Why Women Still Can’t Have It All

December 14, 2023 By Isabelle Sophie Martinet

In 2012, Princeton University professor Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an article that attracted attention from all around the world. Why did her article attract so much attention? Instead of spreading the falsehood that women can have it all, Slaughter boldly told the truth. She said women can’t have it all.

As women, we tell ourselves that we can have both a family and a career if we are committed enough, dedicated enough, hardworking enough, have a partner who helps out at home, or if we delay having children. Slaughter says while these aren’t lies, they are partial truths at best. They are partial truths because barriers and flaws exist in our world that continue to hold women back making it impossible for women to have it all.

Slaughter believes we must clear stories like these out of the way in order to make room for more honest and productive discussions. Instead of spreading myths that keep barriers and flaws intact, we need to talk about real solutions to the problems faced by women who work today.

As women, we are blessed to have been born when we were. Our mothers and grandmothers were expected to get married, stay home and raise their kids. Those who wanted a career outside the home faced many challenges including overt sexism. These women knew the only way to succeed in their career was to act like a man and to never talk about their children while at work.

While we’ve seen many improvements since these early days of feminism, we still have many challenges ahead. While women today are paid more than in previous generations, graduate from university in record numbers, hold more leadership positions and enjoy more prestige than ever before, men continue to dominate the highest paying jobs and most top-level leadership positions. Many women today are single mothers and others struggle to find jobs. Some support husbands who cannot find work and others struggle to find quality daycare they can afford. The very few women who make it to the top of their organizations have to be superwomen to get there. They make enormous personal sacrifices and work extremely hard in order to overcome the barriers and ceilings that stand in their way.

Companies are beginning to realize that when they make changes to enhance work life for women, these changes actually improve work life for all employees. Studies show that when companies have good family-friendly policies like flexible work hours, job sharing, on-site daycares and the ability to occasionally work from home, they are able to attract better talent and this raises productivity. Creativity experts say that connecting play and imagination in the workplace is important too, in order to unleash creativity in employees. Companies like Google have embraced this idea. They encourage play with Ping-Pong tables, light sabers, and policies that allow employees to work on whatever they wish one day a week.

Economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson report that women are less happy today than they were in 1972. They call this the paradox of declining female happiness. They say this “unhappiness difference” creates a new gender gap that isn’t measured by salary but is measured by well-being and happiness instead. They believe the best way to improve the lot of all women is to close the leadership gap. They say that only when women hold power in ample numbers will we create a society that authentically works for all women. And a society that authentically works for all women, they insist, will authentically work for everyone.

We are all out of work-life balance. We are busy and stressed beyond belief. There are never enough hours in the day and we find it impossible to do all the things we know we should. We don’t sleep enough or exercise enough, we have significant demands from our jobs, we feel the pressure that comes with raising children, and our children themselves lead increasingly busy lives. We know there are huge emotional and health costs to this lifestyle, yet we keep running hard because we don’t know how to stop.

In an article called The Great Burnout, author Maryam Sanati writes that the 12-hour workday used to be the exception, but now it’s the norm. Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce, both of Columbia University, say we have become “extreme workers.” Jeff Muzzerall, former director of the MBA Corporate Connections Center at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, says that a devotion to endless workdays has become culturally ingrained.

Because we are out of balance, our world is out of balance too. Gaps continue to grow between the rich and the poor, and food and water crises are rising. More than a billion people are starving, yet a billion and a half adults are overweight and half the food produced in the United States is thrown away. Our current methods of mass food production through factory farming, along with an overuse of antibiotics and pesticides, are making people and the environment sick. We are in a time of worldwide economic meltdown. We are increasingly dependent on oil, have experienced a massive erosion in public trust, and our planet is ecologically imperiled. Our weather patterns are intensifying as we experience hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, snow, ice storms, and floods of unbelievable severity. Violence, war and terrorism are “normal” ways of life.

Slaughter tells us that seeking a more balanced life is not a women’s issue, it’s an issue for all of us. Change is possible but we need to rethink how we live, work and even play. We need to create new structures and systems that are balanced, practical and grounded, empowered and empowering. For example, Deborah Epstein Henry, a former litigator for a large law firm says that the billable hour, the way the legal system charges for its services, has “perverted” the legal industry, leading to excessive work hours, massive inefficiency and highly inflated costs. The answer, she contends, is a combination of alternative fee structures, virtual firms, female-owned firms and the outsourcing of certain legal jobs to other areas. Women and younger lawyers are beginning to push for these changes. Clients who are tired of inflated legal fees are demanding change as well.

If women are going to achieve real equality and help to create a better world for everyone, we must stop accepting traditional male behaviour and traditional male choices as the ideal. Slaughter reminds us that our behaviour and our choices as women matter too.

In order to create a better world, men will need to begin to ask how they can manage a better work-life balance just as women have always done. They too will need to figure out how to balance active parenthood with their professional careers.

If we have these conversations and if we encourage women to take on more active leadership positions, together we’ll create a world that will properly focus on how to help everyone lead happy, healthy and productive lives.

Then and only then will we be able to rebalance ourselves and the world.

Then and only then will women (and men) truly be able to have it all.