06/22/2012 06:27 pm ET Updated Aug 22, 2012

The Work-Family Debate, All Dressed Up

I never, never, never thought I would see issues of work and family life create a media firestorm, although I have long known that they deserve to!

Today, front and center on page one in the New York Times, Jodi Kantor responds to the article that Anne-Marie Slaughter released yesterday in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." According to a representative of The Atlantic quoted in the Times article, this personal confession "was breaking readership records for The Atlantic's website." In the article, Ann-Marie Slaughter tells her story of taking a leave from her job as a professor at Princeton to become the first woman Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. It was the dream job she had always wanted, but she increasingly felt that she had to face the fact that it wasn't really working. She recalls that when asked to give a speech on work and family at Oxford,

What poured out of me was a set of very frank reflections on how unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be, at a demanding time for my children (even though my husband, an academic, was willing to take on the lion's share of parenting for the two years I was in Washington).

When her two years of public service leave ended in January 2011, she returned to work at Princeton and ultimately to confront what she calls "a series of half-truths that we hold dear" -- first and foremost that women "can have it all." Recognizing that she was in a privileged position and that many women have few choices, she calls for profound changes in how, when and where all employees work by providing workplace flexibility not only during workdays but also during lifetimes. She provides data to show that this would be good for women, the family, and the economy:

At the core of all this is self-interest. Losing smart and motivated women not only diminishes a company's talent pool; it also reduces the return on its investment in training and mentoring. In trying to address these issues, some firms are finding out that women's ways of working may just be better ways of working, for employees and clients alike.

Changing the rigidity of the workplace can also promote creativity and innovation.

Very early this morning, I received an e-mail from a member of the Board of my organization, the Families and Work Institute. He questioned if The Atlantic article was changing the debate "or is it the same debate but in new clothing?" He knows we have been conducting research on the changing family and changing workplace for decades.

Yes, in many ways, it IS the same debate, but now it is wearing some very high-profile clothes -- a highly respected professional, Anne-Marie Slaughter, is willing to say that even with all of the advantages in her life, even with an extremely understanding boss (Hillary Clinton), having a rigid work environment and a great deal of travel just didn't work for her at this time in her life.

FINALLY! This issue may -- just may -- be getting the traction it deserves, thanks to the courage of Slaughter and a number of others.

I am not at all surprised by the public response. The issue may have been a long time in getting attention, but there are signs everywhere that the public wants to talk about it.

Just this past weekend, there was the first conference that brought together scholars on this subject--the Work and Family Researchers Network (WFRN). It brought together 750 researchers from 30 countries!

And I heard at that conference that a book is being written about the creation of the work-family field. When I first began to work in this area three decades ago, no one even knew what the words "work and family life" meant and now its history will be written.

And the project When Work Works that we have created over the past nine years, first with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation under the brilliant guidance of program officer Kathleen Christensen and now in partnership with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), is spreading like wildfire across the country. My colleague from SHRM, Lisa Horn, could be out every day speaking on workplace flexibility if she wanted -- there is that much interest from human resource leaders.

The articles on some of the blogs are correct about men and work-life. In The American Prospect, E.J. Graff calls this the article's "core fallacy: It frames the work-family conflict as primarily a woman's problem." Our research at the Families and Work Institute shows that men are now experiencing more work-family conflict than women. We title our report on this, "The New Male Mystique" . In some different and some similar ways as women, half-truths aren't working for men either.

So again maybe, just maybe--others will wake up to see that this is an issue that affects us all not just professors and high-ranking officials. It affects us whether we are women or men, whether we are younger or older, whether we run a business or work for one. Work isn't working for too many organizations, its people and its families.

But it could and we have hundreds of examples of where it is. So let's finally give issues of workplace flexibility the attention they deserve and begin the process to make work "work" for more of us.