Written by Emily Johnson Tuesday, September 18 2012
In the climactic scene of the Broadway musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” Annie Oakley and love interest Frank Butler face off in a battle of sharpshooting skills and of singing ability. “Anything you can do I can do better,” belts the heroine. “I can do anything better than you!” The song’s appeal to the feminist movement, which developed about 20 years after the play’s first debut, is clear. Like Annie Oakley, feminists maintained that women were equal to or better than men in every way, and should therefore be given the same opportunities as men in the workplace. Once given these opportunities, feminists argued, women would truly be able to “have it all.” But can we?
Former State Department Policy Planning Director Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent article in The Atlantic, provocatively entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” challenges this assumption anew. In reflecting back on her decision to step down from her post in the State Department, Ms. Slaughter calls into question the ingrained assumption that many young women today have about career and family – namely, that it is possible to adequately and satisfactorily balance one’s career and domestic life. Not surprisingly, for those of my generation – we 20-something women who have just recently graduated and who are attempting to break into the “real world” – the notion that we actually can’t have it all is worrisome, to say the least. It always just seemed to be a given: do well in school, get a good job, get married, have some kids. That’s how women in the movies do it, and that’s the way our moms did it, so it has to be that simple, right?
As far as I can recall, my own mother never seemed to falter. Having a full-time career as an employment lawyer at The Coca-Cola Company did not deter her from constantly being present as my younger brother Kyle and I were growing up; she even made time to pursue her own philanthropic interests, taking on pro bono cases for battered women and working closely with several women- and youth-focused nonprofits. In fact, I don’t ever remember thinking my mother struggled at all. With her as my primary role model, then, I never questioned the assumption that I, too, would someday have it all. After reading Ms. Slaughter’s article, however, I began to worry. Is what Ms. Slaughter says true? Is it really not possible to achieve perfect work-life balance? If not, is my mom just an exception to this general rule? I sat down with my mom to get her side of the story.
Emily Johnson: What was your reaction to the Anne-Marie Slaughter article right off the bat?
Elizabeth Finn Johnson: I totally agree with the gist of it, with the fact that women still cannot have it all. The feminist movement told us we could, but that is actually a false premise. What it really meant – what it still really means – is that we have to do it all. And therein lies the problem. Even in the best partnerships, the woman still bears the brunt of the responsibility toward her family. It is rare that her husband does 50 percent.
Emily: Did Dad?
Elizabeth: We split things in a different way – I handled most of the day-to-day childrearing things like doctors’ appointments and school activities, and he handled all the finances and that sort of thing.
Emily: Did you want him or expect him to handle more of the caregiving? Did y’all ever talk about it?
Elizabeth: No, not really in those terms…We never talked. It just kind of happened that I just ended up becoming the primary caregiver. We never sat down and had a conversation about it. I should have, though.
Emily: Do you think he would have been amenable to handling more of that sort of caregiving for Kyle and me?
Elizabeth: He always covered those things when I asked him to, we just never had a general conversation about it.
Emily: Speaking of you becoming the primary caregiver even with a full-time career, can you tell me a little bit more about your career path and how you made the decision to have kids? Did you and Dad ever discuss the logistics, so to speak, regarding how to balance work and family?
Elizabeth: We always knew we wanted to have kids; the question, really, was when. While I was pregnant with you, Dad and I were both working full-time at a law firm, and I had no intention of leaving. I was fully planning on coming right back after maternity leave. There really weren’t a lot of other options then, though; my intention was to try out being full-time again and see how that worked. However, while I was pregnant with you, I got a call from a friend who worked at Coke, telling me about an open position in the litigation group. She asked me if I was thinking about my life after pregnancy and what I was going to do in my career. I told her that I was going to just go right back to work and see how it went but that maybe I would be interested in the position at Coke. So, she gave me the necessary information; I sent off my resume, and then I went in for an interview. And they offered me the job! Once I came back from maternity leave, I came to The Coca-Cola Company.
Elizabeth: Yep. At that time, there weren’t any part-time options, especially not in litigation. But the reason I came to Coke was because (at that time anyway) they had much more reasonable work-life policies.
Emily: What do you mean?
Elizabeth: It was much easier to balance work and home, to have a good work-life balance. To be in a law firm like my previous one and to try to make partner would have been…Well, we would have had to get a full-time, live-in nanny. And that wasn’t the kind of parent I wanted to be.
Emily: Did you want to make partner, though?
Emily: But being a parent was more important to you.
Elizabeth: I could have been a parent but not an involved one. Aside from that one Thanksgiving luncheon, I missed very little when you and Kyle were kids.
