Law in Contemporary Society
I'm sure that some of you have already heard about or read this article - "Why Women Still Can't Have it All", written by Anne-Marie Slaughter and published in the July/August edition of The Atlantic - but I thought I'd share it for those who haven't, as it provides some thought-provoking commentary on issues that both women and men face in striving to attain fulfillment at work and at home.

Slaughter specifically highlights the legal industry, built on the foundation of the billable hour, and discusses the unique challenges that this model presents for a law firm associate seeking to establish a work/life balance with which he or she is satisfied.

Though I have qualms with some of Slaughter's arguments, I thought that the article was a worthwhile read, as Slaughter directly addresses and incites thought on a lot of issues I've grappled with since beginning law school and considering the career I want to pursue and the balance I want to strike in terms of how that career fits into my life.

-- CourtneyDoak - 25 Jun 2012

Thanks for sparking this conversation Courtney. When I read this article my first thought was "Slaughter should have edited her outline a lot more." I liked the gist of what she was saying but it was often hard to distill what her main sub-points and solutions were. I think she could have done a better job conveying her point using half the words.

As for the substance - I appreciate that she sparked a conversation about more flexible work schedules, changing the business model, and being vocal about not being able to have it all. I also like that she was bold enough to say that fundamentally women are different than men in terms of how much not being present for family life effects them (obviously there are exceptions to that statement). The piece of this article that I have found myself thinking about most is that my career path will probably look more like a set of stairs, than a straight uphill line. What I have been trying to take away from Prof. Moglen's class is that my career path is changeable and I am in control of it. I can do with my license what I want, and just because I made the decision to come to law school does not mean that I have to become a BigLaw lawyer. I can and probably will do that for a couple of years, but I calculated my end date and am now trying to figure out what I need to do to get to my next career after that end date comes. Hearing a successful woman say that most career paths will plateau at points, and then pick up speed again (potentially in a different direction) was comforting and helped make me feel like law school was less of a waste.

-- SkylarPolansky - 25 Jun 2012


I read the Slaughter article yesterday when you posted it and happened to come across this response by James Joyner while taking a break at work. Though the Joyner piece is obviously much shorter than Slaughter’s, I found that it highlighted many of the issues that I felt were problematic in the original article. Like Skylar mentioned, I thought Slaughter’s article was somewhat meandering and kept stressing the hope that “women can have it all,” when nearly every anecdote made it look like the closest thing to “having it all” was only a few steps away from miserable anyway. The Joyner article is a bit more cynical, and I guess I am too, which is why I like it better. Joyner specifically addresses Slaughter’s suggestion that women (and men) can maintain a better personal/work life balance if society changes—Joyner sees that “evolution” to be “impossible.”

“All things being equal, those willing to put 90 hours a week into their careers are going to get ahead of those willing to put in 60, much less 40. While there is any number of studies showing that working too many hours is actually counterproductive from an efficiency standpoint, there nonetheless is a rare breed of cat who can keep up a frenetic work schedule for years on end. And those workaholics are simply more valuable to the company, agency, or organization than those who clock out at 5. That means that those of us who choose to prioritize our children are going to get out-hustled by those without children, or those willing to lDet their children spend longer hours with a partner or childcare provider.”

Like Joyner, I would like to agree with Slaughter and see attitudes about careers move in a direction where a more fulfilling life is possible for anyone (male or female) that struggles to split time between career ambition and the desire to spend time on family or personal matters. For me, the most poignant illustration in the Slaughter article was the brief comparison between a working mother who must manage her time to care for her family and an athlete splitting time between work and training. Slaughter (using a rhetorical question) paints this picture such that the reader takes pity on the mother because she does the same amount of work as the runner without being championed in the same way.

I found myself fighting this imagery as I read. I did not pity the mother any more than the runner, but maybe that’s just because I know that I would view them equally as people who wanted to devote time to things they love. That said, I think that Joyner is right when he expresses doubt that “we'll ever create a culture that values family time as much as work time.” Even if work hours match up with school hours or companies make moves toward allowing employees to work regularly from home, there is always a tendency for people to compete in their careers. I feel like that tendency would be a harder thing to fight than Slaughter assumes and also something that is approached differently by every person.

-- AnneFox - 26 Jun 2012


Thanks for starting this discussion. While the article raised some interesting points, I ultimately felt unsatisfied with the scenario that Slaughter set up. When I read this response by Lori Gottlieb in The Atlantic I realized why. As Gottlieb criticizes, Slaughter comes off a bit like a petulant child, upset that she can't physically occupy two places at one time.

