Women Still Can’t Have It All?


Why Women Can’t Have It All?
Image from TheAtlantic.com

I read an article last year that made the rounds and got a lot of attention – Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. I shared it with family and friends, as well as women in my sorority, to hopefully find some insights and get feedback. Several women were fine with me sharing their story, which I’m finally getting around to today. With the upcoming release of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” book, I thought revisiting this article was timely.


Anne Marie Slaughter
Image from Twitter.com

The original article was written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former first woman director of policy planning in the State Department. This is her dream job, but after her 2-year public service leave from Princeton University where she is a full time professor, she decided to leave the job she thought she has always wanted, in order to have more time for her husband and two teenage sons.

My Life Story

After MIT, I spent 10 years at Northrop Grumman, working in systems engineering and project management. Though I was treated very well and given many opportunities, the smaller number of women who were above me in the organization that had children (mostly women in their late 40s/50s) admitted in private conversations that they tried to not make having children impact their performance at work.  Though flexible work arrangements existed, those who took advantage of them were looked down upon or not taken as seriously with respect to their career progression. So while women engineers and leaders had been part of the work culture for some time, it had been done in a way that ignored/put-off family obligations.

A few years ago I realized I wasn’t enjoying work as much as I used to, and started going to school part time to get a MBA. Using what I learned (as well as finally having the guts to listen to the voice inside that told me I could do it), I left Northrop for the start-up/entrepreneurial world, which has included engineering/business consulting and serving as a COO for a broadband technology system integrator. In addition to the flexibility and choice of how I’m spending my time, I’m also focusing on how to create opportunities for technical women to continue to stay engaged professionally while they are having and raising their children. The model I’m currently developing is simply using smart, experienced consultants to conduct project based work (really no different than normal consulting), but with a specific focus on using a population that I think is under-utilized right now. I think there are much bigger, broader changes in working environments, acceptable norms, etc. that also need to take place, and I’m trying to figure out how to impact those things as I go as well.

My husband Tim and I don’t yet have kids (though we plan to). Part of why I left Northrop when I did was that I knew if I had a baby I would not have chosen to keep going back to the work/environment I was in. So, in classic MIT style, I left to create and do something about it.

Other People’s Stories

Here are some of the responses that I got from my female friends, names are not mentioned for confidentiality reasons:

  • Thanks for this –did a speedy read through of the article and was surprised to feel the need to suppress a giant lump in my throat.  I quickly blinked a few times and swallowed hard before taking a deep breath and reading on….wouldn’t have predicted the strength of that reaction!

Thought a lot about it over the weekend – I find myself both backing away from the “militant feminism” of the generation before me and being overly critical of the generation after me for not understanding how difficult “equality” was to obtain.  But always, wondering who set the standard in the first place?  Why do we all agree that this is the “way things are”?  How can so many of “us” just keep playing “their” game?

There was a riddle from at least 30 years ago, that pointed out my (unconscious) prejudices (which horrified me) and really helped me become more aware of how unexamined assumptions color so much.  What other unconscious prejudices do I hold that prevent full understanding?   I can’t remember the riddle exactly, but the punch line was “ the doctor was the child’s MOTHER”  as the riddle referred to a doctor and the fact that his father was dead and (back then) when you thought of a doctor, it was assumed to be male.  I think of this every time my husband refers to a WOMAN engineer (can you tell it irks me a bit?!?).  Yes, I have a bit of baggage….

But the “having it all” thing is the most relevant, and, I think, where your project really comes into play.  Like the author, I have singularly felt the failure as a parent when things aren’t going well for a child.  My husband is an involved father, and I couldn’t do any of this nearly as well without him, yet he doesn’t blame himself when things aren’t working out.  I keep thinking – if only I’d done this, or said that, or didn’t do this or hadn’t said that……bah!  (Although he blames himself when our financial investments don’t work out, and I have never felt guilty about that.  You can surely make more money – kids’ life paths, not so much…but I’m sure there are unconscious assumptions there, too!)

I can’t help but wonder, what unconscious assumptions go into the idea of “having it all”?  Perhaps a definition would reveal some of the “givens” in this problem set – but it is difficult to determine what you can’t see when you may not even know what’s there.

By creating a different way to “have it all”, and perhaps in the process, redefining “having” or “it” or “all”, and shining light on all those things that we take as a “given”, I believe you will change the world.  I’m eagerly watching you, cheering for you, and sending you a ton of gratitude for taking this one on.

  • I read this article and just about cried.  It touched on a level well beyond anything else I’ve come across.  Thank you so much for sending it to me.

Even without being “movers and shakers” I think most working mothers can identify with this, especially in environments like ours where men dominate the workforce.  You’ve seen it as much as I have where the women who have gotten ahead often tend to be more masculine than sometimes the men themselves.  It’s not always the case, but it’s more the norm than the exception.  And there seems to be too few women who have successfully managed the balance and thrived.  I liked how the examples in the article listed women who do manage and how often they are just “super women” to begin with.  For the everyday person, that’s a tall order.

