Anne-Marie Slaughter: Why Women 'Still Can't Have It All' Anne-Marie Slaughter left her position as the State Department's director of policy planning to spend more time with her children. Slaughter, now a Princeton professor, details what needs to change both in workplaces and in society to create equal opportunities for all working women.
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The Impossible Juggling Act: Motherhood And Work

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The Impossible Juggling Act: Motherhood And Work

The Impossible Juggling Act: Motherhood And Work

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Anne-Marie Slaughter used to tell her woman college students that they can have it all: motherhood and a high-powered job. Then she got the high-powered job she dreamed of, the State Department's director of policy planning. She was the first woman to hold the job.

After two years, she left because she found it was unexpectedly hard to do the kind of job she wanted to as a high government official, and be the kind of parent she wanted to be when her sons were 12 and 14; especially since her sons, and her husband, had remained at home in Princeton, while she spent her weekdays in Washington.

So she left the State Department and returned to her tenured position as a professor at Princeton University, where she previously had been the dean of the university's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Slaughter's new article, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," is the cover story of the July-August edition of The Atlantic. She writes that if we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, which she certainly does, there are things in the workplace, and the larger society, that have to change.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, welcome to FRESH AIR. It sounds like you were almost afraid to write this article; afraid that women like you would see you as betraying feminist ideals. What ideals were you afraid they'd see you as betraying?

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER: It's hard to articulate exactly, that sense of taboo. But effectively, in my generation, when we're in public, we say women can have it all, and we don't acknowledge difference between men and women. So we would not talk about differential pressures in terms of having kids - much less, different feelings about work and children.

But when the doors are shut, there's a tremendous amount of discussion of the difficulties. When I say the doors are shut, I mean without men present. Then, a very different conversation goes on. And I felt very strongly that the last thing I wanted to do, as someone who has pursued a career my whole life and is enormously grateful to the women ahead of me - I didn't want to be the poster child for anyone saying women should stay home; women aren't the same as men; women can't cut it - none of that.

At the same time, I felt like there are issues that need to be discussed, and cannot be discussed unless we open up the space.

GROSS: Well, and the other thing I would be afraid of, if I was you, would be that, you know, I'm sending a message to men: Don't hire women in high - you know, in high-stress, high-work, high-powered situations because if they have children, they're just not going to be able to manage it.

SLAUGHTER: Yes, that too. Definitely. And again, when I say when you're kind of breaking the taboo, that can be used by men; it can be used by women who really reject the idea that women should be working outside the home; it can be used in all sorts of ways. And frankly, it can also be interpreted against me. It can be read as well, she couldn't cut it, and so now she's writing an article about why.

GROSS: So give us a sense of what your work schedule was like and how - you know, when you were in the State Department. And again, like, you were living in Washington, D.C., five days a week, working in the State Department. Your family was in Princeton. You'd go back to Princeton for the weekend. So give us a sense of what your daily and weekly schedule looked like.

SLAUGHTER: Well, my week would start at 4:20 every Monday morning, when the alarm would go off. And I would wake up and think: Why am I doing this? And I would, you know, leave the house at 5. I'd kiss all three men goodbye - or my two sons, and my husband - and head off to the 5:30 train; get down to Washington by 8:15, in time for the first meeting at 8:45.

And then from Monday through Friday, often late - sometimes midafternoon, but I would be working - pretty much, I would leave the house between 7 and 8 in the morning; often getting up earlier and working in my apartment, but then leaving the house between 7 and 8; and then working all day in the State Department - often so much, you never came outside and saw the daylight - and rarely got home before 10 or 11 at night and when things got truly intense, much later than that.

GROSS: Um - and...

SLAUGHTER: And then, I'd go home on Fridays.

GROSS: And what were your weekends like?


SLAUGHTER: Well, I explain to people that I only - I never left the State Department early enough to go to any store other than an all-night - you know, 24-hour store, which meant my weekends were everything that needed to be done with the kids, all - any games, any lessons, any recitals, any of that; any family time, trying to have a couple of meals together.

But of course, also anything I needed to do personally, like get my hair done every week - or any kind of personal care. I gave up on doctors because they don't meet on the weekends. But all that you would normally do - that is not work - during your week, had to happen in two days on the weekend. And we had an incredibly wonderful housekeeper, but it also meant a tremendous amount of - you know, writing notes, and figuring out household stuff that I could try to get done when I was home.

