Weighing In: Sandberg, Slaughter, and Women in the Workplace

The debate about career advancement and women in the workplace has recently been re-ignited by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In.” The WIIS blog asked readers to comment on Sandberg’s approach, especially as compared to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s famous op-ed in The Atlantic last summer. Readers are welcome to weigh in by commenting below.

Both women have been criticized as offering narrow perspectives of extremely elite women in this country.  But their perspectives are a mere jumping off point for a wider debate that I hope will help us start to address the root causes of underrepresentation of women at top levels of their fields.   I agree with many of the points that Sandberg makes about our tendency as women to self-doubt ourselves and self-eliminate from challenging opportunities.  But my main concern with Sandberg’s standpoint is that, while she emphasizes what women are failing to do for themselves and what they could do better to succeed, she places little if any stress on the deficiencies within our laws, organizations, and leadership approaches that obstruct women’s advancement potential.

Yes, we can all benefit from professional development and leadership development, and mentors and sponsors are absolutely critical for success; but structural and cultural change inside the workforce must go hand and hand with these individual actions. Putting the entire responsibility on women to “fit in” to the current paradigm fails to recognize that there are many aspects of the workforce that need to change.  At the most basic level, the U.S. remains near the bottom of the world and woefully out of step with the realities of modern families with its outdated maternity and paternity legal framework.  Furthermore, women (and men) often encounter significant push-back inside the workplace.  Whether it is because of child-rearing, aging parents, or other personal issues, there is still entrenched resistance to part-time options, telecommuting (e.g. the recent Yahoo decision), etc. and it has pushed many women to lean out or get out altogether.

Leadership is a big part of the solution.  We need visionary leaders who question existing workplace frameworks and rigid concepts of “success” and who take the necessary risks to institute innovative change that focuses on the greatest asset for organizations — the people.  Let’s not be lulled into believing that self-improvement for women is the silver bullet.  We all need to be advocates for much deeper rethinking and reform which is needed to support the full potential of women and men.

-Jolynn Shoemaker

We need to ask: Can “working parents” have it all? Using the framework of “can women have it all” continues to create dichotomies between working women and working men, acknowledging that the workplace currently is beneficial to no one involved, men and women alike. Slaughter is correct in saying that the workplace needs to shift from traditional norms to more flexible work hours such as more opportunities to work remotely, but Sandberg is also correct in saying that women need to continue to strive for more, lean in and have more confidence in ourselves.  Pitting Sandberg and Slaughter against one another is dangerous and continues to divide the feminist movement as a whole. We need to acknowledge that they have different perspectives, but that they are both valid and should be taken into consideration.  Additionally,  I have heard from several of my friends that they can not and will not ever relate to or look up to Sandberg because she comes from an extremely privileged background and her arguments are generated from a place in which many average American women/mom’s will never be able to relate.

-Madeline Murphy Hall

What frustrates me about this debate is that it misses the role that policy plays in these decisions. Not just company policy, which allows flexible working hours and telecommuting, but federal and state policy which creates standards for everyone. That’s what we should be fighting for. It’s hard to ‘lean in’ to ‘have it all’ if the policies aren’t in place that allows you to do that. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act, which lets workers take leave to care for a sick child or spouse, or bond with a new child. However, the FMLA has huge holes that leave lots of people, especially women, out in the cold. First of all, it’s unpaid, which makes it really difficult to take if you can’t afford to go three months without pay. Also, FMLA only applies to companies above a certain size, so those are working at small businesses don’t have access to this minimum protection.

One of the things that most outrages me is in the U.S. is that we’re one of four countries worldwide who don’t offer any form of paid maternity/paternity or sick leave. Any. While many companies, particularly white-collar companies, do offer this leave, it is by no means universal nation-wide. Maternity leave can help keep new mothers in the workforce, while paid sick leave is good for public health, as sick workers are able to stay home and not risk a paycheck. I’m happy we’re having the debate about women’s opportunities and expectations, but we need to remember that our lives are shaped not just by our decisions, but by the world we live in. We need to change that world and bring paid family and sick leave into the conversation.