As Gottlieb writes, "If you choose Harvard because you like Cambridge better than New Haven, you have to give up Yale and your love of its drama department. If you order the salmon entrée at your favorite restaurant, you have to forgo ordering the steak entrée that night. If you choose to have kids, you have to give up a certain amount of your freedom for the next 18 years. Not just career freedom, but marital, economic and social freedom as well. Order up what you want -- Harvard, the wild salmon, the kids -- but know that there's no such option out there called "having it both ways." Gottlieb notes, "This isn't a feminist issue. This is Life 101."

We all know that choices involve sacrifice, so Slaughter's shock at the notion that she would miss her kids will working long hours in another city did not quite resonate with me. What I did find interesting - and what I would have liked to see her engage with instead of tiptoeing around - was the concept that this dichotomy has a different effect on women than it does on men.

It is obvious that the current state of affairs of our workplaces, and the difficult choices we're forced into, distress Slaughter, as it should all of us. However, Slaughter also seems to emphasize "having it all" as spending time with the family + a high-powered professional position, whereas I've always been taught that having it all is more a measure of happiness and value add to society than salary and prestige. With the facts as Slaughter lays them out, it would be difficult for any woman with a family to ever be truly happy with her choices without feeling as if there are opportunities she's deprived herself of, and I have to hope that that isn't the case. Right? Or do you disagree?

-- SherieGertler - 27 Jun 2012

Thank you all for your responses – I had read Joyner's article, but hadn't seen Gottlieb's, so thanks for posting, Sherie. Ultimately, as I wrote above, I found the article worthwhile in provoking thought on work/life balance issues with which I grappled while working as a financial analyst before law school, and which I think about now as I ponder my ideal legal career trajectory. I think that one of my main takeaways from this class was that for me it isn’t about having it all, at least in the terms Slaughter describes, where ambition equates to being a leader in one’s chosen profession. I’d rather have enough – enough to be happy and fulfilled, personally and professionally – and have the liberty to choose when and how to make tradeoffs from which I’ll derive that fulfillment.

Sherie, while I personally agree with your conception of "having it all" (happiness and value-add to society), I don't think that Slaughter's conception (high powered career + family) is any less valid, as I’d imagine that some women (and men) work in their high-powered jobs not for salary or prestige, but because they find the work meaningful and fulfilling. I’d venture to say that “having it all” could mean something different to everyone, as a personal notion of what it means to "have it all" is, by definition, a highly individualized matter based on individual priorities and preferences. Slaughter acknowledges that she’s specifically addressing a narrow population, comprised of women at the upper echelon of their professions who seek to balance their success at work with a desire to also have children and be present to parent them. I don’t think she was shocked that she missed her kids, and I actually thought she spoke with considerable candor in acknowledging that perhaps her gender played a role in how she experienced the impact of being away from her kids. Actually, my main qualm here was that Slaughter presumptively imposes her construct of what it means to “have it all” on other high-powered professional women (Condoleezza Rice, as an example) solely because they are similarly situated to her professionally and therefore members of her target audience.

Irrespective of whether Slaughter’s framework for “having it all” is one with which I identify (because I don’t, for the most part) what I thought was most interesting about Slaughter’s piece is the reflection it inspired for me on whether anyone – male or female – can really “have it all” (in the terms Slaughter puts forth) in our society.

First, like Joyner, I agree that Slaughter needs to widen the contours of the lens she uses to examine this issue. Balancing work and life isn't just a "women's problem". Having been raised by a single father, I have seen firsthand that the sacrifices he made for my two younger sisters and me - regularly leaving work early to pick us up from school if we were sick, or to drive us to soccer practice, or to attend a parent-teacher conference - likely cost him professionally. Thus, to the extent that Slaughter frames the issue as solely a "women's problem", I simply disagree.

Moreover, like Joyner, I am skeptical about the prospect of widespread changes in the work environment that would enable women (and men) to be better able to attain professional success while spending what they consider to be enough time with their families or on personal endeavors. It’s clear that such a massive cultural overhaul may ultimately be impossible, but I did want to share an experience I thought about while reading that made me hopeful that perhaps on a smaller scale, one company at a time, such changes could take root.

Shortly after I began working as an analyst at a global financial services firm (UBS), the senior management team which had run the Bank’s operations in the Americas were discharged in the wake of the financial crisis and pending DOJ investigations for auction rate securities fraud. When their replacements (the former CEO and Executive Committee from a competitor), deemed the "Renewal Team", arrived, they totally, and rapidly, transformed the corporation's culture.

