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How do I have it all? Women, careers, and Princeton’s blind spot

A glass door to an office that says "Center for Career Development."
Center for Career Development.
Rohit Narayanan / The Daily Princetonian

Last summer, as a fellow in his namesake program in government service through the Princeton Internships in Civic Service (PICS), I got to hear Leonard Schaeffer ’69, a businessman, speak about maintaining a good work-life balance. Schaeffer spoke about how trying to attend his children’s big games or shows — even jetting around the country for this purpose — often meant that he was the only father in a room full of mothers. This advice, while inaccessible to most of us without private jets, felt particularly meaningless for the women in the room. Schaeffer was able to make his contribution to his kids lives seem completely compatible with his career. Yet what about those mothers which he was the only father among? If those women in his story were all stay-at-home moms, what were we supposed to think about our career prospects? He left a persistent problem for the female participants to discuss post-lecture: how do high-achieving women have it all?

The desire to maintain a balance between work and family is not only a women’s issue, nor does it necessitate having children. Yet when it comes to having a family with children, parenthood is generally more important to and more time consuming for women: mothers are more likely than fathers to say being a parent is the most important part of their identity (35 percent versus 24 percent), more likely to report parenting as tiring and stressful (47 percent and 33 percent versus 34 percent and 24 percent), and more likely to undertake more effort in managing and supporting children’s lives (only 1 in 10 fathers report doing more than their partner in these roles).  


Often, motherhood and maintaining a family life are placed at odds with a woman’s ability to be focused on and successful in their careers, and for good reason. The stories of working women and current research all show that professions and motherhood are not easy to combine. Princeton, however, turns a blind eye to this alarming issue, and fails its women in the process of preparing students for successful and happy lives post-grad.

About 10 years ago, around the 40th anniversary of the graduation of the first class of women from Princeton, the tension between the two became a subject of discussion. In the summer of 2012, Politics professor emeritus Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 wrote an article in the Atlantic explaining “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” (this was the headline, in fact). Slaughter discussed her decision to leave her powerful role as the director of policy planning at the State Department, saying that her desire to be with her family outweighed the benefits of the job she held. Slaughter further argued that older women were lying to younger generations, “reinforcing a falsehood: that ‘having it all’ is … a function of personal determination.” Two shifts were necessary, she claimed: making all careers accommodating to and accessible for women who valued motherhood and family life, and, until that happened, recognizing and discussing the reality that women often experience difficulty and hardship in attempting to achieve that ideal.

A year later, Princeton’s first female President, Shirley Tilghman, stepped down from her position. She cited spending more time with her family as one of the things she was most excited about: “I’m going to be an attentive grandmother,” she said. In 2013, even the most powerful woman at this University indicated that her work placed her in tension with her family. At a discussion between Tilghman and Slaughter earlier in the year, they agreed that American society had more to do to “support equality for women.” Slaughter noted that “we need the next wave of an equal rights revolution.” 

Ten years later, this does not seem to have happened. A report released last month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics declares that employed fathers were more likely to work full-time than employed mothers, even though 77 percent of Americans report believing that children are better off when parents share working and homemaking equally. Moreover, Princeton does not seem to be supporting women to face this difficult reality either.

The Center for Career Development offers specific career resources for certain identities, but not for women. In a landscape where women face particular difficulties in their careers, this absence feels particularly prominent. My female friends and I frequently discuss concerns about the timelines of our futures, with when to have children being a common difficulty. While Princeton often begs us to think about the future, there are not enough offerings to realistically support women in this endeavor. 

Indeed, Princeton no longer has a women’s center — it is now the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, which offers no initiatives that support women in their academic or career goals nor any resources or educational materials for women who may struggle to create realistic plans that address all facets of their future goals. It’s so important to support all identities and offer intersectional resources, but that must include uplifting all individuals who have gender-specific struggles.


Ten years ago, Cameron Langford ’15 wrote in a column for the ‘Prince’ that “admitting a desire to be a working mother and a fear that you might not be able to make it work … means you’re that much closer to a solution.” As a campus community, we have come no closer to acknowledging this conflict or to addressing solutions. 

If Princetonians of the past have been able to openly discuss this struggle, there’s no reason why modern-day Tigers should shy away from it. Admitting that academic or career-based success is not your only desire can be difficult for any student at a University which prides itself on bettering humanity itself. It may seem selfish or small to have personal aspirations outside a traditional path to tangible accomplishments. Later this month, Slaughter will join Majka Burhardt ’98 in conversation about the intersection of motherhood and professional success. But anniversaries of female achievements and alumni events cannot be the only time Princeton faces this obstacle head on.

Generations of Princeton women have shown that these can coexist: many of Princeton's most impressive alumni — from Wendy Kopp ’89 to Michelle Obama ’85 to Jodi Picoult ’87 — have children. Yet Princeton’s female trailblazers have also been open and honest about the difficulties in achieving this. Princeton today must not shy away from being realistic with its female students about the struggles they may face, and must offer better resources in preparation for the incredible and challenging future they will graduate into. 

Abigail Rabieh is a history major and sophomore from Cambridge, Mass. She is the head Opinion editor at the ‘Prince’ and can be reached by email at or on Twitter at @AbigailRabieh.

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