GROSS: So your sons were 14 and 12 - when you started the job, or when you left the job?

SLAUGHTER: When I left the job. They were 10 and 12 when I started.

GROSS: So your oldest son started to have problems while you were working at the State Department and commuting there for the week. Do you think he was angry with you for not being around more?

SLAUGHTER: I do. He was wonderfully responsible when I first said I was going to go. In fact, he - you know - as the older son, sort of stepped up and said - you know - Mom, I'll take on various things that you normally do in the mornings. And I think he felt proud of me.

And at one point, early on, when I said - you know - that I was so frustrated, the job was very hard, he said - you know - Mom, you can't quit; you're a role model. So on the one hand, he really felt proud of me. On the other hand - and that is the nature of being 12 to 13, you know - there was still a little boy there. And that part of him, I think, felt quite abandoned - and quite angry.

GROSS: But it sounds, so much, of the division you had. Yes, you're a role model; you're doing great work for the country; you're a powerful woman. And at the same time, you're leaving your family five days a week.


GROSS: I mean, you had that same division he did, in a lot of ways.

SLAUGHTER: Well, that's part of what the article came out of. I never expected to have that division because I have always been able to integrate work and family. I've always worked a tremendous amount. And I've always traveled a lot, as dean of the Woodrow Wilson School and even as a law professor before that. But I'd always managed to make it work. And so I didn't realize that I would feel torn in two. I didn't expect to feel torn, but I truly did.

GROSS: Well, how come you didn't expect to be torn, because the difference here is that you were actually not only working really hard, but living away from your family five days a week - which you didn't have to do when you were teaching. And even if you were traveling, they're like, they're trips. You're going to be home afterward.

SLAUGHTER: Well, in retrospect, I think of course I should have foreseen that. But that was part of the revelation - was, I thought to myself, well, I'm going to work really hard, but I'll be home on weekends, and we can talk on the phone and, you know, we can manage this. I did not anticipate the problems of adolescence - and again, what the parents of any teenager will tell you. I spent two years with monosyllabic cellphone conversations. You know, how was school? Fine. Anything going on? No. How are you doing? Fine.


SLAUGHTER: You know, just - so that there was - and that, I did not anticipate. In some ways, I think had they been littler, it would have been much easier to do because it was much more predictable. And I should have - you know, I knew that I would be away more but again, I didn't anticipate the relentlessness of it. And frankly, I didn't anticipate what it was to have a boss.

I'm very fortunate, as an academic, that until age 50, I managed to work in a way that I was always in charge of my own time. And I had a boss - you know - I would walk through fire for. You know, I have tremendous respect and admiration for Hillary Clinton but she, of course, was still my boss, and she needed things done. So I was, of course, not on my own time. And that made for stress that I did not anticipate.

GROSS: You say something interesting about Hillary Clinton, which is that she tried to be - she tried to limit her time in the office when possible, so her staff could spend time at home. So she'd come in around 7 in the morning and leave around 8 at night - do I have that right?

SLAUGHTER: No, actually, she would come in between 8 and 8:15, although she would have been up and working, and often had breakfast meetings. But she would come into the office around 8:15, and she would leave the office around - between 6:30 and 7:30 but really, very conscious of not only her chief of staff, who had twins, but many of the people around her who had children.

So she actually, by Washington standards, had a short workday in the office. Again, as I said, she - herself - was working both before she came in, and after she went home. But she allowed - that meant her staff could go home and work from home during those periods, too, which is absolutely critical.

GROSS: Were there other women in the State Department, in your predicament of having trouble balancing parenting with the schedule - with the work schedule; or other women in your position at national security meetings; or other men in your position?

SLAUGHTER: There were. And indeed, in the article, I describe that Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn both had young children, and both stepped down after two-plus years. And I should say here that I served my full term as director of policy planning - which is to say, two years is kind of the minimum term.

And for academics, two years is the normal term because after that, you lose your tenure if you don't go back. So these are not cases of stepping down early, but it's cases of people - myself included - not taking a possible promotion, and going home after a two-year-plus term.

