An integral component of the solution to the perennial problem of “work-life balance” is a long overdue cultural shift in university attitudes towards family life
Number six of *TIME *Magazine’s Top 10 Opinions of 2012 did not refer to any particular event that made international headlines in the past year. Published in *The Atlantic *last summer and having since received over 200,000 Facebook “shares,”**the essay nevertheless makes no mention of the U.S. presidential election, the London Olympics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the Eurozone debt crisis. Yet the issue explored in the article is perhaps of even greater global consequence than any of the events which have recently garnered extensive media coverage, because it confronts women throughout the world, especially in the United States. And it is an issue which perhaps the majority of Stanford women will have to face within just a few years. It is the perennial question: what does work-life balance really mean for women?
Entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” the essay is a six-page exploration of the barriers that prevent “highly educated, well-off” women from simultaneously being good mothers and enjoying the fruits of a prolific career. The author, Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department, talks about her decision to step down from her prestigious position to spend more time with her family. Framing her personal story within the context of a larger social commentary, Slaughter describes that “the decision to step down from a position of power—to value family over professional advancement, even for a time—is directly at odds with the prevailing social pressures on career professionals in the United States.” At this point in American history, she believes that it is simply too difficult for women to flourish both maternally and professionally.
She advocates for “changing the culture of face time, revaluing family values, rediscovering the pursuit of happiness,” a more creative use of technology, and “enlisting men” as but a few elements of the cultural shift that will have to take place before women “can have it all.”
And while these over-arching elements might indeed be necessary for there to be more women in positions of power, I find that they are insufficient. Slaughter’s proposed solutions target only the problematic societal attitudes towards work and family *after *they have already been engrained into the world’s rising young professionals during their university years, where the culture seems only to value the academic, the intellectual, and the professional, with little to no mention of the familial, the relational, and the filial.
That is not to say that universities are not conducive to establishing human relationships. On the contrary, I have made the best friends and have had the best conversations with people I have met at Stanford. And I believe most of my peers feel the same way. Yet there is a difference between promoting intellectual, collegial camaraderie and promoting marriage and family, especially among young women. Heavily influenced by what I believe is the mistaken feminist ideal that looks down upon a woman’s role as wife and mother, Stanford’s culture, like those of most other universities, does little to promote the importance family in its students’ lives.
The result? The unfortunate dilemma that many highly educated women face—guilt if too much time is spent away from the family and regret if many professional opportunities are lost.
So what can be done? It will not be enough to explore female work-life balance in an abstract, academic sense. As the 1885 Founding Grant expressed, a Stanford education exists “to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization.” In other words, Stanford’s is an education that exists for the betterment of society. But with many female Gen Y’ers clamoring for successful professional and personal lives, this prestigious education can no longer afford to ignore the family as the basic unit of society. Stanford should instead foster a climate that celebrates marriage and family, from perhaps even just reminding eager freshmen shaping their professional goals during NSO that these institutions are something to also look forward to, alongside the possibilities for innovation, leadership, and success.
In conclusion, my initial reaction to Slaughter’s article was one of depressed agreement with her arguments. As a Stanford woman very much in the midst of recruiting, the prospects of graduate school, extensive academic and extracurricular obligations, all with very deep ties to my own family and strong hopes for a happy marriage and family of my own, the idea that my dreams are highly unrealistic was very convincing—but only for a moment.
I look to my own mother who, together with my father, established a successful business while raising four children and is happily married after 22 years. Three days after delivering her second daughter—just ten months after starting the business and fourteen months after having me—there she was back at the office, rocking my new baby sister in a bassinette conveniently located next to her desk. I can never recall her not being busy, but she was never—she *is *never—too busy for us.
Though undoubtedly she has given up a lot, she has it all. Her example gives me hope. And if American universities—especially Stanford University—will not only promote education for the betterment of society, but will recognize and promote the family as the basic *unit *of society, I—and the rest of my fellow Stanford women—can continue to hope that we too can have it all.