I truly think that the way they were able to galvanize people went beyond the simple fact that they were new faces who hadn’t been at the helm during the recent scandals and struggles. The new team placed a discernible emphasis on balance, encouraging employees to spend time with their loved ones or time doing things they loved. People satisfied at home and at work, they contended, would ultimately be more productive during time spent at the office. The cultural shift began at the top, but it trickled down and in a very short time the company I worked for was infused with a very different set of values than those that had dominated before the management change. Certain analyst roles, once notorious for regular 2 AM nights, now carried with them relatively 'normal' hours – yet no work was going unfinished.

Rana Foroohar proclaims in a recent Time Magazine article, “Can’t Have It All? Blame Our Extreme Work Culture”:

It’s a truism that work expands to fit the time you give it. Indeed, the economic gains made in both the U.S. and Europe over the past two decades have been two-thirds productivity related and only one-third down to working more hours.

In my experience, the “productivity gain” was simply a byproduct of the new management team’s execution-oriented approach. In contrast to their predecessors, who had rewarded so-called “face time” and lauded 50-slide PowerPoint? “decks” outlining every initiative, no matter how insignificant, in excruciating detail, the new management team simply saw no value in using time at work this way. People stopped working 100 hours a week because there was not enough work to fill those hours – yet the company’s performance began to improve. Clearly a great deal of the turnaround was attributable to the improvement in the financial markets, but some of the turnaround, I believe, was attributable to the new management team's "renewal" mentality. Workers were no longer rewarded for marginally improving the 8th iteration of a PowerPoint? that would ultimately go to a manager who’d typically take a cursory glance at it before throwing it away. That time was spent instead on efforts to generate revenue and drive actual results for clients, and when that work was complete, people were encouraged to go home and attend to their personal obligations.

I do of course recognize that the rosy picture I painted is of a culture that permeates a single corporation, and of a culture that seems fairly anomalous for finance and probably can’t be extrapolated to law and other industries where working more absolute hours is directly related to greater individual or company-wide success. I also recognize that the process of transforming one corporation is certainly not indicative of the process that would be required to transform a society. However, I guess witnessing a reformation of a corporate culture has made me want to believe that a larger-scale change could one day be possible, if those who rise to the top of their respective fields cultivate value systems that genuinely emphasize work/life balance (though the question clearly remains whether individuals who adhere to such value systems are capable of rising to the top of their fields on more than a one-off basis). Thus, like Joyner, I’m just not sure that our nationwide work culture will ever undergo the type of sweeping transformation that’s possible on a micro level. In any event, I ultimately appreciate that Slaughter inspired me to reflect on these issues, and to reflect on my conception of what it means to “have it all”.

-- CourtneyDoak - 27 Jun 2012

Courtney, thank you for your thoughtful response!

I appreciate your point that Slaughter's biggest value (to you) was the reflection it inspired on whether anyone can really have it all, although, as you point out, "having it all" in the article reflects Slaughter's individualized conception of what that means.

In response to your point on Slaughter's conception of "having it all": I agree that Slaughter qualifies the population she is addressing, and therefore covers her claims in that way. However, I felt that her claims suffered from her one-dimensional view of professional success, in that she largely equates professional success with high-powered positions and hours invested. I thought her exploration could have been more valuable had she explored in-depth other dimensions of professional success (i.e., engaging in meaningful work, feeling passionately about the work you do) and whether there are inherent tradeoffs there as well. While her version of "having it all" is no less 'valid' than mine and yours, I believe she limits her basic premise by posing her conflict in this way. And here is where I most strongly agree with Gottlieb's response. Slaughter's premise boils down to the fact that she has 2 time-intensive endeavors which both demand more than half her time, and therefore cannot fully pursue both opportunities simultaneously. This upsets her, and it upsets her when she feels other people judge her for this, but to me it felt like a simple fact of life. And, as you point out with the personal example of your father, one not limited to professional women.

When the conflict becomes that one cannot occupy two places at once, the situation seems more black and white than work-life balance really is (in my limited experience). It also seems more despairing, barring a nation-wide overhaul of professional culture.

That being said, I appreciated your recognition of the value of the article for what it is (and not what it is missing) and its uplifting to hear that a company as large and pervasive as UBS can reform.

-- SherieGertler - 28 Jun 2012

Sherie, thank you for your response - I totally agree with you on everything you said above. I think that you're right in that Slaughter's construct of "professional success" is inherently limiting, and that her piece would have had far wider reach and likely resonated with more readers had she broadened the scope of her argument to encompass other core dimensions of success.

I also agree that framing the conflict as one in which a working parent, man or woman, cannot physically occupy two places at once really makes it seem impossible to "have it all" (in the terms Slaughter puts forth). And like you, I assume that a working parent who seeks to be the best parent they can while simultaneously striving to attain the utmost professional success is faced with two obligations that demand more than half of his or her time. Consequently, such an individual, woman or man, will be forced to make tradeoffs, tipping the balance between professional achievement and parenthood (or more broadly, work and life), moving along the continuum accordingly.

