New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Election 2024
26 October 2015

Women can’t have it all – because the game is rigged

Work-life balance is a myth. It’s time for women to stop blaming themselves and start demanding change.

By Laurie Penny

Can women have it all? That this is still a major ethical dilemma of mainstream feminism shows how far we’ve still got to go. Yes, even though they’ve taken the nudes out of Playboy. The answer is less important than the fact that the question is vapid. Here’s a better one: when did the message that ‘girls can do anything’ get twisted into the edict: ‘girls must do everything?’

 Ann-Marie Slaughter’s new book ’Unfinished Business’ claims to solve the problem of ‘work-life balance’, extrapolating from Slaughter’s much-discussed article in the Atlantic, where she revealed why she quit a prestigious washington career to spend more time with her two sons. The piece was titled ‘Why women still can’t have it all.’  ‘’Having it all,’ to be clear, does not mean ‘time to write a book, the total destruction of capitalist patriarchy and my very own puppy,’ which is what I’d have if I had everything I wanted. No, the ‘it all’ that every girl is supposed to want has a very specific meaning: it means the ability to simultaneously meet the demands of marriage, children and a high-powered career. Slaughter fails to ask whether this is what all women do want, or should want – but even within such a narrow scope, her solutions are timid. 

The message of “Unfinished Business” is that in order to keep everyone happy, you must simply try harder. It’s difficult to please your boss, your husband and your kids at once, so you must think harder about how you’re going to do it without dissolving into a tangle of shredded nerves in a crumpled skirt-suit. All of this is just an updated version of what we have been told for centuries: women are supposed to work twice as hard as men, for half the reward, a saying I’ve always understood as a coded threat.

Somehow, modern women have allowed ourselves to be convinced that the right to work outside ‘the home’ is the only liberation that matters – never mind that working-class women and women of colour have always worked outside the home. Slaughter isn’t really talking to them, a fact that she acknowledges in three lines in the introduction, before going back to reframe the debate towards those women lucky enough enough to have a supportive partner, a lucrative career, and the option to pay other people to look after their kids sometimes. Note that nobody is asking whether the nanny can have it all, even if she wants it.

For those few women who might be able to have ‘it all’, the programme sounds utterly exhausting. As I toiled through the latter chapters of career advice, wondering exactly when this notional working mother is meant to sleep, I realised with horror that Slaughter is talking to me. Specifically to me, and to people like me- middle-class, largely white women in professional careers who are at the stage of thinking seriously about how we might to juggle work and children. We’re not supposed to ask if we want to do that, only how we’ll manage.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

I’m twenty-nine years old. It is possible that my biological clock is ticking, but I don’t know, because I can’t hear it over the racket of propaganda from the media, the movies, friends and relatives, all of it exhorting me and every other woman of so-called ‘childbearing age’ to settle down and make babies before it’s too late.  

Actually, I’d love to have a child someday. But in this unequal world, my circumstances seem to be aligning so that what I would have to sacrifice in order to make that happen is more than I’m able, or willing to give. That’s not an admission of weakness. It’s a statement of priorities of the kind which women and girls are encouraged not to make in public. Instead, we are supposed to hoard up our guilt in private – whatever it is we eventually choose. If we put our careers first, we’re selfish. If we devote ourselves to children and care work, we’re lazy, or we’re spoiled. If we try to juggle both at once, we’re unable to give either our full attention.  The engine of capitalist patriarchy runs on the dirty fuel of women’s shame, so whatever we choose, the important thing is that we blame ourselves. That way, we don’t blame the system.

Little boys don’t get sold this nonsense They’re not encouraged to worry about how they’ll balance their roles as husbands and fathers with paid work. Family life, for men, is not supposed to involve a surrendering of the self, as it is for women. Young men do not worry about how they will achieve a ‘work-life’ balance, nor does the ‘life’ aspect of that equation translate to ‘partnership and childcare.’ Not for men. When commentators speak of women’s ‘work-life balance’, they’re not talking about how much time a woman will have, at the end of the day, to work on her memoirs, or travel the world. ‘Life’, for women, is simply another word for work, a route-march through child-rearing and domestic labour which is assumed to be the ultimate destination of every woman’s passions. ‘Life’, for men, is meant to be bigger than that.

It’s not that I don’t respect the choice to devote yourself to raising children. On the contrary – I can’t stand the overplayed phobia of maternity that has become fashionable amongst parts of the young left, the sneering at ‘mummy clothes’ and avoidance of ‘nappy valley’. The more of my friends and colleagues that have children, the more I respect the enormity of the project, the tremendous efforts and risks involved. Childcare is vital, demanding work, work that we urgently need to stop devaluing- and we can only do that when we start giving women and girls real alternatives.

More than anything, Slaughter’s book is a missed opportunity. The radical truth at the core of her story is that even a woman with all of her privilege – a lucrative, prestigious career, a loving, supportive husband and a boss who happened to be Hilary Clinton- even she could not make it work. She could not ‘have it all’.  The obvious conclusion ought to be that that the ‘work-life balance’ is a lie of leviathan proportions. Instead, Slaughter falls back to a type of magical thinking, at once tragic and predictable: we can achieve ‘work-life balance’ if we just work harder. 

There was, until quite recently, a powerful movement within women’s liberation to acknowledge enforced ’reproductive labour’ – childcare, housework and caring for husbands and elderly relatives – as a source of women’s oppression. There was a demand, in Judith Butler’s words, not just for equal work for equal pay, ‘but for equal work itself.’  It is not these words that spring to mind, however, so much as the mantra of Bartleby, the Scrivener, the stubborn clerk in Herman Melville’s famous story of workplace dissent. Whenever he is asked to perform a routine task, Bartleby replies: ‘I would prefer not to.’

At a time when womanhood is still presumed to involve endless, exhausting work, it strikes me that the young women of the 21st century need to rediscover our inner Bartleby. Every page of ‘Unfinished Business’ makes me think: I would prefer not to.  Spend eighteen years raddled with guilt and exhaustion, trying to fulfil all the expectations of paid work and motherhood at once? I would prefer not to. I’ve got things to do. I still haven’t finished season 5 of Battlestar Galactica! I still haven’t been rascally drunk in a Moscow gay bar! I’ve got books to read! Adventures to have! And sure, I could do some of that whilst balancing a baby on one knee and a briefcase on the other….but I would prefer not to. 

The truth about ‘work-life balance’ is that it doesn’t exist. It never has existed, and unless we radically rethink our attitude to work and care, it never will. There it is. That’s the truth nobody wants to acknowledge. You can’t ‘have it all,’ not even if you’re in the lucky minority who can afford to pay someone else to take care of your kids, so stop trying, and stop blaming yourself. There. Now we’ve got that sorted out, it’s time to think about other options.

This is still an unequal world. But women are freer than we’ve ever been to build independent lives, to refuse to be bullied or shamed into lives we did not choose.  We can’t ‘have it all’ when the system is broken. It’s time and beyond time for women to start asking what else we want- starting, perhaps, with a fairer deal.

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy

This article appears in the 21 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister