The woman who famously said 'women can't have it all' explains why that phrase now makes her flinch

Anne marie slaughterPaul Morigi/GettyAnne-Marie Slaughter.

In the July/August 2012 issue of The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story editorial ran under the controversial headline “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The story became one of the most popular in The Atlantic’s history, with an estimated 2.7 million views, and immediately established Slaughter as a prominent voice in the conversation of gender politics in the United States.

Slaughter was formerly the dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and served as the first female director of policy planning in the US State Department, under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She used her Atlantic feature to explain she decided to not re-enter the world of foreign policy after her two-year public service leave from Princeton University ended in 2011 because she realised that her family, especially her older son, needed her at home.

She argued that the experience taught her that there need to be significant changes in American policy and culture before women can truly be considered equals to men.

Three years later, Slaughter is a professor at Princeton, the president of the New America think tank, and the author of “Unfinished Business,” her new book that is a sequel of sorts to her Atlantic article. The Financial Times has already named it one of the six best business books of the year.

We recently spoke with Slaughter to discuss how her ideas have changed since the article and why the question “Can women have it all?” drives her crazy.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Business Insider: In your Atlantic article, you wrote how in 2011 your then-14-year-old and 12-year-old sons needed more than just their father’s attention, especially because your older son was having behavioural issues. The popularity of the article and the following book deal then added a rigorous schedule of speaking appearances to your work life. How have you dealt with that?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: I have to say that there have been times when I felt like I should be wearing a label saying “Hypocrite in Chief.”

I did have pretty much a year and a half at home before the article was published, though. I went home in January of 2011 and by the time the article was published, things were fine on the home front. So I did have a period where I really was, for me, doing very little. I was teaching full time but I had a lull.

But then yes, once the enormous response to the article poured in and everybody wanted me to come and talk, I really felt torn. I said we should have this conversation and then I didn’t feel like I could turn around and say, “I’ve already said my piece.” But we talked about it in the family and my kids actually felt like this was important work to do.

And as my husband wrote [in the October 2015 issue of The Atlantic], he did become, really, lead parent to them. I didn’t expect that. I thought well, we’ll go back and we’ll be co-parenting again but it was clear that somebody did have to be there monitoring the homework every night and it wasn’t me. I’m parenting by text right now!

BI: What was the response to your husband’s article?

Why women still cant have it allThe AtlanticSlaughter’s bombshell Atlantic article took her from the world of foreign policy and into the world of gender politics.

AMS: The response has completely confirmed what I got from men in response to my article, which is there are far more men out there than people realise who are in fact lead parents. Many of them feel isolated and denigrated, as Andy wrote. But all of them think that they have made a great choice.

Andy’s getting even more replies like that than I did.

BI: In “Unfinished Business” you take a look back at your Atlantic article. How have your ideas evolved since then?

AMS: They have evolved a lot. I say and I mean it completely: I couldn’t have written this book three years ago because I didn’t think what I now think.

I think the biggest change was really coming to see the whole issue in a much broader social perspective. I really do think I was looking at advancing women in terms of how many of them we can get into really high-powered positions. And I’m still for that, but I now really came to see what in the book I call this really unlovely symmetry of too few women at the top and far too many women at the bottom. And I now see those two things as really connected by the devaluing of spending time investing in other people.

That is a social problem, a workplace problem. Not a women’s problem. So probably the biggest shift is this book is aimed at a society that needs to support care — and with men.

There’s a tremendous loss of talent to businesses who cannot make room for their employees to attend to family responsibilities. It really amounts to corporate waste: They hire really talented women and then lose them because they can’t find ways to keep them productive and content the minute they can’t “lean in.” That is happening with more men than most corporations realise. They are conditioned to see it only as a women’s problem and it essentially just dumps all the work they put into hiring, training, and grooming that person down the drain.

BI: You express your frustration in the book with the consideration of these challenges as women’s issues rather than as broader social issues. What does the question “Can women have it all?” sound like to you now?

AMS: I flinch. I really do. And I say very clearly this is a phrase that many of us grew up with but it is absolutely the wrong way to talk about these issues because: A) It’s about women; B) It’s about affluent women. It just sounds both selfish and insensitive.

And I write about the fact that I did not choose the title of my Atlantic article, “Why Women Can’t Have It All,” although I didn’t veto it, either. I certainly have learned a great deal about the origins of the phrase and about how it sounds. So I think there are many of us that would just like to get rid of it but you know, it is very catchy in a headline!

