Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Having It All” speaks to a certain segment of society: educated women, predominantly from middle to upper class families, predominantly white. As a white woman pursuing an advanced degree in a field, like many other scientific fields, that sees a sharp decline in women’s participation in the upper ranks, this article spoke to me.
At first I wanted to do a piece using the data in womanstats database to do a worldwide survey and create a discussion of the article within that framework. However, that is slightly too grand an undertaking for my current time commitments, and possibly word limits. So at the risk of being redundant with other bloggers, I shall forge ahead with an outline of my initial thoughts and hopefully return with data-based back-up. Consider this an extended hypothesis.
First we must address what exactly “having it all” means. As Slaughter acknowledged in her response article, this highly ambiguous phrase is not particularly useful. Slaughter’s thesis is that society needs to change its expectations and give women greater flexibility in their work life. As a result, when women (inevitably) choose their family over their career, they will not be so far off the career track that they won’t be able to get back on that train. Essentially, in order to increase one’s ability to balance work and home, we need to decrease the penalties for momentarily favoring either the career or the family. From this, we can take “having it all” to mean “having work-life balance”.
It seems easy to forget that women have always worked for some form of wages, though this has not always been considered ideal. In European history (the kind I am most familiar with), women took on washing, sewing, teaching, and what-have-you in order to supplement their family’s income. This would for the most part, I think, fall into what is known today as the “informal” economy, of which women make up a greater part than men.
Working by necessity is unrelated to “having it all” as framed within Slaughter’s article, wherein women enter the workforce presumably for some sense of self-fulfillment. The assumption of one’s ability to choose runs through the article. If we widen the definition of “having it all” to include obligatory work – which is not necessarily any more or less fulfilling than any other kind of work – then we have to include “informal work” in our consideration, as it provides wage labor for women who may not be otherwise able to enter the workforce. This complicates matters significantly. There are actually three issues here at stake: 1) women’s ability to enter the workforce and progress in a career; 2) parity in household work – maintaining a home, food preparations, and childcare; 3) the effects of poverty on that balance.
At the end of the initial article, Slaughter concludes: “Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women”. Parity in leadership positions will improve work-life balance for all women such that they will be able to have both if they so choose – they will be able to “have it all”.
One may argue that if there is greater gender parity in leadership positions, benefits of work-life balance will trickle-down to those below. While I would like to believe that is the case, I cannot accept that proposal at face value. It would certainly improve the situation for women like myself, who are starting from a privileged position, but I’m not convinced that would sufficient to effect the lives of all women (and men – I don’t suppose they want their work caring for their own children considered babysitting, any more than I want my career to be considered something to do until I have kids).
This is what I want to explore with the database – compare the status of women in leadership positions with other variables such as daily labor breakout, women’s participation in informal economy, women in the workforce and employment restrictions, as well as pulling in some observations on poverty. I want to see if improvements at the top of the economic scale are reflected in improvements at the bottom.
I suggest that it would instead take a radical change in the mind of people as a society that says that traditionally feminine activities – such as housework and childcare – are necessary, valuable activities and that career or childcare are both valid life-choices for men and women. This is not something that will simply be solved by placing women at the top.