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In Search of a New Balancing Act

Thirty years passed between the 1982 publication of Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown’s book Having It All, whose popularity transformed its title into cultural shorthand and “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” New America President and CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 Atlantic cover story. Those decades have brought scores of changes that have impacted women’s quest to balance work and family in their lives, and yet, that balancing act is still not a feasible option for so many Americans—women and men, too.

The truth is, it’s nearly impossible to define this “all” that so many of us are all theoretically angling to “have.” And that framing obscures the deep striations of privilege that make this a fundamentally different conversation for the various groups in our society. Does this idea of “having it all,” which dominates magazine covers, even speak to what working families are striving for, or does it simply hinder many potential pathways to building coalitions among disparate communities?

“We are not valuing care,” Slaughter observed at a recent New America event. “If we value care, we will value care when men do it just as much as when women do it.” She and others also believe it’s time to retire the phrase “having it all,” which she grew up thinking “meant that women could have what men had.” Speaking alongside the Labor Project for Working Families’ Carol Joyner, Barclays Vice Chairman of Investment Banking Barbara Byrne, Geller Group Senior Partner Maria Simon, and Breadwinning and Caregiving Director Liza Mundy, Slaughter—whose book, Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family comes out next month—argued, “that frame is exactly counter to the conversation we’re trying to have here,” because it papers over cultural and economic differences.

Let’s start with the top end of the income scale, where flexibility has been helpful, but where progress remains incomplete. Byrne and Simon both work in professions—finance and law—that are known to be recalcitrant when it comes to shifting their culture or making institutional changes. “I would say flexibility is essential,” whether in the form of working from home or by job-sharing, noted Byrne, who negotiated the first paid maternity leave policy at Lehman Brothers in 1987 and has worked remotely at points in her career when she had young children. “My view, quite frankly, was that if the guys could be on a golf course, I could be anywhere,” she said. Pointing to recent developments such as dynamic working programs and emergency on-site daycare, Byrne also forecasted more substantial improvements to come, courtesy of the Millennial generation. “I consider them a gift, because they think differently and they don’t accept no for an answer,” she said. “In a competitive environment…it’s the only thing that’s respected.”

She also described the necessity of building and mentoring teams of colleagues whose mutual trust—along with advancing technology—enables this flexibility. Simon echoed Byrne’s emphasis on trust—a guiding principle at her law firm, which has no physical workplace and whose lawyers and staff are all women with young children. Their time is still structured around billable hours, but employees complete their work on a schedule that can be flexibly arranged around family obligations. The Geller Group’s approach (which was profiled in a recent article in the New York Times) is vastly different from the way most law firms operate, but “we shouldn’t be novel,” Simon opined. “I don’t try to say that this needs to work for everybody, but I think it has to be an option for the type of worker who can really capitalize on it. It [working in law] should not be a one-size-fits-all structure if you don’t need it to be.”

But lower down the wage scale, when it comes to jobs that physically must be done on-site, Joyner pointed out that flexibility can be a double-edged sword at best and nonexistent at worst. Her organization, in partnership with Family Values At Work, focuses its efforts on issues such as fair scheduling practices, paid leave and sick day policies, and pregnancy accommodation. In the last three years alone, she observed, paid sick leave policies have been expanded to include 10 million more workers, largely as a result of pushes made by small and medium-sized business owners who—along with her organization’s coalition partners in 21 states—“see that we’ve got to figure out how to address caregiving and working in America. It doesn’t have to be either-or and it shouldn't just be for people who are middle class or upper middle class and have jobs where they’re considered essential. It should be for everyone.”

Joyner’s comments highlighted the degree to which being able to draw a line between breadwinning and caregiving, or work and life more generally, is for too many an economic privilege in and of itself—a theme reiterated by Tyra Mariani, Managing Partner of Opportunity@Work, in her remarks. Young people looking for first jobs, not to mention caregivers and long-term unemployed folks seeking to return to the workforce, are struggling “without a way to translate their best efforts into progress,” she said. “Training and hiring practices”—especially the requirement of a four-year college degree—are “inadvertently limiting the collective U.S. talent pipeline” and making the “balancing act” between work and family “more of a luxury than a dilemma.”

For communities marginalized by race, class, or gender identity, the work-life balance question highlights not only the historical lack of inclusion implied by “having it all” but also the interconnectedness between work-life balance and other issues—such as labor inequality, lack of access to social services and reproductive healthcare, and challenges to mental health and wellness—faced by those communities. “This conversation has [always] been defined in certain ways—as applying to certain people—and by these ideals of what it used to be and what it wasn’t ever,” asserted Darby Hickey, an LGBT activist and staff for DC Council Member David Grosso.

Hickey, along with Concerned Black Men National Executive Director Leroy Hughes and Executive Director of National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health Jessica González-Rojas, argued for a more inclusive and intersectional understanding of integrating work and family. Often, according to González-Rojas, women who are deciding whether or not to work often have their children cared for by women of color and Latinas, many of whom lack access to either workplace protections or to birth control. “So we have to look at the lack of equality in wages, and again, the valuing of the work” done by women of color who “provide care, and love, and nurturing of the children while many of these women who are privileged” and able to go out to work.

For Hughes, Executive Director, having the resources to support families and sustain mental wellness is critical as well. “Because if we don’t deal with the issues now as far as our families are concerned—whether you’re a person of color or not—we will have to deal with those implications later,” Hughes emphasized. Hickey agreed, calling access to services a “huge issue in many communities, including the LGBT community…[where] everyday existence is a mental health challenge.”

“So many of our [social policy] structures are still very much stuck in the past,” observed Brigid Schulte, Washington Post staff writer and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Across a diverse exchange of ideas from a variety of discussants, most affirmed what Joyner described as a broad-based need, “in a strategic, thoughtful way that affects both culture and policy,” to do more to “create structures for all workers that afford them a modicum of work-life balance.”

Progress will certainly be messy and incomplete. “If you look at these organizations, they’re changing in some ways,” said Byrne, “[while] in some ways it’s [still] 1962.” But, she said, “in order to change the industry such as the one that I’m in, you need to have women at the top of the organization who say, ‘we need to do this now. We need to make these changes and I insist upon it.’ I’m not leaving until we get it the way it needs to be. I have three daughters and one son and it’s for all of them you say ‘I have the voice, I have the ability, I can get to effective change.’”

To read more, you can click here to join the ongoing #NewBalancingAct roundtable discussion on Context, New America’s Medium channel.


Jane Greenway Carr is an opinion editor at She was previously an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Public Fellow and a Contributing Editor at New America, where she helped to produce The Weekly Wonk.