Slaughter ’80 reflects on her article in The Atlantic on balancing work and family
University professor Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 spoke about her reasons for writing the highly controversial article in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," and the responses the article received at a public lecture at the Wilson School on Monday.
The article discussed the struggle Slaughter believes all women face to maintain their professional and family lives. Slaughter wrote about her decision to leave her position as the first woman to serve as the director of policy planning for the State Department in order to spend more time with her family.
“I have to admit what I loved about it was the humor and wit,” Dean of the Wilson School Cecilia Rouse said when she introduced Slaughter at the event.
But the viral article, which received more than one million views within the first week following its publication, quickly sparked debate. The article received more than 2,500 comments on The Atlantic's website, and Slaughter said she received so many direct emails that she had to remove her email address from the University's website.
The responses she said she gets most frequently are from those under the age of 35 who are "generally, profoundly grateful" for the message she is sending and from older women who have stories similar to Slaughter's in that "life happened" and they had to leave their jobs.
“The email goes on to say, ‘I felt like such a failure. I felt like I betrayed my younger self,’ ” Slaughter said. “They were basically all saying, ‘Thank you for making me feel like this wasn’t my fault.' ”
But the negative feedback has been strong, as well. "The criticism that matters," she said, comes from those who have said to her, " 'You've really set back the movement. You've basically given companies the reason not to hire women,' " to which she has responded, "I think we’ve come far enough that we have to be hiring women ... I think we have come so far that we can now have the next round of change.”
After two years of commuting from Princeton to work at the State Department in Washington, D.C., Slaughter realized that she was not giving enough of her time to her family and that she needed to make a change by returning home.
“Nobody ever prepared me for the choice I ended up making,” she said. “It never dawned on me that I wouldn’t make it work, because I always make it work."
But, she said, she soon realized that the idea of leaving her position at the State Department was not as hard as she thought it would be. “The hardest line to write in that article was not that I needed to go home; that was easy ... It was that I wanted to go home.”
She said that her colleagues at Princeton accepted that she left Washington after two years because she wanted to maintain her tenure at the University, but they did not seem to accept her added explanation that she would have gone home even if the University had let her keep her tenure because she wanted to be with her children.
“As I would say that, I would watch myself drop in the estimation of the person I was talking to,” she remembered. “It made me realize just how skewed our values are.”
After the vast number of comments Slaughter read from fans and critics around the world, she said she realized how many people want to see a change in those values. She said that part of that change must come from mutual support between spouses and that women must make plans for their lives, especially since the life expectancy for a woman is now about 85 years old.
“If you think about [your career] from the beginning, then you will make conscious choices,” she said. “You’ll think about what will work best.”
Slaughter added that women should be encouraged to take a break from their careers to spend more time with their families, but they should not then be discouraged from reentering the professional world afterward, which is a project she said McKinsey Worldwide is working on, according to the Global Managing Director Dominic Barton.
Barton told Slaughter that, in response to her article, the company is working hard to find the female consultants who left 15 to 20 years ago when they had kids in order to try to bring them back into the workforce.
"If we can get every place to do that, we'd have this problem solved," Slaughter said.
She acknowledged that the change to the status quo is not easy, but it is possible. “I constantly try to get my younger students to understand that we have moved mountains. We are in a radically different world,” she said.
To continue the conversation Slaughter said she is in the process of writing a book.
The lecture, titled “Beyond Work/Life: Changing the Debate and Making Change,” was delivered in a crowded Dodds Auditorium and simulcast in three Wilson School bowls.