But there were a number of people who made the same choices I did. And there were many women whom I talked to in the State Department, many of whom were commuting - because it is much harder for a woman who is working in government, who is based elsewhere, to move her whole family to Washington when her husband's working - and her kids are in school, and have doctors and play dates - than it is for a man who has a woman - who has a wife who is not working outside the home, to move the household to Washington.

It's not easy, in any case. But when the woman is the one who is moving to Washington, there's just nobody - there's nobody else to move the family. So many of these women are commuting, and all of them that I knew, had the same kinds of stresses I did.

I mean, in fact, we got together at one point, and people were saying how difficult this was. And finally someone said: Why are we doing this? And someone else said: Well, because we're role models, and it's important for other people to do it. And I think we all believed that, but we also recognized that something had to give.

GROSS: So in a way - I mean, would it be fair to say that you took this position in the first place knowing that if you did it for two years, you would have done your job. And in fact, if you did it for more than that, you would have lost tenure at Princeton University. So in some ways, maybe you set out just to do it for two years, and it wasn't such a shock when you resigned after that.

SLAUGHTER: Well, so that's - in some ways. But this was a dream job for me. This was a job that even in college, if you'd asked me, what would you love to be doing 20 or 30 years down the road? I would have said being director of policy planning. It's just a fabulous job. It's a big-think foreign policy job. Secretary Clinton very much wanted a woman in the job because there'd never been a woman in that job. And she wanted there to be, you know, a woman who could do the sort of big, strategic thinking.

I loved the work. I'm very proud of the work we did. And although yes, I had a two-year period, and that's what I anticipated, what I never would have anticipated was that if I was doing well - and I think I did do very well - and if I had a chance of promotion, I think I would have told you, I'm going to make it work. I'm going to make it work with my family because this is the work that I, you know, am passionate about doing, and it's an incredibly important time.

So what was really revelatory to me was that after two years, I very much wanted to go home. And I felt very strongly that no matter how much I loved the work, I would not go back to it while my children were still at home, because it was not allowing me to be the kind of mother I wanted to be. And I really thought it was inflicting harm on my children.

GROSS: I want to point out that in some ways, you have had it very easy, in the sense that you were a tenured professor at Princeton University. You have two years to go off and do something. You took those two years, and then you came home. So you were guaranteed a safety net if you wanted to come home.


GROSS: Most women who leave for a higher stress, higher powered position, no one's holding their former position open to them if they want to return. They don't have that option.

SLAUGHTER: No, that is certainly true. And believe me, I have been - you know, day-in, day-out in the State Department, I was aware of just how privileged and blessed, really, I am to be a tenured professor. I will say, though, in some ways, that's deeply connected to where I am now because I did not start trying to have children until after I got tenure.

And this is one of the big differences between my generation of women and the women coming after me - and the pioneering women who were ahead of me because many of them had kids in their 20s. So by their mid-40s, their kids were out of the house. And they could then take up professional opportunities that were, in many cases, just opening up to them - as judges, if they'd been lawyers or partners; or even, in many cases, starting careers.

My generation of women knew we wanted to be career women. We went to graduate school. And then many of us faced, are you going to try to make partner? Are you going to try to be a, you know, a board-certified physician? Are you going to try to be a tenured professor? Are you going to do that first? If so, it's going to be very hard to have kids then.

So delayed childbearing - I had my second child at 40. And that - as I said, I got tenure when I was 35, and then started trying to have children. It took awhile. So the result is that in my mid-50s, when in many cases you would think - you know - I'd be free to take the best, biggest job I possibly could, that's exactly when my kids are teenagers. So I'm very privileged to be in academia but in part, I worked very hard to get to a tenured position before I had kids.

GROSS: So looking back on your life, do you think you made the right choice about the timing of your children - you know, consciously trying to time it till after you had tenure?

SLAUGHTER: I think I did. But that's because I was fortunate enough, in the end, to have children. I spent three years trying to have children - as many, many, many women I know did. And in the end, you know, we had children. Now, maybe if at that point, if we hadn't been able to have biological children, we could have adopted. And that could have worked very well also.

But what was clear to me, at some point in my - you know, around 36, 37, when I was a tenured professor but it didn't look like we were going to be able to conceive, I really worried about whether I'd made the right choices. And at that point, I would have said look, this is so important to me. As much as I care about my job, maybe I really should have done this in the reverse order.