BI: What do you hope that “Unfinished Business” will do to advance the conversation?

AMS: One message is that this is a workplace issue and that the conversation should now become, “All right, what are you doing to make room for caregivers?” Caregivers aren’t necessarily women or even parents, because lots of people in the workforce are caring for their own elderly parents. So it’s much more, “OK, the workforce has changed. Many of us have care-giving obligations. How are we going to do the best possible work and have room to take care of other people in our lives?”

And I think that’s just a much stronger foundation. It forces people to look at work practices across the board and it doesn’t allow them to just say, “Oh yeah, that’s the women’s group. We’ll set up a mentor network.” We’ll do these things that are really often cosmetic. Some can make a difference but often they don’t address the deeper issue. So I want to see the way we talk about this at work, and I really do want to see men in this conversation.

I hope that women and men will talk to each other about how they’re going to divide up labour more the way a same-sex couple does, without a default gender role.

And then I want to draw more attention to the national political conversation around paid leave and affordable, high quality childcare and elder care. We’ve shied away from that. Again, lots of people have been doing incredibly great work and I try to highlight that work but I think it’s just too tempting to think we can do this as individuals or one good company at a time.

I think the government has to step in and basically make the marketplace. And say “OK, everybody’s gotta have paid leave. There are many different ways to do it, but you gotta do it. Everybody has to have some minimum maternity and paternity leave and here’s a whole menu of ways to support quality child care and elder care.” Because unless the government does that, there’s always the argument, “Well, I can’t do it because somebody will undercut me.”

BI: What are your thoughts, then, around the very recent trend of Silicon Valley companies competing with each other for who has the better paid parental leave offerings?

Unfinished businessAmazonSlaughter’s book was published in September.

AMS: It’s great, but it’s a very narrow slice of the country. It does tell you which way the cultural winds are blowing because these companies are trying to attract millennials who have lots of choices and it’s clear that they think these are part of what they want. So that’s a straw in the wind but it’s a good one.

I still think the question is, do they walk the talk? I mean my first question in any of those companies is, “OK, and how many senior executives have actually taken advantage of these policies?” Because unless they say “many” or at least “some,” it’s not real.

I think that beyond that, though, what I’m really encouraged by is that cities are passing paid leaves. Cincinnati passed paid leave recently, DC just came out with a proposal for 16 weeks of paid leave that has city council support, and the Labour Department has actually selected 10 cities that they’re working with on paid leave. And then both Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio have come out with plans they’d enact as president.

I look at it this way: About 100 years ago, we did not have any set workday. You could ask somebody to work 16 hours and when states tried to institute a maximum workday, the Supreme Court struck it down and it took quite some time to get there. But you had to have the State come in and say, this is the basic workday and over that you pay overtime or you need an exception.

I’m encouraged. It’s becoming a workforce issue, an economic issue, a middle class issue.

BI: What do you think are the top myths about the dynamics between men and women that still exist and hold back progress?

AMS: I still do think we have this myth of “mother love,” that the child needs its mother. I will say that when I wrote the Atlantic article, I wrote something about how women feel the tug more than men and the first person to object was my husband. He pointed out, quite lightly, that when we travel he’s the one who thinks about calling home more than I do because he’s the one who’s thinking about, “Oh, gee, one kid just had his piano lesson and I wonder if he practiced.”

So I have really come to believe that that’s a function of time, not biology, and that kids need their fathers every bit as much. What they basically need are dependable adults who love them and who are willing to put in that time. I think that’s a big one.

And I think the other is the idea that a man has to define himself as a breadwinner, as opposed to thinking that well, women used to be caregivers who also wanted to have careers; men have always had careers, so why shouldn’t they also want much more family time?

BI: How long do you think it would take for a paradigm shift of this nature to happen?

AMS: It’s hard to say because on the one hand we’ve seen enormous changes in women’s roles and that’s taken most of my lifetime and we have been stuck. So one part of me might say, gee, this is gonna take 10 or 20 or 30 years, but the other part of me says five years ago I never would have expected to be where we are with same-sex marriage. Probably even three years ago.

I talk about individual women and men hitting tipping points — as Malcolm Gladwell taught us, there are tipping points in culture, too. And it may be that the combination of millennial attitudes and the tremendous need for elder care, and as I said, the fact that this has become a real economic issue where daycare costs more than rent in all 50 states, we may just find that change happens more like three to five years.

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