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Anne-Marie Slaughter's example

Georgia Grimond | September 13th 2012

Following our series on 15 inspiring women, we wondered which other names might have been included. Who would the rest of us have picked? The nominations have to be or have been in the public eye—so that ruled out most people nominating their mums.

The choice, unfortunately, is limited. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO and an über-impressive lady, might win your vote. As a female high-flier, she lamented the paucity of women at the top in a now-famous TED talk given in 2010 called "Why we have too few women leaders". The statistics she cited make the case: of all the people in parliament in the world, only 13% are women; of 190 heads of state worldwide, only nine are women; and even in the non-profit sector—which is often thought of as a female sphere—only about 20% of top-level jobs are held by women. The numbers have hardly changed, and only last week the British prime minister David Cameron sacked or demoted four out of the five women in his cabinet (of 31). This, despite a pre-election promise to have a third of the cabinet comprised of women.

So who are women meant to look up to? Someone like Anne-Marie Slaughter, perhaps? But even Slaughter, a Princeton professor of politics and international affairs, ex-government adviser and mother, feels she has "airbrushed reality" for younger generations of women. Her recent article in the Atlantic, "Why women still can't have it all", documents why. Her generation's determination not to "drop the flag", she says, has alienated young women who see clearly the conflict between work and family. "Only recently have I begun to appreciate the extent to which many young professional women feel under assault by women my age," she wrote.

For me, a 28-year-old woman, her words are welcome. The article admits a fallacy that I have never heard uttered before. My generation has been brought up to believe they can "have it all" (by which Slaughter means a career and a family, a life like most men), and, more importantly, that they should have it all; don't let the sisterhood down. It's a relief to know it is not necessarily possible, and that is not because of our own short-comings. Slaughter concludes that the problem is the result of the way working life is organised. For that reason it is fixable and she offers solutions: more flexible working hours, changes in working culture and rethinking the career arc.

Other women advised Slaughter not to write the article—it would be "a terrible signal to younger generations," they said—but I'm pleased that she did. It has provoked debate around a subject that has been sidelined for too long, and it moves the conversation on. There is little more inspirational than someone speaking out against the odds, admitting fallibility and proposing a way forward. So, for those reasons, Anne-Marie Slaughter gets my vote.