Debunking the Work-Life Balance Myth
Why Christian women are needed at home and in the highest echelons of society
By now everyone who cares, and some who don't, have heard about Ann-Marie Slaughter's exhaustive Atlantic cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." The sub-blurb heightens the controversy:
It's time to stop fooling ourselves …. The women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, here's what has to change.
I've always found cheerleading inexplicable, but while reading Slaughter's 12,000+-word treatise, I felt a powerful urge to don a flippy skirt, grab a pom-pom, and lead a stadium of women in a cheer: "Sis Boom Bah! No More La-Dee-Dah!" Slaughter, who broke several glass ceilings as the first woman dean at Woodrow Wilson School of Law and as first woman director of policy planning under Hillary Clinton, dared to do the unthinkable: She stepped down from her high-level position to spend more time with her struggling teenage sons.
Slaughter boldly takes on the myths of feminism perpetuated most recently by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Both women are addressing the persistently low numbers of women in high levels of government and corporate leadership, despite decades of feminist ideology and greater gains among women in education and influence. Sandberg blames it on an "ambition gap." Women are giving up positions of power to prioritize their families, but they can do better. If they're committed enough, if they marry the right person, if they sequence their childbearing correctly, they can have it all. Or so goes the mantra.
But Slaughter effectively guts these myths. The real obstacles to successfully managing both a career and family life, she argues, lie in outdated, one-dimensional thinking in our workplaces. For too long we have thought in exclusive categories: If you're committed to your work, you'll spend as much time as possible at the office. If you talk about your family at work, you're less professional. The greater your devotion to work and the more time you spend, the more productive you'll be, and so on.
She gives us homework we can all do right now: to begin breaking down the artificial borders between these essential parts of our lives. Slaughter leads the way. "When I was dean, I was very conscious of openly saying, 'I have to go to a parent-teacher meeting. I have to go home for dinner.' What kind of society doesn't let us say these things?"
Slaughter's unrelenting affirmation of the importance of family, and the need to rethink our workplace obsession, will endear her to some evangelicals. But I fear some readers will drop the magazine when she writes this:
"The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a 'new gender gap'—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders."
Despite this statement, Slaughter's cause célèbre is not feminism. She is intensely interested in the well-being of families, of mothers and fathers, of workers and employers. Her cause is humanism, the well-being of all. To advance this cause, we need to bring the best minds to the hardest problems in the highest realms of leadership. As long as our work culture virtually excludes women with families from rising to leadership positions, we're losing needed brainpower and perspective. The means of achieving better representation, creating a more fluid environment that places a higher value on family, will benefit all.
Where are Christian women in all this? Can Christian women have it all, too? Several Christian friends who read this article thought Slaughter's life and perspective were "sad" and "joyless," comments that reveal a suspicion of ambitious women. We—the church and even other Christian women—don't know what to do with highly educated and accomplished women. We often wrongly assume that those who aspire to powerful positions do so out of pride and self-seeking, and we offer the biblical model of the servant-leader as a corrective.
Yet it's clear to me that Slaughter and other highly placed women spend their days and nights serving—that is to say, leading, that is to say, serving for the benefit of many. I detect little ego in their extraordinary schedules and efforts. Nor do I require explicit joy from them. I do find much hope in Slaughter's words, and I sense an implicit understanding that "to whom much is given, much is required" (Luke 12:48).
We Christians also tend, at times, to view women who are confident and successful in the workplace as less feminine, less submissive, perhaps even less godly than women in more traditional roles. As both sides run to Proverbs 31 to proof-text their choice, we must all admit that the virtuous woman is almost obsessively industrious, leading and serving inside and outside her household walls—as did Deborah the judge, Miriam, and Queen Esther, among other pillars of the faith.
Because of these biblical models, and after my own decades of experience in churches, colleges, and businesses run almost exclusively by men, my advice to young Christian women is changing. I still encourage women in their homemaking lives, a life I am immersed in as well. But I also encourage Christian women to aspire to graduate degrees and positions of influence. It is clear to me that the church, the government, and the culture in general will not become healthier without the involvement of more women. We will not earn those positions without a renewed commitment to faith, to education, and to the wider world.
But, as Slaughter so clearly outlines, we need more than that. With tens of thousands of Christian women graduating from U.S. state and Christian universities every year, the potential for godly influence is growing rapidly. But without changes in our work and home lives, without husbands and wives working together and sharing tasks, this potential won't be fully realized.
Christian women need to be empowered to follow their calling and their gifts. As Christian women, we can have it all and we should: which means, we must be full participants in the creation of a healthy, vital culture where work is honored, God is served, and families are loved and secure.