After my first child, I went back to work and was given less and less responsibility.  My work was becoming less interesting and less challenging.  And yes, I was tired and had a lot of new responsibilities, but the job I was excited about coming to work for was quickly becoming just a place to be everyday for a paycheck.  So, I actually switched companies.  No one thought I would ever leave with a 10-month-old, a husband stationed away from home, and still needing nursing breaks.  But I did and found a better position.  When I first started at my current company, it was definitely the right move.  I thought I would have a much better chance of moving “ahead” when I got here.  I remember talking to another engineer who wasn’t my manager, but was senior to me, and telling him that not to underestimate what I can do.  Even if I didn’t know something now, I was very capable and willing to learn and develop my skill set.  But overall, I kind of think it was the same people, different company.  After my second child, I was allowed quite a bit of flexibility the first year.  Thank goodness for my manager advocating that I can do the work remotely and “why not?”  He was terrific.  But when another manager comes into control of the area, I was quickly brought back in and told I have to be at my desk to do the job, whether classified or unclassified.  He just didn’t feel “comfortable” with me working from home.

I thought I might get more support from the “women who came before me,” but often I would just get commiserating “war stories” more than help.  No one was ever willing to push even if they were in a position to push for me.  The Women’s Network was a perfect example of that.  Should I really have to battle it out for a place to pump milk and do my work?

It’s hard to push and hard to ask when you have ten men in a bay with just me.  When I’m the only one in a department of 100 always “suggesting” something different.  I find myself having “given up” on advancing because I just don’t have the fight at the end of the day.  Sad, but true.  What matters are the little ones and being able to support my family.

I loved the example of the marathon runner and their “dedication” vs. a parent’s.  The perception is amazing.  I can organize 100+ volunteer across 20+ building to meet and greet new hires/interns and my management doesn’t even recognize it.  Or I can organize 33+ activities/demos/presentation/tours all run multiply times per day for 350+ kids and 100+ volunteers and my functional doesn’t even see that as leadership.  I take these on as a personal accomplishment and to create a better work environment, but the perception is “that’s just her volunteer stuff.”  I have heard that…lol.

I came out of school with the idea that I can do anything, but I know that’s not true anymore.  And maybe when they’re older and more independent, I’ll get that fire back.  But sometimes it’s just a matter of getting through the day and holding my own.  So, yes that article means a great deal to me.  I’m passing it around to the various mothers I know.

  • I can surely relate. Having a baby at a very early age hindered me from wanting to finish the IT course that I first took in college. I knew that it would be harder for me in terms of studying. I stayed with my sister and I was responsible for taking care of my daughter when I was at home. Thus the shift to a much easier choice (Business Administration).

When I first worked in a telecommunications company as a message handling specialist (at the time of beepers/pagers) I had a work schedule that had me leave work at 1am. I certainly wasn’t able to handle that then. It was the time when the call centers were not yet existing hence the women on the streets were mostly “working fly by nights”.

I had several jobs as executive assistant to the president of different companies. I was fortunate to work with 2 bosses (different companies), one was male. He was a family man himself, already a grandfather. He allowed me to go home ahead of him if he was still in a meeting with the department heads as long as I have finished everything that was to be done that day. Thank goodness I have good time management skills. The other one was also a mom of a toddler and she was so enjoying her time with her son that she understood what I needed as well. Both employers commended me for doing a great job in the office and as well as bringing up good kids.

Unfortunately I was able to work with a boss who was already almost in her 50’s and was single and no boyfriend (as what I have been told). She required me to go to work before 8am and attend all the different meetings that she had with the department heads and only be able to do my tasks after the usual office hours. I usually went home around 9 or 10pm. As much as the pay was so good and there were bonuses and I loved the challenges in the job (I could meet all her & other department head’s expectations) I had to leave because of the work schedule.

So now I am happy and satisfied with my online work. If only I could find an online job with a fixed monthly pay or something like that as well that would be better.

I think it is true that the society should be changed and not the women. Women should not decide between work and family. There are lots of good and bright mothers out there who just need to be tapped into working with balanced schedules.

Share your Thoughts

So for women who are reading this, want to share your thoughts on why women can’t have it all? Are you in the same boat as us? Or are you still rocking on another boat, trying to have it all?

About Tamra Johnson

I’m an entrepreneur and a recent MBA graduate from UCLA Anderson. I have 10 years of experience in IT Management and Systems Engineering. I love learning, helping others, exploring the world around me, running at the beach, going to concerts, and visiting family and friends. I grew up in Helotes, Texas, went to undergrad in Cambridge, MA, and now live in Venice, CA.
This entry was posted in Ambition, Business, Education, Entrepreneur, Family, Flexible, Mom, Resources, Startup, Technology, Women, Work and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Women Still Can’t Have It All?

  1. Hannah says:

    Thank you for sharing this article and various responses…I think about this topic every day and wonder how I will be able to achieve what I want to professionally and raise a family someday. It is a very important topic and really, thank you for sharing.

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