Emily: And I know you are very proud of that.
Elizabeth [smiling]: Of course.
Emily: Do you think that’s almost a bigger achievement than making partner?
Elizabeth: Yes, I do. But I had to make choices that most men don’t have to make. Going to Coke was my decision, though. Dad and I sat down and talked about it, sure, but in the end it was my decision to leave. It was what I wanted to do. I didn’t ever think I would still be there after 20 years, though.
Emily: What did you think you’d be doing?
Elizabeth: I didn’t think anything, really. I didn’t have a plan. I was only 30 at the time…there was no set plan.
Emily: Well, you always knew you wanted to have a family, right?
Emily: Did you always know you’d have to make sacrifices for work-family balance?
Elizabeth: No. I really thought I could have it all. I thought I could do it all because that’s what I’d been taught.
Emily: So in a perfect situation, what would “having it all” mean?
Elizabeth: What would it have been? Then, it would have meant being a big-time litigator, trying a lot of cases and becoming a judge while also having a family – and not feeling like I was rushing from one thing to the next all the time.
Emily: Is that how you felt?
Elizabeth: All the time. Do you remember Samantha, the nanny we hired for a while when you and your brother were younger?
Elizabeth: We hired her because I felt like I never even had five minutes to breathe. Every day I had to rush out of the office by 5:30 p.m. to come pick you and your brother up from aftercare at 6:00 p.m. Then I had to get you home, cook you dinner and help with homework…I couldn’t even take a second to change my clothes! At least, that’s what it felt like.
Emily: What about Dad? He couldn’t have helped out by picking us up or cooking dinner some evenings?
Elizabeth: At the time, he was trying to make partner. It was actually his idea to advertise for a nanny. We never discussed, “Okay, you pick up the kids today, you help out a little more this week.”
Emily: Why not?
Elizabeth: I don’t know. Maybe we did, and I just don’t remember. But if I couldn’t be somewhere and I let him know that, he would cover it.
Emily: In her article, Ms. Slaughter says that one of the main tenets of the delusion of being able to have it all is having the “right kind of partner.” This means, of course, that if you find a partner willing to share the responsibility of raising a family, you are allegedly one step closer to achieving near-perfect work-life balance and to having it all. Was Dad a good partner? Did you feel like he helped out enough?
Elizabeth: Yeah! He was a great parent. But it’s true that we did wind up in relatively traditional parenting roles. Your father didn’t really feel that he could take time off like I did because the perception was that it would create problems for him while trying to make partner in his firm. In fact, that’s one of the major problems within our society: Though it is getting better, men still don’t think they can take as much time off when having kids even though they are legally entitled to.
Emily: So on your end, then, did you feel like The Coca-Cola Company was supportive and understanding of your role as a full-time litigator and also as a mom who wanted to be very involved in raising your children?
Elizabeth: I was lucky enough to have had a boss who understood that I had to be out the door by 5:30 p.m. every day to pick y’all up. I was fortunate that he understood and was very good about making sure I was able to do that.
Emily: You didn’t feel condescended to or looked down on because of your choice to be devoted to Kyle and me? You didn’t feel like others thought less of you because you didn’t privilege your career over your family?
Elizabeth: No, not because of that. But I think this was mostly because of my boss. I don’t know whether things would have been different had I worked somewhere else, but I do think that in any other law firm it would have been almost entirely out of the question to make partner while leaving at 5:30 every day. And, what’s more, I would have felt an unbelievable amount of stress. [Laughs] More than I already felt!
Emily: That provides a good segue into talking about your decision to go part-time when Kyle and I were in elementary school. Can you talk about the factors that drove this decision?
Elizabeth: Basically, I was feeling that I wasn’t home enough with you and your brother. I felt like I was just running, running, running. Having Samantha helped for awhile, but it didn’t solve the problem. I felt like I had no time to breathe, no time for myself. All of your activities were crammed into the weekends, so I didn’t have any time for myself to just relax.
That next summer after we had Samantha, one day you and I were driving home after I picked you up from camp, and you said something that really made me stop and think. You told me that the next summer you didn’t want to go to camp again because you wanted to just spend time at home. In that moment I realized for the first time that you actually hadn’t really gotten a summer – it was still running around all the time. You still had to wake up early, and I still had to come pick you up at the end of the day – it wasn’t that different from school. And I sort of realized that both you and your brother never really ever had time to hang out, to spend time at home to relax and really enjoy your time off. Y’all were always on the move, from school, to aftercare, to camp, to wherever. So that’s when Dad and I discussed me trying out going part-time.