I think you're right though, this situation doesn't have to be 'despairing' (although I suppose that Slaughter might disagree). To the contrary, to me it simply means that a person facing this scenario should consider the relative importance of his or her competing obligations, and choose a point on the continuum at which he or she feels most satisfied and fulfilled personally and professionally. That being said, I think that working parents, mothers and fathers, would be able find such a point with greater ease if our work culture transformed in a manner such that more value was placed on time spent with family or on personal endeavors (whether this is possible, I don't know).

Ultimately, I think the point on the continuum that I am seeking is one at which I may spend enough time with those I love, or doing things I love, to make me happy, while also having the opportunity to strive for my conception of professional success (enough to be materially comfortable and engaged in meaningful work about which I'm passionate). If I'm able to make the personal and professional choices to get me to that point, by definition I'll have made the tradeoffs which are, as you point out, Sherie, simple facts of life. Overall, reflecting on this discussion has really left me with an acute awareness of how fortunate I am, and how rare it is, to have - or even to contemplate having - a choice about where on the work/life continuum I'd like to land.

-- CourtneyDoak - 28 Jun 2012

Great perspectives and responses, everyone. It was good to hear from some of the Slaughter skeptics on this thread, but I also felt that Slaughter has contributed a lot to this "having it all" debate because we're moving toward a more honest discussion about work/family balance. And I think this is beneficial for all us coming from a younger generation. What I found honest about Slaughter's piece is her openness to talk about her family problems (reference her discussion about her teenage son) and not being the constant nurturer she wanted to be. Yes, we can frame this as being a "Life 101" problem and not necessarily a women's only issue, but how often do we hear women in the workforce talk candidly about this? Not just having kids (if at all) or getting married, but the similar struggles that Rumbi pointed out -- bigger and more complicated family obligations. And we can say oh sure this is life, and we'll be better off the sooner we realize how complicated and hard our lives will become as we move higher in the totem pole, but why should we settle so easily? One of Slaughter's most interesting points for me was how the school system still functions based on that archaic norm of the stay at home mom. The suggestion Slaughter's assistant raised was matching school schedules with work schedules, and I seriously thought that was brilliant. I mean, why the heck not? For some this can be one of those impossible or transformative changes that seems hard to imagine, but we've made far more drastic changes in our society.

Workplaces too can do more in offering more flexible working arrangements. For example, a lot of law firms still follow this ridiculous norm of face time. The more face time (i.e., sitting at your desk hoping some partner sees you seemingly hard at work), the better. Of course, there should be the minimum expectation being visible during normal working hours and the rhythm of the work/business may make it necessary to stay in long hours anyway, but why make it an unspoken rule that associates should be seen just for the sake of being seen? I was impressed to learn from some attorneys not at law firms about the flexibility they had in scheduling more conference calls from home or using instant messenger to connect with other coworkers from home or making presentations to coworkers from home. When family obligations call, these options should be more widely available.

In my view, we can only hope to get more workplace flexibility the more we demand it, and we'll only demand more flexibility when we start becoming more open about our obligations at home and in life. I don't mean we should start talking about our personal struggles to our boss or coworkers down the hall, but more in terms of supporting and adding to the conversation that Slaughter presented and that to a large extent Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook started. Because I don't mind seeing this as a women's issue, I'll just add that I also loved how Slaughter said women "have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal." I don't really want to get into how she stereotypes male behavior and male choices, but I think a lot of us women who have any work experience, be it before coming to law school or an internship, have felt the pressure of needing to be on par with the guys -- on an emotional level, on table talk discussions, whatever. That sentence, for me, was my takeaway because I have done and continue to do this. Her pointing this out has empowered me to change that.

-- LizzieGomez- 29 Jun 2012

I've really enjoyed reading everyone's contributions. Thank you. This article has been on my mind ever since I first read it and Gottlieb's response. At first, I was really sympathetic to Slaughter, but after thinking about it for a while, I have more complicated feelings about the article. On the one hand, I think it is excellent that she has forced a lot of people to think about and discuss this issue. I also think her recommendations for how to make changes are pretty sensible and seem like they could actually catch on, at least in certain fields. On the other hand, I don't feel particularly bad for Slaughter's dilemma. I actually think it is kind of crazy for the parent (either a mom or a dad) with kids at home to think that they can take a job that will require them to live in a different city during the week. I would have more sympathy for Slaughter if the job she left had been problematic in some way--if it didn't allow her to provide for her family or if it was soul-suckingly miserable. The job she had in Princeton sounded pretty great, though. She also had a supportive husband, generally supportive kids, and, apparently, a boss who did her best to make this incredibly high-powered job somewhat family friendly. The problem was that her family lived in a different city, and for various reasons, they couldn't move to DC with her. The problem of having a dream job located in a different city is not one that is described elsewhere in the article and it would not be solved by the suggestions she offers.

