This week, we learned that Marissa Mayer, the former Vice President at Google, has accepted an offer to become President and CEO of Yahoo. Shortly after that news broke, Mayer announced via Twitter that she is pregnant with a baby boy and is due to deliver in October. These dual announcements have generated renewed interest in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” If Mayer “succeeds,” does that mean women actually can have it all? If she falters, does it validate Slaughter’s argument?
To Anne-Marie Slaughter, “having it all” means having a high-powered career and being a dedicated and present parent. Her piece is based on personal experience. In 2009, when she left her academic position at Princeton University to become the Director of Policy Planning at the Department of State, Slaughter lost a lot of flexibility. She struggled to balance work with family. She came to believe that women in her generation were propagating a false message, that “having it all” is not possible, at least, “not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”
Enter Marissa Mayer. A Stanford graduate and Silicon Valley celebrity, Mayer believes that we should focus more on opportunities and less on limitations. On the TV show, Makers, Mayer said that does not identify with feminists who have a “chip on their shoulder.” She explained, “There are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there is more good that comes out of positive energy around that than comes out of negative energy.”
I think she’s on to something. Slaughter is right to point out the need for increased flexibility in the workplace, and for an honest approach to the challenges of balancing work and family. But instead of focusing on whether anyone can “have it all,” maybe we should focus more on creating opportunities and giving people choices about how to balance the pressures of a high-powered career with the needs of a family. Generations of women have worked (and continue to work) to gain more equal footing with men in the workplace. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be trade-offs, or that the choices will be easy.
There is a major dearth of women in top business positions. Including Mayer, there are now 19 women in charge of Fortune 500 companies. The gender gap in board positions is slightly smaller but, still, women hold only 16.1% of seats. So, when she announces her decision (undoubtedly a difficult one) to take a brief maternity leave and return to work after a few weeks with her newborn, Mayer should not be subjected to “a mix of sympathy and skepticism.” We should celebrate that she can make that choice, and keep working to give more families the opportunity to balance work and childcare they way they choose.