The New Problem with No Name

written by On July 2, 2012 in 2010-2016, Uncategorized, WIIS Blog

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.