And I talk to - I offer some advice, and I often talk to young women whom I mentor, and teach at Princeton, about those kinds of choices. I don't think there's one path. I think every woman, you know, faces different choices. But it's tough because biologically, you know, there's a range where women can have biological children. And if that's what you want to do, then you are going to probably have to make some tradeoffs - either then or later.

GROSS: So your husband isn't here to speak for himself. But how did he feel being left alone to be a single parent five days a week, while you were at the State Department?

SLAUGHTER: Well, he's a fabulous husband. He's a professor also. Again, the two of have always worked like crazy, but been able to control our own time. And he knew that at some point, I was going to want to do this. And he was not excited to do it, but he knew it was going to happen. And nobody in the family thought it would be a good idea for us all to move to Washington.

So he, essentially, gritted his teeth and was a single parent five days a week. Both of us came out of this with just incredible respect for single parents and the challenges they face. And, you know, now that I'm home, I have two years of getting the boys up and out for breakfast - breakfast and school every single day because that's, of course, what he did for two straight years.

And he did the very best he could, but I think neither of us expected, again, the challenges of teenagers because, you know, we'd never had teenagers before. Now with our second son, we're a whole lot more experienced, and we know - sort of what to worry about, and what not to worry about.

GROSS: You reach the conclusion, in your article, that women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are either superhuman, rich or self-employed.


GROSS: Or maybe all of them. And you say - you know - if we want women to be able to be ambitious and have high-powered positions and be mothers, if they choose, things have to change, and there's things we can change. So your article isn't saying to women, give up...

SLAUGHTER: No. Definitely not.

GROSS:'s not possible unless you're superhuman. Your article is arguing for certain changes in the way we handle parenthood as a society, and in the workplace. So let's start with maternity leave. I think we're doing - and paternity leave. I think we're doing much better with that as a culture, than we used to be. I'm not saying we're there, but I think there's been improvements. What's your take on that, and what's your take on how much that affects the equation of being able to be a working mother?

SLAUGHTER: I think, in general, we are getting better, in terms of recognizing the needs of parents when our children are first born. You know, we - I don't think we still recognize what it is to be equal caregivers. But I think the real problems set in after that initial period. And they are much more cultural problems of assuming A, that the worker who works longest is most committed; and second, that that time has to be spent at the office.

And those two things mean that the parent who is the primary caregiver - still, mostly the woman - is constantly facing a choice between being seen as less professional if she goes home early; or, you know, unable to get the work done because she's supposed to be doing it at the office. Whereas, if you let women work at their - you know, when they need to get the work done so they can leave the office, but then go back to their computers later - if they're in that kind of work - they'll get the job done. But they'll do it when they need to do it; juggling, you know, what's most important. You know, kids play games at a specific time. They eat dinner at a specific time, and they go to bed at a specific time. And you need to be able to work around that.

GROSS: So you want to caution against making all these exceptions for working women...


GROSS: ...because that kind of penalizes the women, in a way. It means if you hire a woman, this is the kind of stuff you have to put up with.


GROSS: You know, so what's the way around that?

SLAUGHTER: Well, again, the first thing I would suggest is that's an assumption about what you have to put up with. But if you started to say look, what I want is to - privilege time-management. So I'm going to look at my employees not in terms of who logs the most hours in the office, but I'm going to look at who gets the most work done in the shortest amount of time; the most, and highest-quality work, done in the shortest amount of time.

I think you'd be very surprised, in terms of who's actually doing the best work. So I think the - a lot of this needs to shift in terms not of well, gee, I shouldn't be hiring women. But I should be thinking about, you know, what are the norms of this office, and how can I allow people to lead the lives they need to lead, and do the best and highest-quality work?

GROSS: Do you think that all the needs you're describing women as having, for parenting, should be applied to men as well; both to encourage men to have an equal share in parenting, but also to enable men who want that equal share - as many men do now - to be able to have it?

SLAUGHTER: Absolutely. Absolutely. And interestingly, I say in the article that Martha Minow, who's the dean of the Harvard Law School, says that over 30 years of thinking about these issues, and teaching young men and women at Harvard Law School, the only change she's really seeing is that young men are starting to ask these questions of the firms that they go to. I think many of them would love to have these changes, but they don't dare ask.