At first, when I asked my company about it, they said no. My boss said it wasn’t a good time to ask about going part-time because of various internal company politics happening at the moment, so he told me to just wait it out a little while. At that time, I wasn’t pushing hard for it. I had phrased it mildly, saying something along the lines of “Oh, it would be really nice to be part-time” – so I just accepted that I had to try again later.
Then, the big class action lawsuit against Coke hit in 1999. It was a huge case, costing me a lot of time and effort. Though I loved working on it and enjoyed the process immensely, at that time you were 9 and Kyle was 5, meaning both of you had homework and various extracurricular activities all the time, and it just became increasingly difficult to balance my work and my domestic responsibilities. After the class action was resolved, I did my homework. I prepared a proposal regarding going part-time to present to the company. I anticipated some resistance.
Emily: Like what?
Elizabeth: Like them making the argument that if they let me go part-time, then everyone would want to go part-time – which was absurd, of course. So I did some research and prepared a proposal that basically established a part-time policy for Coke, setting some guidelines governing how going part-time would work. I suggested that we try the arrangement for six months and see how it worked – but I also told them that if they didn’t let me be part-time, then I was leaving. I couldn’t do it anymore.
Emily: And they accepted? Just like that?
Elizabeth: Yep. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I was stunned when they said yes. I was the first part-time lawyer ever in The Coca-Cola Company.
Emily: Ever? Like in every branch of the company, not just litigation?
Elizabeth: That’s my understanding.
Emily: Wow. So did that start a domino effect among the women in the company? Did you set a precedent that caused more people to come forward to talk about being part-time?
Elizabeth: Well, it wasn’t a floodgate sort of deal, but yes. People did begin to ask, and more people were definitely granted part-time. We still have some part-timers working right now, but the company has come a long way since then in terms of flexibility and better work-life balance policies, in general. Schedules are no longer as rigid as they used to be, so it is easier to be full-time and still manage a family now. Again, however, it is still pretty much only women who go part-time, who job share and who have these kinds of flexible schedules because we still bear the majority of the responsibility of child rearing.
Emily: So you don’t know any men who have taken the part-time option?
Elizabeth: I know of only one man – he used to work with your dad – who ever went part-time while his kids were growing up. I can tell you that there are no male lawyers at Coke who are part-time. The whole problem with all of this, though, is that the promise of feminism – namely, equality with men – has still not yet been realized. The women of the 70s didn’t understand what “having it all” really meant. They were primarily concerned with equal pay for equal work – which, by the way, we still don’t have – and with the ability to even be considered for career advancement and promotion opportunities. They didn’t understand – none of us did – that what the feminist movement gave us was that, instead of having only one full-time job (raising your children and having a family), women now have the ability to have two. Women haven’t become equal to men in the sense that society doesn’t require a man to make the choice between being a full-time parent and having a full-time career. Is it possible, as a woman, to rise to the top of your career and to have a family? Yes, but not without help. Rarely do men make the decision to be “stay-at-home dads.” It is still not the norm – it’s not even half and half.
Emily: Something else Ms. Slaughter discusses that I found really thought-provoking was her claim that “many young professional women feel under assault by women [her] age and older.” Ms. Slaughter says that when those women who have successfully made it to the top attempt to advise newcomers, their words of wisdom can sometimes have unintended implications: “We who have made it to the top, or who are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: ‘What’s the matter with you?’” In your opinion, do you think that young women are intimidated in your field?
Elizabeth: I think the younger generation definitely faces the same issues. I have a friend, for example, who wants to someday work from home, perhaps for one day a week, but she believes it would hurt her career to even try. The general message that she gets, based on comments made by various male superiors, is that she cannot be successful if she ever works from home. For example, in regards to certain non-attorney employees secretaries, legal assistants and the like who have more flexible work schedules, these male superiors will joke that “Lawyers could never do that” and that “Lawyers always have to be at the office.” The irony is, if my friend did actually start working one day a week from home and just didn’t tell anyone, no one would be able to tell the difference.
Emily: Do you think this is the message being sent to young women of my generation that are coming into your field? Do you believe that they are facing the kind of pressure to “have it all” from older women that Ms. Slaughter is talking about?
Elizabeth: In some senses, yes. I think society in general is putting a lot of pressure on young women, but I also think that they are a lot smarter than my generation was – and they have a lot more options. The issue, however, is that society still doesn’t foster a world in which women can truly be equal. Because we as a society do not have policies and laws that encourage men to be equal partners in child rearing (for example, paid parental leave), and until we as a society begin to support the family generally, women will continue to feel like they have to “have it all,” which really means do it all. This is why there still aren’t very many successful female role models in the business world. The heads of major companies are still mostly men.
