HBS Prof Ann-Marie Slaughter Discusses Atlantic Article at Women’s 50th Keynote

by on October 20th, 2012

Ann-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and Dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs, has long been a role model for young women aspiring for achievement in the academic and public sector fields. But this summer Prof. Slaughter put herself at the epicenter of the evolving public discussion around women in the workplace by authoring a pivotal and provocative Atlantic article entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Slaughter’s piece argues that despite gains in gender equality and work-life balance for employed mothers, the current establishment in place still doesn’t allow women (or men) to successfully manage dual roles as providers and caregivers.

The ensuing interactions between supporters and opponents of Slaughter’s perspective reignited the larger dialogue among private and public sector leaders as well as ordinary citizens in online and print periodicals across the country. In light of the overwhelming response to her article and the invigorating debate it sparked, Prof. Slaughter, who left the State Department and returned to Princeton after a customary two-year stint to spend more time with her teenage sons, was invited by the HBS Women’s Student Association to deliver the keynote speech for last week’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of women at the school.

Pacing back and forth in front of a packed Spangler Auditorium packed with students and faculty of both genders, Slaughter appropriately focused her talk on experience writing the article and receiving a range of feedback on it. The professor admitted that she wrestled with the decision to publish the article long after it first occurred to her to write it. Colleagues at cocktail parties told her that she would be discouraging young women from trying to maintain a career with kids and giving male-dominated management teams a reason to avoid hiring women, for fear that they would likely become less committed or leave altogether when babies came into the picture.

But Prof. Slaughter wrote anyway. She received the negative feedback she expected, with working mothers, fathers, and young people alike telling her that the article’s message detracted from the feminist cause for the same reasons others discouraged her to publish in the first place. Slaughter did, however, hear from a constituency she didn’t necessarily target in her message. Men – fathers, sons, and partners – told Slaughter that they faced the same problems as the ones mentioned in the article. “Men don’t have it all either. They are equally if not more constrained at the workplace, also prisoners of the gender stereotype,” Slaughter observed.

After fleshing out the argument in a methodical fashion typical of an academic, Slaughter removed her professor hat and adopted a more political perspective to talk about solutions. Here, the Slaughter argument centered around flexibility. “You have to be able to stay in the game so your career is cumulative, but we should be able to dial it up and down at different times,” Slaughter noted, acknowledging the importance of consistency in skill-building but refuting the idea that we must climb the corporate ladder in the traditional sense. But “making work work” in this way requires a shift in norms. This would require us to do away with the widespread belief that there is something wrong with leaving jobs for family reasons.

Slaughter is optimistic about a sea change of this magnitude, citing the sudden drop in smoking as a societal norm in the past two decades. But, Slaughter believes, this will happen only if students, in their future roles as employees, employers, and leaders actively work to change the current conceptions of providers and caregivers. Slaughter left the audience with an inspiration and widely applicable message, telling them to “live the values [you] espouse.”

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