 -Elizabeth Scott

The debate continues: whether, if, how, and when women can “have it all”. But I would submit that the other part of the question is whether women want to “have it all?” What is “all”? I can’t be sure, but I know that I often hear that women want it. The problem is we also see women who “have it all” and they often confide that its exhausting. This begs the question whether ”all” is what women really want after all. Rather than dealing in extremes, maybe we should be discussing women’s right to choose and their entitlement to be fully supported and encouraged in their decisions – whether that be work or family. Decisions related to women’s careers, potential children (or not) and any other thing that matters to them should be equally looked at through the prism of how those in the various communities they belong to can help and play a role in facilitating their choices. Husbands, friends, daycares, parents, co-workers, sisters, and brothers all have a unique role in this new puzzle. Since its not only a mother that a child needs – they need this whole community.

One thing is certain – it is a timely, open, and honest debate we must have together as we get closer to figuring out how women can be empowered to decide the terms of their ‘success’. Its a discussion that has to, in equal part, address how we shape modern society and family structures at the micro-level. And on a larger scale we must transform corporate culture, upgrade government services and shake legislative bodies to provide structural changes to ensure women’s successes. These are all essential elements in reshaping how we understand and create the most successful, engaged, confident, and loved children. To do this, we all have to work together to take the onus of responsibility off of women’s shoulders. We can solve this.

-Eszter Sipos


Further Reading:

Pando Daily: In this corner there’s Sheryl Sandberg. In this corner there’s Anne-Marie Slaughter. And then there’s reality.
The Washington Post: Let’s give Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer a break
The Washington Post: Review: Sheryle Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ is full of good intentions but rife with contradictions
Slate: Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” Circles Completely Miss the Point on Workplace Maternity
The New York Times: A Titan’s How-To on Breaking the Glass Ceiling
The New York Times: Yes, You Can [book review by Slaughter]


By Allison Tilt

First of all, I want to remind you that the Monthly Director’s Note is out and available here.  The Director’s Note is a great way to check in on WIIS happenings each month! Here’s what our Director Jolynn Shoemaker had to say about the blog:

We have decided that this is the right moment to re-launch the WIIS Blog.  As a starting point, we would like to invite WIIS members to post reactions to the Slaughter article (or other related stories and posts in the media).  In addition to your own personal responses, we hope that you will share some ideas of steps that can be taken (by employers, by policymakers, by individual women and men, and by WIIS!) to tackle these ongoing difficulties in career advancement and work-life balance.  We also invite you to share resources and guidance that have been helpful to you along the way.

Now, to get the ball rolling on the discussion I asked three fellow DC interns what their reactions were to “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” (and its related stories). Here are a few of their thoughts:

The fact that a very successful woman like Slaughter acknowledges that structural problems still exist in the workplace for women does well to create a dialogue about the issue. I hope that women won’t blame themselves as much for struggling with these problems but will continue to work hard to overcome them. -Neha Srivastava, CSIS Intern

I think something Slaughter did not emphasize enough is what the children or family want and expect of their parents.  The reality is that your children only know, or get used to, the lifestyle they are raised with, and if they are happy with that, even if you think it’s imperfect, you did well enough.  It’s not always about more time, but quality time, together.- Alexa McCue, Council of Women World Leaders Intern

“This is an issue that I hadn’t really thought about previously.  In high-school and college, women were always equally talented, motivated, and successful, and so I believed that the problems of past generations were solved.  Yet, it is true that while women are, and have been, just as educated as men, they steadily drop out of visibility as you go up the leadership pyramid. I was raised in a family where both my parents had successful careers, and it never seemed like my mother’s gender ever held her back.  I am now realizing that my mom worked in a supportive office, and that when the office stopped being supportive—due to a change in leadership—she DID opt for early retirement, right when we were the same age as Ann-Marie Slaughter’s son.  I never appreciated the difficult decisions my mother faced, because it all seemed so easy to her, but looking back, I think she hid her struggles well.  I think that the article is enlightening and honest about problems women face, and I am glad that is has created such a stir.” – Grace Kenneally, WIIS Intern

There are so many potential ways to view the work/life balance dilemma, as well as myriad of recommendations. This isn’t a new problem by any means, as Ms. Slaughter and others have mentioned. Yet as we’ve seen from articles and op-eds streaming from various news sources, the problem is far from fixed in the eyes of many working mothers (and fathers!).

