A Working Woman’s Conundrum: Home or Work?

Women can’t have it all. Last month, Ann-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former policy aide to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, pulverized The Atlantic’s readership records with an op-ed article that functioned as a kind of treatise on the conundrum that faces the modern working woman: Should we stay at home and care for the children, or commit ourselves to the job? Or can we do both? According to Slaughter, we can’t. At least, not yet.


The former Obama Administration official’s candid confession came as a response to Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s admonishment to the younger generation of working women. Dismayed by the dismal numbers of high-powered female executives in the workforce (even as more women are achieving higher levels of education), Sandberg encouraged young women to demand their spouses take on half the housework and never accede their ambition due to anxiety created by the work vs. home dilemma. For Slaughter, this created a problem. If a workingwoman found herself in a position where she struggled to juggle work and home life—at the expense of one or the other—then it would be her fault.


“I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family,” Slaughter wrote. “I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”


Eventually, Slaughter left her job to tend to her teenage boys, one of whom was struggling with a “rocky adolescence” (don’t we all?). Of course, she still had a professorship at Princeton waiting for her when she left Washington, D.C., so it’s not as if she traded in her foreign policy expertise for oven mitts and a minivan (that’s stereotypical housewife, right?).


What’s interesting, however, is the fact that Slaughter urges women not to blame themselves for failing to ‘have it all.’ Instead, she blames the antiquated work environment in the United States. For one thing, work schedules need to overlap with school schedules, so children aren’t resigned to afterschool care (or so moms and dads aren’t scrambling to get home in rush hour). For another, employers should offer more flexible work hours, or at least, promote extensive work-family policies. In fact, a 2000 study published by the Academy of Management Journal found that “organizations with more extensive work-family policies have higher perceived firm-level performance.”


Additionally, according to a 2008 report by the Families and Work Institute that focuses on “Time and Workplace Flexibility,” 75 percent of the over 3,000 employees interviewed felt deprived of time, not only for themselves, but also with their children. The study argues that increased flexibility at work offers a positive correlation with employee retention, job satisfaction, employee productivity, and employee health.


But employee health isn’t the only concern for working mothers these days. In 2009, research conducted on more than 12,000 British schoolchildren published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that women who work full-time have the unhealthiest children (followed by mothers who work part-time).


For employers who might be tempted to hire a male employee who can work all hours of the day (plus overtime and weekends) in lieu of the working mom strapped by family responsibility, consider this: The more women that leave the workforce, the more money wasted on investing in them. And here’s an ironclad incentive: The healthier your employee is (and the healthier their child), the lower YOUR health insurance premiums will be.


But no one is diluted into thinking (not even Slaughter) that the workplace environment will change anytime soon. So what is an alternative? Well, Slaughter champions another solution…teleworking. It seems like a quick fix to the work vs. home issue for both men and women. Now we can have it all, right?


Unfortunately, teleworking has yet to foray into most companies, at least on a grand scale. And there are several reasons for that (see next week’s blog!).


But back to the kerfuffle Slaughter so passionately discusses. What about the women who believe the home is their rightful place? What about the unhealthy generation of children, who according to a 2005 report published by The New England Journal of Medicine, will have a shorter lifespan than their parents? Are these working mothers doing their babies—and society as a whole—a great disservice?


Well, what do you think?