Yes, Women Can Have It All (But That’s Not the Point)

On the heels of Jacinda Ardern’s surprise declaration that she is stepping down as New Zealand’s Prime Minister, the BBC ran an article with the headline, “Can women really have it all?” After getting backlash for the anti-feminist take, the headline was changed…but the sentiment persists.

It’s an unfortunate spin, but not an unexpected one. Many women leaders are carrying the expectations of an entire gender. Imagine, if you will, that the media ran this headline in 2022: “Boris Johnson resigns as UK Prime Minister: Can men really have it all?” I expect you’re struggling to imagine this…because it would never happen. The rules are different for men. Johnson’s story is…just about Johnson. Ardern’s somehow reflects on all women.

I’ve admired Ardern for her decisive and empathetic leadership. Following a deadly church shooting, she advocated for the passage of strict gun regulations; the first new laws were passed a month following the attack. She took swift and decisive action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, closing New Zealand’s borders and issuing a nationwide lockdown. As a result, the country largely avoided any cases until 2022, at which point much of the population was fully vaccinated. (Ardern’s approach is widely recognized as one of the world’s most successful COVID-19 strategies.) Ardern also tackled the challenge of climate change head on, declaring an emergency and pledging the government will be carbon neutral by 2025.

Throughout uncertain times, Ardern has been widely communicative, demonstrated empathy, and made science-based policy decisions. With other world leaders inciting violence, engaging in sex scandals, bumbling crisis responses, deflecting blame, prioritizing politics over health and safety…I’ve found Arden inspiring. Her passionate speech to the United Nations last September resonated with me. 

When she took office over five years ago, Ardern became the youngest female head of government in the world, and she was only the second elected world leader to give birth while in office (her daughter is now four years old).

So, clearly women can have it all – lead a country, tackle never-before-seen challenges, and raise a young child. Ardern is paving new ground, and many eyes are upon her. Her mere presence as New Zealand Prime Minister will open doors for others.

While she can do it all…Ardern is making a choice. A difficult, personal choice, which I admire. “I am leaving because with such a privileged role, comes responsibility,” Ardern said in an emotional speech. “The responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead, and also, when you are not. I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple.” This is not reflective of Ardern’s abilities, it’s her decision. And it’s certainly not reflective of all women.

Nevertheless, it stirs up a long-standing debate around the uncompromising expectations of women in demanding work roles (particularly senior leadership positions) and the impossible challenge of achieving “work-life balance.” It’s an ongoing discussion I’ve had with friends and colleagues for decades, and it’s something I’ve grappled with myself.  

I remember well the 2012/13 era – when Anne-Marie Slaughter published an Atlantic article entitled “Why women still can’t have it all” and Sheryl Sandberg published her book Lean In. At the time, I had three young children, was commuting an hour each way to work, and was leading a large global team. I was “all in”! And I was unabashedly pro-Sandberg and anti-Slaughter…appalled that, in that day and age, a woman would suggest that it wasn’t possible to have both a big leadership role and a thriving family. Look at Sheryl Sandberg! Look at Hillary Clinton! Look at Ruth Bader Ginsburg!

I re-read Slaughter’s article recently and can confirm that the points she makes are real and insightful. There are unique challenges women face, the burdens and expectations, the choices, and the guilt. I felt her struggle giving up a senior role in Washington to be with her family (and continue her fulltime job as a Princeton professor) – something she absolutely wanted to do. She called those who managed to be both mothers and top professionals “superhuman.”

Serena Williams (someone who in my opinion is superhuman) described it clearly: “Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.” (Tom Brady has three kids and still plays professional football at age 45.)

So, what does it mean to “have it all”? Who defines it? And why is there a perception that one size fits all?

I’ve taken pride in proving (mostly to myself) that I could “do it all”: hold a senior executive position, travel the world, engage clients, lead global teams, launch products…and be a mom, serve as class parent, cook meals, send holiday cards, lead a Girl Scouts troop, and start a blog. I’ve been proud of my ability to juggle the various activities, always at the mercy of my calendar, keeping up with my incessant to-do list. I’ve remained motivated by getting things done and making a difference.

There have been times, though, when it’s become a treacherous balancing act. My heaviest work demands seem to coincide with when my children need me most. (This is not unusual, as women are having kids later, we are assuming senior leadership roles as our children are still at home and reliant on parental engagement.) I find work travel grueling and struggle to be away from home; I zip in and out of legendary international destinations as fast as possible in order to return for that hockey game or band concert or simply to help with homework and discuss the day over dinner. These are the moments I don’t want to miss. And this is my choice.

Once, I took time off from work entirely for about eight months. I’ve never regretted that decision, as it was the right choice for me and what my family needed at the time. I was fortunate that my management at work supported my leave of absence. But I was troubled stepping away – guilty for letting my team down and fearful about what message it would send. Would others say (or just think), “Maybe women can’t have it all”? That additional burden puts too much weight on a personal decision.

Let’s stop having the debate about capabilities (yes, women can do it all!). An individual’s choice should not be used to make judgements or draw generalizations about an entire gender. And how we define success may vary from person to person and at different points in our lives. Only when we shift the conversation to what women want and need and support their choices will women truly have it all.

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

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