Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton University, mom, and former Director of Policy at the U.S. State Department, recently wrote a powerful piece in The Atlantic entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All (click link to read the article). Many of my friends shared the article with me, and it has struck such a chord that it is being brought up in my circles of conversation as simply The Atlantic article. As in: have you seen the Atlantic article? What do you think? So here, dear reader, is what I think. I think I am lucky to have had my two children while I was in my late twenties. I had enough professional experience to be considered an asset at work, and was not so well paid that I had much to lose in asking for what I wanted, which was a three-day work week. At that age, I was still naïve enough to think the world would have an interest in bending to my needs and had the nerve to ask for what I wanted, and not apologetically either. Conventional wisdom at the company at that time was that you could work a reduced schedule if you were willing to step back in responsibility (i.e. give up a management role). I approached the department head, said I didn’t think that the policy made a lot of sense since the company probably wants people to contribute to the highest levels of their ability, and to continue to develop that ability over time. Why would you want people who are good at leading to stop leading? And with that, I asked for what I wanted, which was this: A three-day workweek. Compensation in line with work schedule (60% time = 60% pay). Full benefits. Retention of current title and role (with a narrowed client list). Consideration for future promotions. Full eligibility for annual bonus. And guess what? I got it. It made total sense to me then, as it does now. Except that now I know how utterly unusual it is for such a proposal to be accepted. But it was accepted, and not by a touchy-feely leader, either. He was the kind of guy who had the ability to distill everything down to its raw essence– a person who inspired admiration and fear in equal measure. His reply to my request was this: “You’re telling me I have a choice between three days a week and zero? [to which I sheepishly nodded yes] Then I’ll take three.” It was clear-cut and simple, as he later explained at an all-company meeting. Given a choice between losing a strong performer and retaining one, he would choose keeping one. An easy decision to make.
I worked a three-day schedule for a dozen years, and quite often, people outside the organization would comment on how lucky I was. I was always quick to point out that the company was lucky too: I was a bargain at 60% salary, and the arrangement benefitted us both. What pleased me greatly was that my work arrangement did not remain a one-off special case. Though I pioneered the concept which became known as “part-time professional,” many others, men and women, also opted for reduced schedules. Some devoted time to raising children, others to graduate school or other pursuits. It became possible to continue to perform a challenging role at work and to participate significantly in life outside of the office too.
Making work a part of my life portfolio but not my whole pie gave me time to invest in my community. I participated in boards and committees, got to know my neighbors, and spent long hours seeing the world anew through the eyes of my young children. Often this involved examining small rocks and marveling at them like treasured jewels or watching highways of ants busily marching from one side of the sidewalk to another. Later it became answering awkward questions about “family living” (our town’s euphemism for sex ed) while driving the kids to activities after school. The ability to be engaged in so many ways with so much of life made me show up joyfully wherever I was. I would like to think that this was ultimately a very good thing for everyone involved: happy woman, happy work team, happy family.
But as I have gotten older and experienced other workplaces, I have been less likely to ask for what I want. I wonder how much our demons of self-doubt as women get in the way of us standing up for ourselves. George Bernard Shaw said that the unreasonable man “persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.” I think I was more brash in my twenties and figured the world should bend to my needs when I suggested a three day schedule and got it. I was more comfortable being “unreasonable.” As I have gotten more seasoned, I have a better sense of the long odds and risks associated with bucking convention. Plus as I have advanced in salary and title, the stakes have gotten higher. I have much more to lose. So despite the expansion of my influence and status, I am less apt to use it. How unfortunate.
It seems to me that the question we should really be asking in the perennial debate about “having it all” is how we might make it easier for each of us to contribute to the very best of our abilities, and in a measure appropriate for the portfolio of activities which compose our life. We seem to be mired in institutionalized systems and structures which fail dismally at meeting the needs of people. If we are to change that, articulating our needs and having the nerve to be unreasonable might be precisely what is call for. And even better if we do so with the head-held-high confidence that doing so will be a gift for everyone.