Can women actually balance work and home life?

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, talks about her Atlantic article on whether or not women really can balance careers and home lives.

Kai Ryssdal: A couple of years ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter was quite literally at the top of her profession. A professor of international relations at Princeton, she was on a two-year leave to work directly for Hillary Clinton at the State Department. Challenging, engaging and important work in her chosen field.

Until she decided it wasn't working for her anymore. That her family needed her more than her job did. That despite the line that women can have it all, they really can't. At least not the way things work now.

Anne-Marie Slaughter will be the first to say that according most definitions, she does have it all. But she writes in the latest edition of the Atlantic Magazine that more women ought to be able to as well. Anne Marie Slaughter, welcome to the program.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Great to be here.

Ryssdal: You believe, and you say in this piece, that women can have it all -- but not the way the world works today, not the way society is structured. How do we get from here to where you want us to be, then?

Slaughter: Well, we start by having a really honest conversation about the barriers. And the reason I wrote the piece was that simply telling younger women: 'You can do it.' You know, if you want it badly enough, and if you marry the right person -- it's not enough. I don't think that's honest. A lot of women are out there blaming themselves when in fact, we can make a lot of changes. We can make it much easier for women, and again, men, to work outside the office as many sort of new innovative businesses are already doing. We can make it such that women and men can take time out in the sense of deferring promotions. And we can change the way we look at both men and women and say, 'Look, wanting to spend time with your kids does not make you any less a committed professional.'

Ryssdal: So you want it to be our choice, right? Whether it's a woman's choice or a man's choice? I mean, you can be a female heart surgeon, but it's tough to be a female heart surgeon and a full-time mom.

Slaughter: Absolutely. So I would say to young women: 'You want to be a heart surgeon -- just like I would say to a man -- then you really do need a mate who is going to be willing to be there for the kids more or less full-time. And frankly, you're going to have to recognize that there's going to be a lot of times when there's going to be a lot of tugging in terms of your heartstrings and your emotions, but that's the choice you've made.' But then I want to say to other women: 'Look, you can do it with kids if you have more flexibility.' I think we can make this kind of change, but we have to really be honest, first of all, and then committed.

Ryssdal: There's a current events part of this as well, as you try to generate this discussion to change what happens in the workplace in America and society. We're a country with 8.2 percent unemployment, we're down 8 million jobs from the beginning of the recession. What's the incentive to change the structure now when we're still trying to figure out how to get the employment going?

Slaughter: I'd say immediately, again, the demographic that I'm writing for, that's not the demographic that's unemployed, right? So the people I'm talking about have options, but they are not exercising those options in various ways because they feel deeply conflicted or they just can't make it work. They can't have young children and fully high-powered job, or teenagers and a fully high-powered job. And we've got to somehow put more play in those joints.

Ryssdal: Would you have given up your chance to run policy planning in the State Department for Hillary Clinton to have had a more active time with your children in their early teenage years?

Slaughter: No.

Ryssdal: A ha, a ha! Right, I mean...

Slaughter: And that's part of the message. I'm not saying, 'Look, you can't have these things.' I am saying the toll is high, and I expected that if I had the opportunity to stay, absolutely I'd stay. But when the time was up, I was very anxious to go home and very glad to be home. But no, I wouldn't give it up for those two years, but those two years are going to be all I could manage at this stage of my life and career.

Ryssdal: Anne-Marie Slaughter is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton by day. By night, and full-time, actually, she's a mom. She's got two boys. Anne-Marie, thanks a lot.

Slaughter: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

Ryssdal: The article she wrote, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," is in the July/August issue of the Atlantic.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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