Now that the dialogue has started, hopefully the United States workforce will move towards remedying the situation so future generations are no longer pressed between family or career.

Readers: What is your reaction to the the original article, any of its successors, or the issue as a whole? We want to know what you think! Write a comment below

By Jolynn Shoemaker

Originally written June 28, 2012

On June 21, The Atlantic featured an article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All. It didn’t take long for the piece to go viral, unleashing a tsunami of commentary on the Internet. Dr. Slaughter’s very personal account of the choices between career advancement and family clearly struck a nerve.

Like so many others, I was riveted by the piece. I have spent the last 10 years working to advance women’s opportunities to engage in peace and security, but this is also personal. The majority of women in my personal network, myself included, have children under five. Women in this sector are grappling with inflexible and all-consuming schedules, constant pressure to be present in the office for “face time,” and nagging guilt about leaving children in the care of others for more than 10 hours each day.

On top of this, women are in a constant struggle to demonstrate that we can “pull our weight” at work. And we have good reason to be worried. Research from Cornell University and other institutions shows that a “motherhood penalty” does exist—mothers are less likely to be hired, to be selected for promotions, or to be considered committed to their jobs.

Many women are looking closely at the established paths of success and rethinking whether those leadership positions are worth the cost. It is hard to find role models and mentors to help us through these decisions. There is still reluctance among successful women to talk openly about the choices they have made. We often perceive a stark choice in our careers between all-in or all-out and a distinct sense that pursuing less demanding positions or less than full-time schedules labels us as “unambitious.”

The result is clear. Many women leave just at the stages when they are poised to become decisionmakers, and women’s representation in the upper echelons of policy institutions continues to hover below 30 percent.

Women In International Security (WIIS), the organization I head, is dedicated to tackling this endemic problem. In 2010, WIIS published a study on women in the U.S. executive branch, for which I interviewed more than 90 women who were serving or had served in national security or foreign policy positions. The report found that “many women continue to leave government employment at the stage of their careers when child-rearing responsibilities begin to take priority at home” and that among those who stay in government, “many turn down career opportunities for family reasons.” Since then, I have continued to talk with hundreds of women about these issues. Despite more institutional support for those who seek work-life balance, women still perceive unique challenges in reconciling their roles in career and family.

What Dr. Slaughter says is no surprise. There is a rising tide of frustration, but it has been largely hidden by the informal nature of most of these conversations. In Washington, there is always a sense that work-family issues are not as worthy as “real” policy issues. So they have remained just below the surface—until now.

Dr. Slaughter put a megaphone to the voices of many women and men struggling with these realities, elevating the conversation to a level that merits public policy debate. Yes, she is speaking as one of the elite, one of the very few women who have served at the highest levels of our government. Yet her piece has much wider relevance. The fact that she is one of so few further demonstrates that organizations are losing women in the pipeline and that not enough women are rising into senior leadership. If we truly want our leaders to be representative, then we are going to have to start addressing these obstacles.

Starting the conversation is a positive step in its own right. But what do we do about it? Some of the solutions to this problem are institutional, and others will require significant shifts in mentality and culture in the workplace. Based on WIIS research, a few key changes could start us on a path forward:

  • Bring flexible work arrangements into the mainstream;
  • Create more and more meaningful part-time and job-share positions;
  • Provide adequate maternity and paternity leave;
  • Offer affordable, accessible child care, on-site when possible;
  • Stop penalizing people for taking time off or making nonlinear career moves;
  • Gather sex-disaggregated information on employee retention to better understand the root causes of opting-out.

Will Dr. Slaughter’s words finally demonstrate that it’s not women that must change, but the institutions themselves? I certainly hope so.