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Can women have it all? It's complicated

By Mary Ann Mason, San Francisco Chronicle

Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her thoughtful article, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," in the July/August The Atlantic has set off a firestorm of conversation. She left her "foreign policy dream job" as chief policy adviser for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after only 18 months to return to a job at Princeton University because her oldest child, at 14, was having a rocky time at school and at home. She made the familiar observation that family comes first and it does so more often for women than for men.

And, she wrote, women were fooling themselves if they thought, in today's culture, they were as likely as men to reach the top of their career path. Statistics support this observation: Women now represent 50 percent of the workforce and receive about 50 percent of all graduate and professional degrees, yet they are seriously underrepresented in the very top ranks of all the professions. But there are signs things are changing.

For "Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers," the book I wrote in 2007 with my daughter Eve Ekman, we systematically researched the range of professional careers that women have chosen since the barriers to admission dropped in the last third of the 20th century.

At the time, I was the dean of the graduate division at UC Berkeley where half of my graduate students were women. I wanted to know what advice I could offer my nearly 10,000 aspiring scientists, lawyers, corporate leaders and university professors. We interviewed dozens of mothers, some at the top of their game like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to learn how they assessed their career paths; what worked and what needed to be done. We found common personal strategies, but different workplace challenges.

Co-operative partners were the No. 1 reason most high-achieving women gave for their success. Feinstein said, "I don't believe I could have done it without that stability and support." A prominent female scientist bluntly advised, "If a husband does not support his wife's career, she must drop the husband or the career."

These partners rarely served as stay-at-home dads, or even took on an equal second shift, but they considered the mother's career as important as their own and fully supported her both emotionally and financially.

Slaughter has an exceptionally supportive partner. Her husband, also a Princeton professor, took care of their young sons during the week while she worked in Washington, D.C. Still, she could not balance her incredibly demanding Washington job with the demands of being a parent.

There are significant differences in workplace flexibility among professions. Let's start with the two that Slaughter chose: academics and then a high-level political position.

Of all career paths, politics, particularly as a national elected official, ranks among the most difficult to balance with family. It is not surprising that only 17 percent of the members of Congress are women. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, was first elected to Congress when her children were 10 and 14. "There was a time that I was in D.C. and I was working until 2 a.m. every evening." When she came home, she had her constituents as well as her family to attend to.

On the positive side, it is possible to enter politics, at least at the national level, later in life, when children have left the house. Hillary Clinton did not become a senator or secretary of state until Chelsea left home. Similarly, Nancy Pelosi did not become a member of Congress until her five children were grown.

The academic world offers different obstacles to family: There is no time to have babies. Slaughter writes that she waited until her career was secure until she had children, the classic advice given to graduate students. Because of her age, she had trouble conceiving and did not have her first child until she was 38. It is not surprising that tenured female professors are far less likely then tenured male professors to be married with children. Medicine, surprisingly, is the demanding career path where women have more babies and are least likely to drop out of the profession. Female doctors are more likely to have children than women in any other male-dominated profession, and half of all first babies are born during the famously grueling medical residency period. The rise of HMOs and large group practices allow both women and men to choose whether they want to work 35 hours rather than 50 hours. Without much notice, the medical profession is leading the way in the feminization of male-dominated professions.

The good news is that over the past 10 years, all the professions have scrutinized their workplaces and most are making efforts to balance work and life for fathers as well as mothers. Indeed, if fathers do not feel they have an important stake in change, it will not occur.

There are signs this is beginning to pay off. At UC Berkeley, for instance, following a series of serious UC family-friendly initiatives that included fathers, the percent of babies born to female assistant professors doubled between 2003 and 2009.

Maybe "the times they are a-changin.' " 7/6/2012