WE OWE A lot to Anne-Marie Slaughter. Last summer, the Princeton University professor’s Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” kicked off an overdue, protracted national-scale debate on the difficulty of juggling the demands of professional success and committed parenting, the likes of which we haven’t had in a while. Shortly after Slaughter’s polemic hit newsstands, Marissa Mayer, just 37, was named CEO of Yahoo!, becoming the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company at the time and stirring controversy when she revealed that she was seven months pregnant. (Months later, she banned telecommuting companywide and was sharply criticized by some as being “anti-parent.”)
Then, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg got in on the action, publishing in March the ambitiously titled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In the following months, it sat at the top of bestseller lists, with staggering sales triggering multiple printings. Sandberg, one of the wealthiest women in the world, donates all related profits to her newly established nonprofit, also called Lean In, encouraging women to form consciousness-raising Lean In Circles, in which they’ll discuss money and maternity.
Suddenly, there was a lot of estrogen in the air. A year into this cultural conversation, we’re still trying to make sense of what it all means.
First, a caveat. I don’t know anyone, woman or man, naïve enough to believe that any of us can have whatever “it all” entails. When Slaughter’s indignant article set off a firestorm about the impossibility of work-life balance, I was happy (as I always am) to witness a (mostly) thoughtful discussion unfold. But I was and still am miffed that anyone thinks women were sold a false bill of goods. Who was that mightily influential yet terribly mysterious person who promised us everything we ever wanted? How did we let him (it must have been a “him”) get away with spreading such a vicious lie, and why do we allow it to persist?