If these pressures are on women, you know, not to do anything that could look like special treatment, men feel even more inhibited, in many ways. But we would be much better off as a society, if all caregivers could benefit from a number of these changes.

GROSS: So you always saw yourself as something of a role model - dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs at Princeton University; the first woman to be the director of policy planning at the State Department. Then you left that position, you know, after two years, to be back with your family, and resumed your position as a professor at Princeton University. You write: Only recently, have I begun to appreciate the extent to which many young professional women feel under assault by women my age and older. And what you're saying there is that instead of being like, a role model to younger women, you think you were kind of misdirecting them. So what's your change of thinking there?

SLAUGHTER: Well, that may be a little too strong. And I - many, many younger women tell me all the time, that I'm a role model, as I'm - as a woman in foreign policy. Foreign policy, particularly national security, has very few women in it, and I'm one of them. And many younger women who want to go into that field, look to me.

But I think what I realized was that when I would give a lecture - and younger women would always ask about work and family. And I would say, well, you know, you can just make it work. You can make it work. I've made it work. You can make it work. Other women have made it work.

What I've realized after going to Washington, was that just wasn't good enough. And in fact, that is not going to be true for, I think, the considerable majority - even of very talented young women with lots of professional opportunities, because I was ignoring the fact that I've been able to make it work because I can control my own time. I think if I could wave a magic wand and allow all working parents to control their own time, they could make it work, too. But that's just not the reality for the vast majority of people - which, of course, I knew intellectually, but I didn't know it in the way I know it now.

And now what I want to say to these younger women - and they know it, because they were looking back at me and saying, that's not really good enough; that really doesn't track with the experience of so many women I am seeing, who either never see their families - and that's not a choice I'm prepared to make - or who are having to step out and take time to be with their families, but then can't get back on the career track.

And so what I say to them - what has changed is what's in this article - which is to say, actually, we need to have a conversation about what you can do, and what's realistic when you - you know, over the 20 years you may be having children. And particularly - importantly, how do we think about the arc of a successful career?

And what - the other thing, I think, that needs to change so dramatically is, we need to stop assuming that, you know, your career has to go straight up, as fast as possible. And we should be thinking about a career that has stair steps and plateaus, and that allows you to sort of take a pause when you need to; and then pick back up, and still have every bit as much of ambition as you did when you started.

GROSS: You write that the proposition that women can have high-powered careers, as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share parenting equally, assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partners are home with them. And you question whether that's true or not. And I'm trying to decide whether questioning that is conforming to gender stereotype, or whether you're getting to something that's really there. So tell me what your reservations are.


SLAUGHTER: Oh. This was - this is treacherous ground. And I say, you know, this is very hard to generalize about. And everybody listening will be thinking, no way. You know, I know a man, or my husband or my father, changed jobs or - you know, spent - so he could spend more time at home, you know, when needed.

But in my experience, I - there are many women I know, even when they have husbands who are sharing the load, who say: I refused a promotion because it would've meant that I had to travel all the time; or, I - simply, the job was too big; I would not have time to be at home with my kids - even when, you know, the kids are being cared for and e.g., you know, the other spouse is there. Whereas, I think in most of those cases, the man takes the promotion.

And a lot of that has to be socialization. Men are socialized that they have to provide for their families. That's, you know, their kind of primary function, traditionally. Women were socialized to be caregivers, and men were socialized to be material providers. Men are also much more rewarded for ambition. So the idea that you wouldn't take that kind of a promotion would be - really would be questioned.

I'm not, you know, I'm not about to make biological or even social generalizations, but in my experience - and that's certainly true for me personally - there's a sense that even if I could do it, I don't want to do it. I want to be home with my children. It isn't just about somebody taking care of them. It's about, you know, being that person, being close to them, being - you know, being a mother.

GROSS: Well, Anne-Marie Slaughter, thank you so much for talking with us.

SLAUGHTER: It's my pleasure.

GROSS: Anne-Marie Slaughter's essay "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" is the cover story of the July/August edition of The Atlantic. You'll find a link on our website, Slaughter is a professor at Princeton University.

Coming up, we listen back to a 1990 interview with film critic Andrew Sarris. He died yesterday at the age of 83.

This is FRESH AIR.

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