Our Chat With Anne-Marie Slaughter: Women Can't Have It All…Now What?

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ams-embed By now, you might have heard something about the cover story in this month's issue of The Atlantic. "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" is a provocative title for an eloquent op-ed by Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was the former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson school at Princeton University, as well as the first female Director of Policy Planning at the State Department (she served from 2009 to 2011 under Hillary Clinton). The feature is projected to be The Atlantic's most-read story of all time, and it has created a full-on media firestorm (check out Dr. Slaughter's response to the media coverage, published just this week).

Feeling equal parts challenged, inspired, and disconcerted by the arguments she lays out in her feature, we knew we had to track her down and pick her brain a little bit more. Read on for some of her striking advice to women trying not just to succeed, but to change the game, plus, of course, a bit of fashion advice every working woman should know.

What were you like when you were in some of our readers' shoes, starting out in your career in your twenties?
"Jeez, where to start? Let’s see. I guess the first thing to say is that in my twenties, I was on my first marriage. I got married at 24 (the first time) and divorced at 30, and I married my second husband at 35. My college roommate would have said that I was the most directed human being alive. I’d always known that I wanted to do foreign policy, and I figured out that the way you did that was that you went to law school, and you went to work for a big New York firm, and then you went to work for a partner, and the partner (some of them) would go in and out of government (and of course it was a 'he' because I didn’t know any women who did this sort of thing).

That was the pattern of how people got into the State Department, and I followed the plan: I went to Oxford, came back, went to law school. I went to work one summer for Simpson Thacher, where the partner was the Secretary of State in the '70s. All kinds of perfect planning. I was married… and then I discovered I really, really didn’t want to do big New York law-firm work. Which was a real problem (laughs). I knew what I didn’t want to do, but I didn’t know what I did want to do. I ended up re-enrolling in a Ph.D program, but not because I wanted to be an academic. I always thought that because I like to get things done, I wouldn't be someone who would be happy writing books. It’s a little ironic in retrospect."

Did you have a mentor during that in-between time?
"Hugely important. His name was Abram Chayes. His wife Toni Chayes was the first woman Undersecretary of the Air Force, so she was a role model for me. He kind of rescued me, really... I mean, I was drifting, and I wasn’t sure at all what I was going to do. I worked very closely with him, and I kind of lived his life, in the sense of working for him and seeing what he did. He was very tough on me, in very good ways. Very good ways."

You write about how hard it is to find role models. Particularly ones who will be honest about the difficulty of balancing family and career. Were Chayes and his wife the ones who got real with you?
"This is the thing that’s very hard for your generation to understand, and looking back I think 'God, how could I have been so naïve?' but I didn’t even question that I could make it work, because I hadn’t seen any women ahead of me who had had trouble, since most of the women ahead of me had had kids in their twenties and were going on and doing things afterward. Or there weren’t women ahead of me. You know, when I became a law professor (and I started teaching in 1990) I had never had a woman law professor. In three years at Harvard Law School, I had never been taught by a woman. And Martha Minow, who’s now the dean, was an assistant professor then. There was one tenured woman on the faculty.

Your generation needs to realize how fast things have changed. Jeez, I had to watch Diane Wood, who’s now a judge on the Seventh Circuit, I watched her teach before I started teaching, and I was terrified, of course. I was totally terrified. I had never seen a woman stand up in front of a law class. It honestly never occurred to me that I was going to have trouble."

Click through for more from Dr. Slaughter.

Image: Courtesy of Princeton University.
atlantic-embedToday, the conversation feels very different. Our generation is wondering how to stay on the career fast-track while also planning for kids and addressing the issue of infertility that comes with waiting.
"That’s exactly it. When I was in my twenties, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to have kids when I decided I wanted to. I had no examples of women who were trying to juggle it. You have women like me saying to you 'Gee, if you can [find success] before 35, do,' because you don’t want to be in the position that we were in. And you have options, unlike the women who were ahead of me, who didn't have options in their twenties. You are really the first generation that both has all the options, and knows that if you do not think about it and plan it and have children relatively early, you could find yourself in a tough position. And I don’t know what I would have done, because it never occurred to me to have children before I got tenure, for instance. I thought 'Of course, I’m going to get tenture first.' Well, I got tenure when I was 35!"

You call for some very dramatic changes in the workplace and in society, as well as more honesty among women. With that in mind, what's the one piece of advice you want to offer our readers?
"Well, first of all, I think that actually we can be the change and make the change, and we can make it much faster than most people might expect. We are valuable. So, two things: I would say definitely don’t just take it as it comes, because I found myself in my late thirties realizing that I had never questioned my commitment to my career, and that this could mean that I couldn’t have biological children. I did think about adopting even then, and maybe I would today, but the fact is, I desperately wanted a baby, and… it was a miracle.

"Maybe you can’t avoid that situation, but you at least want to think about it. And then, I think the key is this: You really can do an enormous amount and be happy doing an enormous amount. Different women have different trade-off points, but I was dictating clerkship letters right after my kids were born. I was perfectly happy as long as I could kind of juggle it on my own time. I think the first thing [I could] tell your readers is to ask for what you need. The worst thing that’s going to happen is you’ll be turned down, and if you really need it, you’ll be leaving anyway. You have nothing to lose by asking. I think if women really look at this and say, 'I need to work from home one day a week, or I need to work from home two days a week, or I need to come in at 10 and leave at three,' but — and this is obviously critical— judge me by my results and not if I’m where you think I should be, when you think I should be there."

But is that enough? What are the next steps?
"The next step is — if those people say no — then we really need to create a market in terms of those sacrifices that women are willing to make (and not just women, but fully engaged parents), and those sacrifices that they are not. As I read the market, the places that do make these accommodations will get more talent and they will have happier and more successful people, which in my experience as a manager makes a lot of sense.

"I’m just coming from a board meeting for a development-consulting and contracting firm where one of the [core] values is 'balance.' And people say that it makes all the difference, because they’re working in a place where [the company cares] about their people. I think you need to ask for what you need, and if you don’t get it, you’ll have to vote with your feet. That’s easier said than done in a tough economy, and I understand that. I don’t want to say 'Gee, well just leave,' but I honestly think if enough working mothers and prospective mothers and fathers talk about this and make it a priority, I really do think we’re ripe for change."

One final question: What's the one piece of clothing that's brought you from Princeton to Washington and back, feeling confident and successful?
"Oh my goodness... my scarves! Oh, I’m famously known for my scarves. Basic black and a great scarf, every time."

Photo: Via The Atlantic