinton.

"She knew I was having a hard time with the juggle," Slaughter said, remembering how her 14-year-old son reacted to his mother's weekly commute by acting out in school and failing classes. "She said to me, 'I just don't know how you do it.' I looked at her and said, 'You're Hillary Clinton!' But she reminded me that she had never tried to do what I was doing -- she had been in the White House for eight years, in one place, before Chelsea went to college. That's when I thought to myself, 'If Hillary Clinton can say that to me, it's OK to go home.'"

Pondering Clinton's question also led Slaughter to write the cover story in The Atlantic this week -- one I hope becomes the most widely talked about commentary on mothers and work since Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's address to Barnard's graduating class last year. That was the one where Sandberg said women too often "leave before they leave" by diminishing their own expectations for themselves when they start thinking about having a family. Slaughter's piece, with its purposefully provocative title, is largely a counterpoint to Sandberg, whose opinions, Slaughter thinks, "contain more than a note of reproach."

It feels a little like blaming the victim, she writes, to speak of an "ambition gap," as if the solution of the life/work dilemma was simply for women to want it more. Women want it plenty, she says. And it is not terribly helpful to say that "insufficient commitment" is the reason that there are only 9 women among the 191 heads of state worldwide, and of global members of parliament, women are only 13 percent, and women in C-suite jobs are only 16 percent at best, and only 24 percent of full professors in the US are women.

Those who make it to the workplace stratosphere nowadays, she argues, don't have more ambition or commitment than those who don't -- or those who leave -- but they do have more of other things. They are, to a one, rich, or self-employed, or childless, or have stay-at-home spouses. And, she points out, they are, quite literally, extraordinary. (Sandberg, to wit, "graduated with the prize given to Harvard's top student of economics.") This is a problem, she says, because positions of leadership and power (at Facebook, at the State Department, and at the local retailer where you work) should not require women to be extraordinary when for men simply being "great" will do.

Women, she concludes, have done all the contorting that they can possibly do to cram their dual desires for work and children into the workplace as it exists. Now it is time for the workplace to cram, contort and change, instead.

"I strongly believe that women can 'have it all' (and that men can too)," she writes. "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."

And she just happens to have a few concrete suggestions.

Some are nuts and bolts and practical. "MAKE SCHOOL SCHEDULES MATCH WORK SCHEDULES," she writes -- capitalization is hers. Or, at least, "schedule in-person meetings, whenever possible, during the hours of the school day," and make it the norm for workers to call-in for meetings held at other times.

Others are a shift of the lens on how our society defines and values work. Why is "face time" still a measure of any employee's worth, she asks, when technology has freed so many of us to work remotely? Why are career trajectories assumed to peak in one's late 40s and early 50s, as they did generations ago when we were all likely to be dead in our 60s, when it makes infinite sense for parents -- of both sexes -- to ratchet back when children are young (what Sandberg might call "leaving before you leave") and surge ahead when they are grown? And how do we get employers to view parenting as an added value in an employee -- making them better at multitasking, focusing and efficiency -- or, at least, how to stop employers from seeing it as a negative?

The questions Slaughter raises have all been raised before, as have most of the solutions. But it would be a shame if the reaction were the same old trope. If the web simply fills with commenters accusing her of whining on the one hand and selling out on the other, then an opportunity will have been lost. Responding to Slaughter's story as Slaughter's singular problem would mean losing sight of the larger, far more important point that what feel like individual conflicts and choices are really all of ours to solve.

Changing the culture of work would benefit both sexes. Men don't "have it all" either, at the moment, Slaughter reminds us. Not a one of us can unless this stops being a discussion about women and becomes one about work, stops being a conversation about one family's problems and becomes one about society's responsibility.

We may have heard all this before -- but never from so accomplished a professional woman.
It took Hillary Clinton to make Anne-Marie Slaughter realize she could not have it all. Might it take Anne-Marie Slaughter to make the rest of us realize it is time to finally tackle the major changes that will allow more of us to have more of it?