Yet again, we’re in the midst of a media firestorm over women’s roles in our workplaces and our families. This time, it’s because one highly educated and highly successful mother shared her own experiences in a cover story in The Atlantic. In doing so, she shined a spotlight on the conflict between work and family that so many employed women struggle with every day.
This time, again, the conversation is largely missing the point.
Despite the poorly worded title of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” challenges faced by women in the workforce are not about “having it all.” They never have been. And nobody who has fought to give women more options ever promised that was possible. We know better.
The truth is that our country’s failure to adopt family-friendly workplace policies makes it impossible for either women or men who hold jobs to have it all, regardless of whether or not they have children. More than 40 percent of the nation’s workers don’t have a single paid sick day, the vast majority don’t have access to paid family or medical leave. Millions suffer from inflexible and unpredictable work schedules. In America today, “having it all” looks more like “barely holding on.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter is undeniably a privileged woman with access to supports and options most women and families simply don’t have. Yet her story still resonates with women nationwide because, sadly, too many of us know what it’s like to feel stuck between work and family responsibilities. And therein lies the problem. In a nation that claims to value families, it should not be so hard to be both a breadwinner and a caregiver — no matter your education or income level.
So let’s make this recent media frenzy an opportunity to remind lawmakers, business leaders and all of us who face these struggles that the conflict between work and family is, at its heart, a failure of public and workplace policies. And for that reason, the solution is not — and cannot — be individual. Employers and lawmakers must prioritize policies like paid sick days, paid leave and flexibility for all workers, so that all women and men can be both responsible workers and responsible family members.
Let’s not get distracted by the ephemeral dream of “having it all,” and instead get to work on meeting the fundamental needs of working families. We won’t achieve real progress until we do.