By most measures, I have it all: fulfilling work, a wonderful family and friends. At least, that’s the 10,000-foot view. Come a little closer and you get a clearer picture of my life, which includes disastrous meetings, unpaid bills and epic mom mess-ups.
Despite appearing to have it all, I want more and I’m getting pretty fed up with the assumption that it can’t happen. I blame this defeatist attitude on the fruitless discourse that has dominated any discussion about women’s advancement in business with one question: “Can women have it all?”
This irritating question assumes that if you don’t have it all, you have nothing – that it’s a zero-sum game. Anyone who has ever been married, or had children, or has aging parents, or has suffered any sort of serious illness – the list goes on – knows that life is never perfect and that you constantly have to adapt to changing circumstances.
So, it’s time to put an end to this puerile “having it all” madness. For one, this meaningless term serves only to make the most successful women feel like failures. On a broader level, it also implies that the feminist dream of having equal opportunities is inherently flawed.
Rather than continue this debate, we owe it to ourselves, and future generations, to refocus our attention on real issues: a stubborn wage gap, the underrepresentation of women in senior roles and covert discrimination in the workplace.
At the same time, let’s continue to highlight successes, which include Janet Yellen’s nomination as the first chairwoman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board and Kathleen Taylor’s appointment as the first woman to chair a board of directors at a major Canadian bank.
Before ending this chapter, it’s important to recognize that this “woe-is-me” discussion started out with the best of intentions when Anne-Marie Slaughter eloquently wrote about being pulled apart by her role at the U.S. State Department and the needs of her struggling, teenage son. Then Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In and invited women to take more chances, while suggesting their husbands change more diapers. Recently, Debora Spar, the president of New York’s Barnard College, weighed in with her own book, Wonder Women, where she proposes that the success of feminism led women to think, “because we could do anything, we felt as if we had to do everything.”
Hundreds of other people have weighed in on what it means to have it all, not only in the conventional sense but how it relates to men, the child free, and even women who don’t want it all. Jennifer Hawkins, vice-president and general manager of merchant services at American Express Canada, calls having it all a “poor term that can actually set ourselves up for failure.” Expecting harmonious work-life balance at all times is unrealistic. Yet, she also suggests that it’s time to step back and realize that this conversation was born from an abundance of opportunity.
“We have so many more options than our mothers and grandmothers had. And because we have so many more options, we’re trying to balance more opportunities,” she added.
This wealth of options may come as little solace to the many professional women too busy struggling with day-to-day obstacles to worry about the future of this conversation. And we owe it to them in particular to move away from this impossible-to-define notion.
“I see the ‘having it all’ conversation as an artifact from a world that has since moved on. It’s based on assumptions about work that are no longer true for the majority of workers,” said Jane Watson, a human resources professional in Toronto and blogger at TalentVanguard.com.
Ms. Watson explained that those who want children don’t have the option to bow out of the work force when you consider today’s landscape – which includes contract work, stagnant wages, unemployment and the rising cost of housing and child care.
“Given the economic and employment picture over the last several years, I would argue that most women no longer have a choice – they have to do both because having a family, and a home, and child care requires two decent salaries, or if raising children without a partner, one very good salary. So, I guess at the core of my annoyance with ‘having it all’ is that most of those conversations focus on high-powered executive women, who can usually afford to hire help, and ignores the fact that the vast majority of women travel both of these avenues, and don’t have much choice in the matter,” she said.
No one asks men whether they can have it all and nor should we ask women. Let’s be more reasonable and talk about the many ways that individuals and families can adapt to support everyone’s needs and ambitions, by whatever yardstick by which they choose to measure. It’s time to focus on the real problems.
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org