By Other Means

You Can Have It All … Once Your Kids Are in College

Why working men still rule Washington.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Anne-Marie Slaughter made a splash this summer with an article in the Atlantic called "Why Women Still Can’t Have it All," chronicling her decision to leave a prestigious State Department job to spend more time with her teenage sons. This week, Slaughter published a short follow-up article on the foreign-policy impact of workplace policies that lead women to "opt out" — and the factors that make many successful women unwilling to discuss these issues openly.

"[I]ndividual women and men … tell me privately that they appreciated the essay I wrote for the Atlantic," Slaughter writes, but "[m]y decision to talk in such specific gender terms is still deeply uncomfortable for many. Foreign policy is a very male world. The women who have made it are a small and close club, all committed to advancing the careers of younger women and worried that even engaging in this conversation could make it harder to break those glass ceilings."

Let me fess up: I’m one of those people — one of those women — who has privately agreed with Slaughter’s take on women in foreign-policy jobs and the gendered nature of the workplace but has until now refrained from wading into the public debate.

But Slaughter — whom I know and admire — has it right: Foreign policy remains for the most part a boys’ club, and that goes double for national security policy. During my recent stint at the Pentagon, I grew so accustomed to being one of the only women in the room that I almost stopped noticing it. Outside government, it’s not much different. There are plenty of women in the room if the topic relates to "soft" issues like human rights or development — but if the topic relates to the so-called "hard" security issues, such as defense and intelligence policy, those participating in the discussions are almost all men.

This magazine is no exception. Foreign Policy‘s top editor is a woman, but take a look at the current list of regular columnists and bloggers and count the women. Go ahead: It won’t take you long, because at the moment there’s only one. That’s me. And, yes, I’m feeling kind of lonely.

Slaughter is also right that most women find talk of gender issues uncomfortable. Those women left outside the foreign-policy power boys’ club worry that if they raise gender issues they’ll be perceived as resentful whiners, asking for "special" treatment or trying to blame their exclusion on gender rather than talent. Those women inside the boys’ club — the honorary boys — are often all too aware of the precariousness of their status and may worry that raising gender issues will cause them to be taken less seriously or, worse, that they may be perceived as self-pitying or self-serving, determined to guilt-trip their male colleagues.

Given this context, Slaughter’s call for an open discussion of gender issues in the foreign-policy workplace is both important and courageous — and she shouldn’t have to be out there alone. So I’ll join her, because she speaks for almost every woman I know in the foreign-policy world, and for many men too.

It’s past time to rethink our standard assumptions about how the workplace "naturally" functions. In the foreign-policy world, as in many other professional spheres, success and prestige depend as much on being ubiquitous as on being talented. In high-powered government jobs, working long hours continues to be viewed as a sign of seriousness. (You’re going home at 5:30? Obviously you aren’t committed to protecting the nation.)

Even those outside government face pressure to be ubiquitous: Important people go to lunch-time workshops at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, hobnob at book parties and think-tank conferences, and make the rounds at the Council on Foreign Relations’ holiday party.

All this is hard to do for those people with significant family responsibilities — and in our gendered society, that means all this is particularly hard for women. (And I’m talking about affluent professionals. The difficulties faced by low-income women, who often work punishing hours out of stark economic necessity rather than the desire to climb a career ladder, are different and far more acute). Although the average man today does more housework and childcare than the average man did a generation ago, the average woman still does twice as much as the average man. Married women remain far more likely than married men to take the kids to the doctor, pack the kids’ lunches, chaperone the school field trips, get up in the middle of the night with the baby, and so on. Women are also far more likely than men to be single parents.

In practice, this means — as Slaughter has noted — that many talented, educated women opt out in ways large and small. They skip the evening receptions because they need to be home to put the children to bed. They cede to their male colleagues the "hot" crisis issues that require attendance at weekend meetings. They decline the interesting foreign trips that would give them face time with the boss, because who’s going to take care of the kids? They turn down the job close to the center of power because they don’t think it’s compatible with maintaining meaningful family relationships. Sometimes, they opt out altogether.

Of course, this isn’t a tragedy. Affluent, educated women at least have the luxury of choice — and when I have to choose between an evening think-tank reception and reading bedtime stories to my children, it’s no contest: The bedtime stories almost always win. I like being with my children a lot more than I like going to cocktail parties. And though I sometimes (OK, often) miss the adrenaline rush of being involved in the crisis du jour, I know I’d feel even worse if I thought I was missing my daughters’ childhoods. Children don’t stay children forever, but I’m pretty sure that there will still be plenty of foreign-policy crises left when my kids have gone off to college.

This is perhaps my only slight disagreement with Slaughter. Unlike Slaughter, I think women can "have it all" — they just can’t have it all at the same time. Neither can men.

It’s just not possible to work effectively from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day and travel to war zones and hobnob with bigwigs at receptions and conferences and be available at a moment’s notice for an urgent call or meeting and write op-eds and policy papers and run the Girl Scout troop and make a home-cooked meal every night and keep an eye on the kids’ math homework and sustain vital family relationships and make sure the bills get paid and the car gets fixed, all in the same week, or month, or year. No woman can do that — and no man can do it either. It’s too much.

The problem, then, is not that men can "have it all" but women can’t. The problem is that we still live in a world in which social pressures tend to push men and women onto different tracks, and the nature of the workplace reinforces the impact of those social pressures, instead of counterbalancing them.

We still live in a world in which women rather than men are expected to be the primary caregivers for children, and women who are perceived as placing career over family can expect to encounter social disapproval from neighbors, their children’s teachers, and even family members. Sometimes it’s open, and sometimes it’s subtle, but we all know it’s there. (Men, of course, are caught in a different but equally painful trap: If they appear to prioritize family over career, they too are apt to be regarded with some suspicion. Just as women whose high-powered jobs take them away from family may be regarded as "unwomanly," men whose families take them away from high-powered jobs may be stigmatized as "unmanly.")

Against that backdrop, workplace cultures that prize ubiquity will disproportionally push women out. And this, as Slaughter argues, has consequences that go well beyond the personal.

On the most basic level, workplaces that drive women out when they have kids lose a lot of talented people. More insidious, if the foreign-policy workplace is mostly male, is that the policymaking process will prioritize the issues that men tend to consider important, while the issues and perspectives traditionally important to women will get short shrift. (No, I’m not wading into the "essentialist versus constructivist" debate here — this is a comment on what the world looks like right now, not on what it must inevitably look like). Globally, there’s ample empirical evidence that gender equality is strongly correlated with societal stability and economic development, but instead of setting a positive example, the United States ranks abysmally low in terms of the percentage of women in leadership positions.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be this way.

The workplace policies and structures that push out women also push out many talented men — and render those women and men who stay less creative and less capable. There’s a growing body of research suggesting that long hours are just plain bad for business, whether "business" means the production of better widgets or the production of wiser foreign policy. The human body and brain can only take so much before productivity, judgment, and decision-making skills begin to suffer. We don’t want sleep-deprived pilots to fly planes — why would we want exhausted, overstretched officials making vital foreign-policy decisions?

The long hours and pervasive crisis atmosphere that characterize most foreign-policy workplaces aren’t signs that Very Important Work is being done by Very Important People — they’re just signs of poor management. Good managers, whether they supervise air-traffic controllers, auto workers, or the National Security Staff, recognize that human beings function best when they work in humane and flexible conditions. Good managers make sure their employees — both female and male — have the time and encouragement to eat, sleep, exercise, take care of basic life- maintenance tasks, and spend time with family and friends.

It’s far from impossible to do this, even in the foreign-policy workplace. At the Pentagon, for instance, Michèle Flournoy, then defense undersecretary for policy, actively encouraged her staff to adopt flexible work schedules. Secure videoconferencing reduces the need for travel, and emerging technologies increasingly permit people who must work with classified information to do so remotely via smartphones and tablets, reducing the need for people to spend long hours at the office.

"What’s good for business is good for America," President Calvin Coolidge is said to have remarked. That may or may not be true. But Anne-Marie Slaughter deserves a lot of praise for reminding us that when it comes to the workplace, what’s good for women is good for business — and good for American foreign policy.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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