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Have Children Someday? No Way?

posted by Robert Clark staff Staff Profiles Desktops & Documents rclark Desktop Sandberg Lean InWhen is the “right time” to have children?  What challenges will children bring to balancing career and life?  Will the rewards of being a mother outweigh the sacrifices?  If your habit is to give 150 percent to your job, where, realistically, will energy and time for family come from?  What does it mean to “have it all”?

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, answered such questions by offering women advice about how to climb the corporate ladder and raise children: exude confidence, get noticed, do not be afraid to negotiate, and make oneself be perceived as being as fully present and motivated as male peers, even when one is planning a family.  Sandberg made those points and others in a video-lecture on the TED website, which led to a bestselling book (Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead). She then founded an organization for women to promote her ideas.  The TED talk has had 2,533,238 views as of June 5th, 2013.  Sandberg’s all-available-channels strategy reached a huge audience. 

Anne-Marie Slaughter, an expert on international policy and law, has a different perspective.  An article she wrote for The Atlantic magazine cited Sandberg, explained where they disagreed, and quickly went viral.  Instead of focusing on individuals, Slaughter—a former Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department—pointed out that despite lip service to “family values” and the empowerment of women, practical changes to corporate practices were essential if women were truly, and in large numbers, to lead them. She stressed that if more women were leaders, it would be a profitable outcome for companies and talent-enriching one for nations.  Her article is entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

Garden-variety journalists reported this discussion under the cliché headline “The Mommy Wars,” using what editors call the “conflict formula” to enliven articles.  Supposedly at war were:  rich women vs. working moms, older vs. younger feminists, professions like law and university teaching vs. social media entrepreneurs, or Conservative vs. Liberal values.

Craftier writers at Salon, The Huffington Post, and Slate attacked the media instead.  They pointed out that the media (that is, the rest of the media) were simply churning up a dispute to gain attention. Most articles misrepresented women, work and careers, and oversimplified a complex subject. All true.  The clever writers often ended by noting the vile dilemma that whatever choice women made, someone would criticize them for it. But what were mothers, or those who want to be mothers, to do?   

Let’s look to common prejudices and business for one answer.  I am male and have no children and therefore disqualified from more definite suggestions. 

Consider financial rewards and bedrock cultural values.  Do Americans ever want to hear that any person is not the lone master of his or her own soul?  How popular is the message that someone cannot rise to any height that their hard work and other virtues will take them?  Let’s compare the sales of self-help books and serious books about social policy for our answer.  But the ideals of radically individualistic success of Ben Franklin, Emerson, Fitzgerald and Hemingway (with severe caveats) and, perhaps especially, Helen Gurley Brown, the long-time editor of Cosmopolitan who coined the phrase “having it all,” could all be brought into evidence.

Then tally the lucrative rewards for projects with dubious social worth.  Self-help books always have one, or even two, helpful hints.  But, since Samuel Smiles wrote one of the first ones, (Self Help, 1845) guides to self-improvement rarely contain enough wisdom to truly change the reader. They also seldom provide insight into the larger forces that help to shape the reader’s life.  That is why the genre is a goldmine: readers buy one after another self-help book after feeling a brief lift from each.

Anne-Marie Slaughter has been a policy-maker, scholar, professor of law and writer for popular audiences—four strikes against her for those who think those occupations must mean that she is impractical.  Sheryl Sandberg, as successful as she has been in business, and as sexy and new as social media may be, wrote a tweaked but predictable self-help guide. Slaughter delivered less appealing news: corporations and academia are still sexist, they undervalue family life, and schedules and work rules and even the notion of success really do have to change. Picking the right life-partner, or a strategic sequence-plan to raise children, does not solve the problems. That remains true no matter how committed to work, how talented they are, or what kind and level of occupation women choose. 

Listen to Sandberg as well as Slaughter. There is far more overlap in their arguments than the conflict model of journalism suggests. For young women realistic about succeeding, the more ideas that go beyond the individual, the less they think the choice is only about their own situation and values, the greater the chance that they will actually lead.

Robert Clark

Sheryl Sanberg’s TED talk:\

Ann-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic


Topics: social media, women and work, lean in, sandberg, mommy wars, self help

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