The extraordinarily important nugget you missed in Anne Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic piece about gender equality and careers

Talk about work-life balance: it is only today, several days after its publication, that I’ve had the time to read Anne Marie Slaughter’s cover story in the July 2012 issue of The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” (which, as of today, has been recommended on Facebook approximately 178,000 times), as well as her first response to the storm of comments that flooded in as soon as readers saw it, “The ‘Having It All’ Debate Convinced Me To Stop Saying ‘Having It All’”. (Suggested alternative tags: #StumblingTowardParity,‬ #PushingForBetter,‬ #StillWorkingOnIt,‬ #GuysThisIsYourProblemToo,‬ #DemandingMoreForMoreOfUs,‬ #Feminism).

What an extraordinary woman! What a privilege to have had such role models as Hillary Clinton. And what courage in rocking a boat that many of our predecessors couldn’t rock, and many younger women – as she points out – seem to be giving up on rocking.

And here’s what’s been missing from the debate: the full implications of this paragraph in Slaughter’s essay (emphasis added).

The best hope for improving the lot of all women [...] is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.

The issue is: how do we get to parity at the top in politics, in business, and in judicial ranks? Well, the standard American answer is: you vote for women and elect them, for elected posts; you promote a meritocracy in business; You change the culture in the workplace; you ask women to keep spinning their wheels, in the meantime, until they get traction.

And that’s why it doesn’t work. Many talented women decline to seek political office, or “leave before they leave” (in Sheryl Sandberg’s words) in the corporate world, because they feel that, even if they gain that extra ounce of power, the odds will be even more ruthlessly stacked against them. The rate of progress is just too slow. Or negative. Take a couple of data points:

  • In 1998, Catalyst projected in their their Census of Women Board Directors that, at the then-current rate of change, it would take 66 years, until 2064, for women to reach parity with men in the ranks of Fortune 500 boards.
  • In 2007, Catalyst projected that, at the then-current rate of change, it would take 73 years for women to reach parity with men in the ranks of Fortune 500 boards.

I believe that, in publishing more recent editions of the study, they’ve quit publishing any such extrapolations. For good reason, it seems.

When all else has failed, why have we kept trying the same recipes? Even Slaughter’s recommendations – no matter how lucid her analysis – see to me to fall short. Changing the culture of “face time”; redefining the arc of a successful career; rediscovering the pursuit of happiness; using technology and creativity; enlisting men – all are worthwhile efforts, and I praise her for spelling them out once again. But they’re not enough. We need to change the rules.

Let’s mandate gender parity in the candidate pool for elections. Let’s start linking campaign finance ceilings to the number of women a party gets elected: the more you achieve gender parity in the posts you win, the more funds you can raise. And let’s not forget – let’s mandate gender equality in corporate boards: how else do you think the Norwegians got to 40%? Similar measures have been passed, although at a much slower pace, to promote women’s board membership in Spain and Italy. EU Commissioner Viviane Reding, after a consultation on the topic, is said to be planning to introduce a draft directive this October mandating at least a 40% board participation by each gender.

Slaughter’s essay shows the need for a bold stand, but refrains from taking it. It is time for us, in America and elsewhere, to acknowledge that we need to put in place the right rules. As in the variously-attributed quote, insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. Let’s try something different: the worst that can happen is that it will be a different sort of mistake. And it’s well worth trying: if we succeed, we will have created a better world for our daughters.

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