I do think that Slaughter's experience points to another employment-related problem. I would imagine she felt that she had to take this job because if she turned it down once, that would be it. She wouldn't get another chance to do it and her career might suffer in the future because she declined to take advantage of this opportunity. If we valued older workers more in all fields (look at how hard it has been for laid-off older people to find work after being laid off) and if we could give everyone the latitude to ramp up and ramp down their careers according to their needs and desires at different times in their life, then maybe Slaughter would have felt like she could have declined the job this time and the opportunity might present itself again.

I also wanted to share this speech that Nora Ephron gave at Wellesley's commencement in 1986. She also talks about having it all. Her conception is clearly different than Slaughter's and is a little more in line with the one mentioned in this discussion and in class.

-- KatherineMackey - 1 July 2012

I've also really enjoyed reading all of the responses to this discussion - thanks everyone! Katherine, I really like Ephron's speech - thank you for sharing it. I agree, it seems more aligned with how "having it all" has been framed throughout this thread. And I share Lizzie's appreciation for the way that Slaughter has sparked a more candid discussion of work/family balance issues.

Lizzie, the point you made above that "we can only hope to get more workplace flexibility the more we demand it, and we'll only demand more flexibility when we start becoming more open about our obligations at home and in life" really resonated with me.

I was reflecting on the comment in the context of the anecdote I shared about the corporate culture transformation I witnessed at my former job, and I think that the catalyst for the sweeping change I witnessed was really the senior management team's honesty and openness about their own obligations at home. I worked as an analyst for one of these executives, and because his organizational chart included direct reports from all 50 states (he headed the company's force of financial advisors who worked in branches across the country and regional management teams) his job involved significant travel essentially by definition. I recall instances of my former boss's administrative assistant altering his travel schedule or rescheduling standing meetings because he needed to be at home for various personal events and commitments. Other senior members of my team struck a similar balance. I worked frequently with a managing director who left the office in time to attend virtually all of his son's high school hockey games, making up the hours either by arriving at work incredibly early or else working remotely, dialing into conference calls from the car, answering emails whenever necessary. Another senior member of my team senior member of his team decided not to partake in a week-long trip to Texas because his son, a senior in high school, was a member of his school's basketball team and competing in the state playoffs for the first time in his tenure on the squad.

Clearly, it's far easier for a senior executive (male or female) to simply announce that a meeting is being cancelled or rescheduled because he or she has chosen to attend to a personal obligation instead, especially because in many of the aforementioned instances, the executive rescheduling the meeting was the one who arranged it in the first place. However, the senior leadership team's frank, unapologetic approach to these work/life conflicts had symbolic significance for the rest of us who lacked similar control over the scheduling of professional obligations. Their openness on the issue was the key which opened the door for other, more junior, employees to be similarly direct (and feel less guilty, at least in my case) when they had to leave the office a little early, or work from home for a morning, in order to attend to a personal matter. The "face time" norm began to fade when it became apparent that the highest ranks of the company's leadership team rewarded and valued high-quality work-product, not the number of times per week their analysts worked late enough to order dinner to the office or take a town car home on the company's tab.

I thought this editorial, titled "The 'Busy' Trap", provides an interesting corollary to certain parts of this discussion:

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.” It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this; it’s something we collectively force one another to do. Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

I don't wholly agree with Kreider's 'solution' to the abovementioned problem - idleness as the escape route from the 'busy trap' - because I don't think that "busyness" and "exhaustion" are as mutually exclusive as he seems to imply. I also don't think that the great majority even have the option to choose to escape this trap, if it is in fact a trap. Despite these qualifications, however, I appreciate his conclusion:

I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle. My role is just to be a bad influence, the kid standing outside the classroom window making faces at you at your desk, urging you to just this once make some excuse and get out of there, come outside and play. My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love.

My main takeaway from Kreider's piece isn't so much that "busyness" is inherently evil, but rather, that I hope that when my life is exceptionally busy, that "busyness" is the byproduct of valuable, meaningful work and a fulfilling personal life, rather than a proxy for excessive face time.

-- CourtneyDoak - 02 Jul 2012


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r19 - 22 Jan 2013 - 18:15:06 - IanSullivan
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