Anne-Marie Slaughter made a splash this summer with an article in the Atlantic called "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," chronicling her decision to leave a prestigious State Department job to spend more time with her teenage sons. This week, Slaughter published a short follow-up article on the foreign-policy impact of workplace policies that lead women to "opt out" -- and the factors that make many successful women unwilling to discuss these issues openly.
"[I]ndividual women and men … tell me privately that they appreciated the essay I wrote for the Atlantic," Slaughter writes, but "[m]y decision to talk in such specific gender terms is still deeply uncomfortable for many. Foreign policy is a very male world. The women who have made it are a small and close club, all committed to advancing the careers of younger women and worried that even engaging in this conversation could make it harder to break those glass ceilings."
Let me fess up: I'm one of those people -- one of those women -- who has privately agreed with Slaughter's take on women in foreign-policy jobs and the gendered nature of the workplace but has until now refrained from wading into the public debate.
But Slaughter -- whom I know and admire -- has it right: Foreign policy remains for the most part a boys' club, and that goes double for national security policy. During my recent stint at the Pentagon, I grew so accustomed to being one of the only women in the room that I almost stopped noticing it. Outside government, it's not much different. There are plenty of women in the room if the topic relates to "soft" issues like human rights or development -- but if the topic relates to the so-called "hard" security issues, such as defense and intelligence policy, those participating in the discussions are almost all men.
This magazine is no exception. Foreign Policy's top editor is a woman, but take a look at the current list of regular columnists and bloggers and count the women. Go ahead: It won't take you long, because at the moment there's only one. That's me. And, yes, I'm feeling kind of lonely.
Slaughter is also right that most women find talk of gender issues uncomfortable. Those women left outside the foreign-policy power boys' club worry that if they raise gender issues they'll be perceived as resentful whiners, asking for "special" treatment or trying to blame their exclusion on gender rather than talent. Those women inside the boys' club -- the honorary boys -- are often all too aware of the precariousness of their status and may worry that raising gender issues will cause them to be taken less seriously or, worse, that they may be perceived as self-pitying or self-serving, determined to guilt-trip their male colleagues.
Given this context, Slaughter's call for an open discussion of gender issues in the foreign-policy workplace is both important and courageous -- and she shouldn't have to be out there alone. So I'll join her, because she speaks for almost every woman I know in the foreign-policy world, and for many men too.
It's past time to rethink our standard assumptions about how the workplace "naturally" functions. In the foreign-policy world, as in many other professional spheres, success and prestige depend as much on being ubiquitous as on being talented. In high-powered government jobs, working long hours continues to be viewed as a sign of seriousness. (You're going home at 5:30? Obviously you aren't committed to protecting the nation.)
Even those outside government face pressure to be ubiquitous: Important people go to lunch-time workshops at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, hobnob at book parties and think-tank conferences, and make the rounds at the Council on Foreign Relations' holiday party.
All this is hard to do for those people with significant family responsibilities -- and in our gendered society, that means all this is particularly hard for women. (And I'm talking about affluent professionals. The difficulties faced by low-income women, who often work punishing hours out of stark economic necessity rather than the desire to climb a career ladder, are different and far more acute). Although the average man today does more housework and childcare than the average man did a generation ago, the average woman still does twice as much as the average man. Married women remain far more likely than married men to take the kids to the doctor, pack the kids' lunches, chaperone the school field trips, get up in the middle of the night with the baby, and so on. Women are also far more likely than men to be single parents.
In practice, this means -- as Slaughter has noted -- that many talented, educated women opt out in ways large and small. They skip the evening receptions because they need to be home to put the children to bed. They cede to their male colleagues the "hot" crisis issues that require attendance at weekend meetings. They decline the interesting foreign trips that would give them face time with the boss, because who's going to take care of the kids? They turn down the job close to the center of power because they don't think it's compatible with maintaining meaningful family relationships. Sometimes, they opt out altogether.