‘We Need to Change the Workplace and Society’
Der Spiegel interview by Britta Sandberg and Gregor Peter Schmitz, July 4, 2012
Anne-Marie Slaughter, a politics professor at Princeton University, served for two years as the director of policy planning for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the State Department. Slaughter, who is now 53, was the first woman to ever hold the position. Her previous job as dean at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs had also been a first for a woman. During the time that Slaughter worked in Washington, her husband took care of her two sons in Princeton.
Two weeks ago, The Atlantic magazine published an essay by Slaughter in which she openly describes her decision to end her political career in Washington out of regard for her teenage sons. “On Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History,” Slaughter writes. “I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I couldn’t stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework.”
The essay, which ran under the headline, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” claimed to clear up the “half-truths” and “lies” that are used to reconcile career and family. It has now sparked a new feminism debate in the United States. Critics have accused Slaughter of betraying the ideal of the emancipated woman or of leading a purely elitist discussion. As of last Friday, more than 1.1 million people had read the story online and 168,000 had recommended it on Facebook.
SPIEGEL interviewed Slaughter about the limits of reconciling work and family life.
SPIEGEL: When was the last time you saw your sons?
Slaughter: I dropped my youngest son off at camp on Sunday. He is 13. And I said goodbye to my 15-year-old two days ago as I headed off to New York for work.
SPIEGEL: What does it feel like to be away from them?
Slaughter: Look, I have always been away from them. I went back to work three months after they were born. But I actually never stopped working. I am an academic, and I was working from the hospital after I delivered them. I also travel constantly. That is part of our life—and since I am the primary wage earner in our family, that is perfectly normal for them.
SPIEGEL: But things sounded different in your much-discussed article in the Atlantic. In it, you urged women to stop fooling themselves with the belief that women can “have it all”—in other words, both a high-profile career and a happy family life.
Slaughter: Hold on, I am not saying that women can’t have it all. What I am saying is that women can have it all if they can control their own time. I have always been able to have it all, but what I realized was that this was because, as a professor, I controlled my own time. There is a reason why women have progressed in academic leadership more than anywhere else. Fifty percent of the leaders in Ivy League colleges in the United States are women. You can’t say that of any other field and there is a reason for that: Tenured professors have the opportunity to find a better balance between work and family.
SPIEGEL: You were the first female director of policy planning at the State Department, but the job didn’t work out for you. For years, you had represented the view that if a person really wanted something, that it could be made to work. But after two years in Washington you quit, and now you have stated publically that you can’t have both children and a job like that.
Slaughter: I was always going to go to Washington for just two years. But what changed was the realization that I did not want to have the higher foreign-policy job—which I had wanted my whole life—if it meant not being able to be with my sons, particularly when my oldest son clearly needed me and when they were only going to be home for five more years. So when I say the feminist assumptions were shifting, what was shifting was the recognition that I, like millions of other women, was making a choice I never expected to see myself make. Even though I could continue with something I had prepared myself for my whole life—foreign policy at the highest level—that would have to take a backseat to my family. I never expected to feel that way. And once I realized that, I began to understand why so many women were making the choices they made—and that we need to change the workplace and society in a way that validates those choices for women and men and makes it possible for them still to compete in their professions.
SPIEGEL: In your position in Washington, you served as a role model for a lot of young women. But you also disappointed many with your decision, and your article generated harsh reactions. Were you prepared for that?
Slaughter: I knew that many feminists from my generation would think that my article was setting the cause back rather than moving it forward. I understand their reaction when they say, “You can’t write that.” But what I am saying is this: That old concept is not working for younger women. It is no longer working to ignore these obstacles and keep saying, “Of course you can do it all.” And this is not just a feminist cause. To have a life that is rich and rewarding with those who we love and, at the same time, to have the immense satisfaction of being good at a profession is a social cause.
SPIEGEL: You appear to give the impression, however, that women must somehow choose between having a career and having a family. Are you not putting new pressure on them by suggesting this is an either-or situation?
Slaughter: That is not the reaction I am getting. More than 1 million people have read this article—young women all over, including nurses, teachers and policewomen—and they are writing to me in ways that make me cry because their stories are so powerful. In 95 percent of the cases, the response is: “Thank you.” I am bowled off my feet. I knew the cause was important, but I didn’t realize how many women feel they are struggling with trying to make it all happen—working around the clock and being there for their children.
