Anne-Marie Slaughter Misses a Huge Opportunity

For six days I've hesitated to comment on Anne-Marie Slaughter's piece in The Atlantic. As the author of Baby Hunger and The War Against Parents (with Cornel West), I know something about the pain of the Mommy Wars, and this time I wanted to stay on the sidelines.

But I find myself drawn in because some important things are not being said.

First off, 41% of professional women these days are choosing not to have children, and unlike ten years ago, they're comfortable with their decisions on this front. In the straitened circumstances of a high unemployment, low growth economy, many women believe that it's wiser to do two things well (a fulfilling career, a loving relationship) than three things badly. This large swathe of women has been left out of the conversation this week. This is a pity. They're not simply a deficit model (childless women, or in Slaughter's words, "women without families"); rather, they have a thing or two to teach us about "having it all" in 2012.

Second, the set of solutions Slaughter puts forward in her article (ramping up societal supports for working parents) is distressingly unrealistic. I've spent the last 20 years trying to do precisely this. There has been some progress in the private sector, but in the government sector, we're further away than ever. This election year, paid parenting leave isn't even on the Democratic agenda, while 15 years ago it was. Like it or not, the country has moved to the right, and the idea that we're about to pass legislation that will subsidize quality childcare or lengthen the school day is so much pie in the sky.

What we can do as leaders is give younger women permission (and encouragement) to claim and sustain ambition. And this is where Slaughter's article profoundly misses the mark.

In my work on sponsorship and cracking the last glass ceiling, I find that what professional women want more than anything else are narratives of success. They yearn for stories that lay out, in concrete detail, how glorious it feels to have influence, power, agency, and impact — not to mention money. They want to put their arms around the meaning of career success. It's a whole lot easier to deal with the sacrifice that comes along with any high-altitude career if you can conjure up the deep satisfactions of life at the top.

When Walt Disney committed to build Disney World in the swamps of Florida, he knew he needed to build the castle first. He realized that the grandeur and magic of a fairy-tale castle would provide a beacon for his army of workers toiling in difficult conditions, inspiring them to give their all and stay the course.

I wish that Anne-Marie Slaughter had chosen to provide a beacon of hope for professional women toiling in the trenches by detailing the rich satisfactions of her distinguished career. She's hugely inspiring on this front and has much to work with. A former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton (where I was once on the faculty) and a recent Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, she has thrilling tales to tell that could stiffen the backbone of any woman seeking to make a difference in this world.

Young women need stories of struggle and sacrifice like a hole in the head. Given economic realities, they need to stick with their jobs, and fanning flames of angst and guilt does them a great disservice.

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