Is Society Saying to Women: Choose Work or Life?

“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” — unless you’ve been living under a rock this past year, you’ve either read or at least heard of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s provocative article in The Atlantic that went viral and sparked a heated national conversation last summer.

Slaughter was the first female director of policy planning at the State Department, and the op-ed chronicles her choice to leave her high-powered government position to focus on the needs of her family — in particular her two teenage sons. That decision turned out to be inspirational for many women across the country, but drew the ire of others who accused Slaughter of publicly waving the white flag and setting back the women’s movement. To borrow an excerpt from her piece, one reaction was as follows: “Such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman — a role model — would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women.”

I heard firsthand from Slaughter on Thursday when she keynoted the Womenetics POW! Awards in Chicago, and let me tell you what I think from the perspective of a young, married female professional. I didn’t see the weak-stomached quitter that some of Slaughter’s critics made her out to be; I actually give her props for making the decision she did (I probably would’ve done the same thing if I were in her shoes) and applaud her willingness to be so candid about an issue millions of others would rather sweep under the rug.

The bigger question is whether we as a society are forcing women to make the type of tough choices Slaughter was forced to make: Commit to your job 24/7 and watch your family fizzle in the distance, or prioritize your family demands at the expense of being seen as weak in the workplace. Interestingly, this isn’t just a women’s issue — I’ve talked to many experts about how work-life balance is increasingly being valued and sought after by men.

As diversity leaders and influencers of key business decisions, it’s time to open your eyes to your company’s culture and open your ears to what your workers are saying. I’ve talked with so many employees and executives about the fact that rigid requirements to clock in from 9 to 5 without any flexibility or freedom or caring about an individual’s concerns will make employees feel like mere cogs in a machine and will actually stifle their creativity, independence and engagement which, ironically, negatively impacts the bottom line.

As Slaughter pointed out Thursday, many companies today engender a “culture of face time” and are afraid to change or ease up on archaic policies because it’s harder to manage for results (quality of one’s work) than for face time (who has worked the longest hours in the office).

But how can you not feel resentful when a mother of two who has to leave at 3 p.m. to pick up her kids but works late into the night after her kids are asleep is viewed by her teammates as a slacker? How can you not feel resentful when a wife who leaves the physical workspace while it’s still daylight to ensure her marriage remains intact is seen as someone who could never be a go-getter?

We shouldn’t have to feel like we’re choosing one part of our lives that we love dearly over another that we probably love just as much. We wouldn’t have to be superhuman to do it all if we had the right structures and mindset in place that allowed us to bring our whole selves to work.