SPIEGEL: Sheryl Sandberg, second from the top at Facebook and one of the United States’ most successful female executives, has lamented the lack of ambition among young women and called on them not to take their foot off the gas pedal.
Slaughter: She emailed me and said she was glad I had written the article. She and I want the same thing: a world where there are more women at the top. She has one perspective about what needs to change, saying to young women: “Don’t give up on your ambition.” Whereas I think there is a huge amount of ambition out there, but we are making it impossible to pursue your ambition and be the parent that you must be and want to be. I read her as saying to women: It is up to you. And I am saying: Well, of course it is up to you, but it is also up to society.
SPIEGEL: What changes do we need?
Slaughter: For so many women who have written to me, being able to work from home one day a week would make an enormous difference. Or to be able to go home at 5:30 p.m. and make it clear that this is family time, and then to return to work later. Incidentally, Sheryl Sandberg does this so that she can see her two children. What needs to happen is that employers need to ask a parent: What do you need to make this happen? Obviously, there are limits. A surgeon removing an appendix can’t leave in the middle of the surgery, and women choosing this profession understand this. But there are many other fields where obstacles are still not overcome.
SPIEGEL: Working women often feel like marathon runners.
Slaughter: That is exactly the point. The lives that working women lead are equivalent to training for a marathon, and more, in terms of discipline and sheer willpower. But we often experience a “mother penalty”. For the same amount of time and the same determination to make things happen, a marathon runner, male or female, is praised and probably goes up in his or her employer’s estimation, whereas a mother or father is very often still assumed to be less committed to his or her profession.
SPIEGEL: One of the results is that women are hesitant to talk about their family commitments and obligations. You don’t tell your employer you need to pick up your kids. Instead you come up with an excuse, like a doctor’s appointment or piano lesson.
Slaughter: That is maybe my key message to parents: Honesty first. That is one of the things that every working woman can do right now: Be honest. Be honest about the time you need to spend with your kids and your family to be a good parent. Don’t lie when you have to go to see a doctor with them or when you have to attend one of their sports games or recitals. When men do that they are often perceived as wonderful human beings, being such a devoted dad as well as a great professional. And every woman has countless stories about when she does the same she is not praised—and often worse. So one of the things women can change is to make clear that finding this balance is one of their priorities for being a good parent as well as a good professional.
SPIEGEL: Are you calling for having children and the fact that a person has a family to be recognized in the same way professional achievements are?
Slaughter: Exactly. When I am introduced as a speaker at panels or conferences, I insist on being introduced not just as a degree holder or a person with an impressive resume, but also as a mother to two sons. Normally, when they introduce me, they tell people what I did when I was 18 or 20, the awards I won, but they leave out the fact that I have two sons who are the dearest thing in the world to me. Isn’t that absurd?
SPIEGEL: What kind of partners do women need in order to work in an equitable way?
Slaughter: One of the common half-truths is that everything is possible if you marry the right person, that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally. That may be unbelievably important, but it isn’t enough. We need a fundamental transformation of our working world and society.
SPIEGEL: But even if these changes were to happen, is it not also the case that certain jobs, like the one you had in Washington, simply cannot be reconciled with a balanced family life—regardless whether the person taking the job is a man or a woman?
Slaughter: This may be more true in the United States than in Germany or Europe. There, the value placed on the family is much stronger—you have much more time, it’s a more sane way to live. In the United States we need a conversation much more broadly about what men want as well as what women want. If we all want this, then we can also change it. You can make it work, but do not think that you can be director of policy planning at the State Department and then higher up than that for four to eight years, which is the length of an administration, and still actually be with your children enough that you feel fulfilled as mother. There is a tiny percentage who can, maybe, but most will have to choose, just as I did. I did take the job, and I’m really proud of having done so and of having been the first woman in that role. The fact is that I could have gone on, but I did not. So I made a choice.
SPIEGEL: Do you have no regrets?
Slaughter: I now have a life with my sons. I have all those silly, little funny moments. I have a rich and warm relationship. It’s not always smooth. I’m constantly beating on them to get out of bed and do their homework. All the things that teenage boys need to be told to do. But I am there in the morning and I am there late at night to talk. It’s a wonderful relationship. I have a very, very close relationship with my own parents and I just wouldn’t be who I am without them. That is the relationship I want to have with my sons, and I am at least now in a place to try to forge this. I am a very happy woman.