Another hole appeared in the fabled glass ceiling today with Facebook’s announcement that its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, has been appointed to the company’s board of directors. An extra seat was created in order to include the board’s first female member.

But the big buzz this week, spilling over from last, on the women-and-careers front is an article in The Atlantic magazine by Anne-Marie Slaughter (pictured), a Princeton professor and mother of two sons who says it is not true that woman can have it all — not under present conditions anyway.

Ms Slaughter worked for two years as director of policy planning at the US State Department in Washington under Hillary Clinton. She was the first woman to do the job. She could have stayed in it longer and been a really big shot but, in the end, she couldn’t wait to get back home. There was the matter of tenure — after two years leave you lose it — but even more there was the unbearable tension between job and family life.

During those two years she lived in Washington and went home only at weekends — or when she got a crisis call relating to her 14-year-old son who was misbehaving at school and not listening to any adult, including herself. The dad was chief parent to him and his 12-year-brother. By the way, her academic career had almost deprived her of those two boys: the first, after she had “done everything possible” to conceive, arrived when she was 38, the second when was 40. You really wouldn’t want to lose touch with those kids in their teens after all that angst, would you?

It’s a very long article but well worth reading the lot. Ms Slaughter goes into the subject of women balancing careers and family very thoroughly and comes to very sensible conclusions, I consider. 

Here is some of the ground she covers:

* The generation influenced by 1970s feminism is out of touch with the aspirations of young educated women. Ms Slaughter’s peers tended to give her a hard time about her decision to leave such a prestigious job. But young women were grateful to hear what they suspect is the truth: that career women — except for some really exceptional super-women — cannot have it all.

The striking gap between the responses I heard from those young women (and others like them) and the responses I heard from my peers and associates prompted me to write this article. Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.

I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.

Ms Slaughter dismisses as “half-truths” claims such as:

* “It’s possible [to balance career and family] if you are just committed enough.” Facebook’s Ms Sandberg apparently takes this try-harder line.

* “It’s possible if you marry the right person.” Having a husband who shares the home work equally is often proposed as the path to equality.

* “It’s possible if you sequence it right.” This is about fitting a baby or two in to the career path. But Ms Slaughter points to the risks of delay — the stresses and cost (of IVF?) that she herself experienced in pursuing motherhood after 35.

Ms Slaughter is particularly interesting on the second point, acknowledging a difference between mothers and fathers:

Still, the proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case.

Here I step onto treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes. From years of conversations and observations, however, I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.

Many factors determine this choice, of course. Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.

Controversial in some quarters, for sure, but honest — don’t you think?

But she says we should not be content to let men sacrifice family life, even for the sake of public service, either:

It is not clear to me that this ethical framework makes sense for society. Why should we want leaders who fall short on personal responsibilities? Perhaps leaders who invested time in their own families would be more keenly aware of the toll their public choices—on issues from war to welfare—take on private lives.

Here are the basic changes she suggests:

Change the culture of “face time”. But more time in the office does not always mean more “value added”—and it does not always add up to a more successful organization. 

Revalue family values, and make it easier for mothers, parents, to work flexibly and from home.

Being able to work from home—in the evening after children are put to bed, or during their sick days or snow days, and at least some of the time on weekends—can be the key, for mothers, to carrying your full load versus letting a team down at crucial moments. State-of-the-art videoconferencing facilities can dramatically reduce the need for long business trips. These technologies are making inroads, and allowing easier integration of work and family life. According to the Women’s Business Center, 61 percent of women business owners use technology to “integrate the responsibilities of work and home”; 44 percent use technology to allow employees “to work off-site or to have flexible work schedules.” Yet our work culture still remains more office-centered than it needs to be, especially in light of technological advances.

Redefine the arc of a successful career. Here she takes account of longer life spans and suggests that women can step sideways to have children, be around for them in their teens, and still have plenty of time to rise to the top if they immerse themselves completely in their careers again in their late 40s.

Well, there’s much more: the pursuit of happiness,  company innovation, enlisting men.  But a last word from Ms Slaughter about her decision to quit the State Dept. She says she could have made all sorts of modifications to her job…

But I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults. But also irreplaceable years for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals. My older son is doing very well these days, but even when he gives us a hard time, as all teenagers do, being home to shape his choices and help him make good decisions is deeply satisfying.

In the end she wants women to have the freedom to work and embrace motherhood — the “nurturing … feminine aspects of who you are”. Competing in the old “men’s world” of work is a fool’s game. Not even men should have to do that.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet