Slaughter Speaks

09.28.12

Anne-Marie Slaughter Tells Economist Conference that, Yes, Women Still Can’t Have it All...Yet

Anne-Marie Slaughter makes her case to change our definition of career "success." Matthew Zeitlin reports.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Princeton  international relations professor and former director of policy planning at the State Department, set off a firestorm with her Atlantic Monthly article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Now she’s hit the speaking circuit, breathing more embers into the firestorm of praise and controversy that the piece generated. (Don’t worry, she’s also writing a book.)

At the Economist’s Human Potential conference on Thursday, Slaughter was one of the final guests, where she was interviewed by Adrian Wooldridge, a columnist and editor at the magazine.

The audience was significantly smaller than the morning Q and A with Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist. Slaughter’s standard spiel had to be shoehorned into the theme of a conference that largely dealt with personnel challenges—managing them, training them, educating them, and inspiring them.

So, while she might frame her discussion of women and work explicitly around feminism at the Women in Enterprise Symposium, for the Economist, she talked about how a more “sane” approach to life and work for women can increase the “human potential” of employees, employers, and their children.

Slaughter, in a serious black pantsuit and silver heels, emphasized a mantra. No, it’s not that women can’t “have it all” (a phrase she doesn’t like). Rather, it’s that the definition of professional success needs to change to accommodate women and men who want to be as active in their children’s lives as they are accomplished in their professional lives.

She discussed criticism she’s received that, by openly discussing the desire some women have to spend substantial time with their children, woman are giving “them” (the old, white men who run the corporate world) another excuse to pass over women for promotions and serious work. Slaughter noted how it was no longer feasible for corporations to simply pass over women; there are simply too many of them who are already extremely qualified and accomplished.

To drive this point home, she told a story about her teenage son, who, after watching Massachusetts Senator John Kerry speak at the Democratic National Convention, asked who he was. Slaughter said that Kerry could very well be secretary of state in a second Obama term. Her son’s response? “A guy can be secretary of state?”

Slaughter ended her talk with a call to arms for the professional upper-middle class: “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t wish their life was more sane.”

Wooldridge mentioned research showing that many men with extremely successful careers regret not spending more time with their families and even say that they “had lived unfulfilled lives.” One of those successful men spoke earlier that day. Eli Broad said during his Q and A that “if I had to do it over again I’d spend more time with my boys when they were growing up” and that he had “paid the price for success.”

Slaughter sounded a similar note, saying that, while it was impossible to predict how many chances one would have to grab a top-flight foreign policy job, “my kids will only be 13 to 18 once.” And it wasn’t just her kids Slaughter was concerned about, of course.

Slaughter let the audience know that the biggest victims of our society’s inability to allow for “sane” (her word) career paths weren’t just the women who might not be able to come back to their former careers after having kids, but the kids themselves. “We are losing a huge amount of human potential by not allowing countless women … to return to the career they were educated for and started in. It’s a huge loss in woman’s and kid’s potential,” she said.

Slaughter briefly discussed the importance of civil society, government, and the private sector working together in diplomacy—a subject she’s even more expert in than the travails of high achieving women. But Slaughter ended her talk with a call to arms for the professional upper-middle class: “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t wish their life was more sane.”

Wooldridge effortlessly transitioned into a much less sane topic. He interviewed a M.I.T. professor who prophesized that in 50 years, writing would be turned into a collaborative process akin to, say, manufacturing clothing.