Emily: Do you think young women are being set up to fail, in a sense? Are they being forced to strive for unreachable standards?
Elizabeth: I think it’s difficult for most people – for most women – to “have it all.”
Emily: So what message would you want to send to women of my generation who are just starting out? How did you manage to have it all?
Elizabeth [surprised]: I didn’t.
Emily: I mean, you were very involved in our lives while still having a successful career – even though you didn’t make partner like you originally wanted, you still kick some major butt in your field. How did you make that work? What would you tell my generation to do?
Elizabeth: I guess I would say two things. The first is to anyone just starting out, but to young women in particular: Don’t be afraid to dream big. But you need to really understand what you want to do and what you need to do to get to where you want to be. You need to plan; you need to think about your path. My career was sort of happenstance. It happened somehow to all work out, but I think people have to be more deliberate. To do this – and here is the second piece of advice I’d give – you have to be willing to ask for what you need or want and to make it work for you. This goes for your marriage or partnership as well as for your career moves. What’s the worst that could happen? Someone might say no; if that’s the case, you aren’t any worse off than you were before. But I guess people think if they ask, they will be looked down on or passed over, or in some way discriminated against.
Emily: Do you think that’s true?
Elizabeth: It can be.
Emily: Do you think that’s a valid reason not to ask?
Elizabeth: It’s all in how you ask, I think. You have to present your request in a favorable way; it is more likely to succeed that way. But don’t not ask.
Emily: Do you think you are a good role model for my generation? Do you consider yourself a “superwoman,” as Ms. Slaughter characterizes those women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals?
Elizabeth [confused]: No…I don’t know. What do you mean?
Emily: Well, like I was saying before, you have managed to have a successful – and, from the way you have described it, fairly satisfying – career, while being an active presence in my life and in Kyle’s, while also somehow finding time to pursue your own interests, such as your nonprofit work. You seem, therefore, to “have it all.” How did you do that? What’s the secret?
Elizabeth: We raised two beautiful, smart, talented children of whom we are very proud. I have had a good career in which I have done interesting things and in which I’ve been lucky enough to have been supported in my community outreach work, which is very important to me – but do I think I am a “superwoman?” I wouldn’t ever put myself in that category. But maybe I am, at least in the way I would conceptualize what a superwoman would be. Yes, it’s true that I am not a head of a major company, or secretary of state, or at the absolute top of my career, but then, those people who are…do they have what I have? I don’t know if they are satisfied with their home lives or their relationships with their children. Nobody’s life is perfect.
A friend asked me the other day if I ever regretted not being a stay-at-home mom and if that was something I ever wanted to do. And I never do regret it. I never wanted to not work. I wanted to have a different job, maybe, but I never wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. I guess I think that traditional feminists would say I had it all – a successful career, a great family in which I was involved and on top of it all, some time and energy to invest in the things that I loved and that were important to me – but I think the fallacy, the real problem, is that you can’t have it all at the same time. That’s the advice I would give to younger women. It’s possible but not all at once. You have to understand that at different phases of your life you will be able to do different things. If you go into your career thinking like this, I think looking back you will be much more satisfied. You’ll feel much more like you “had it all” – even if it is not all at once. Perhaps if someday society changes in the ways we have talked about, women won’t have to make this distinction – after all, men really don’t – but for now, this is as close as we can get. And who knows? Maybe for now, that’s okay.
About Elizabeth Finn Johnson
Elizabeth Finn Johnson is senior counsel, employee relations, for The Coca-Cola Company. A graduate of Harvard University and the University of Virginia School of Law, Johnson specializes in employment discrimination defense and counseling. Active in the community and pro bono work, Johnson serves as chair of the board of directors of The Study Hall, vice-chair of the board of directors of Street Law, Inc., and treasurer of the board of directors of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, among others, and provides pro bono representation to victims of domestic violence. She has two children -- Emily (B.A. with honors, the Johns Hopkins University, 2012) and Kyle (Columbia University class of 2016) – and is married to Stuart Johnson, managing partner of Barnes & Thornburg LLC's Atlanta office.
Emily Johnson is 22 years old and currently lives in Atlanta. She received her bachelor’s degree in English May 2012 from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she pursued minors in French and in women and gender studies, while also completing her pre-medical requirements. Emily plans to enter into a joint M.D./M.P.H program in the future, after a stint in the Peace Corps.
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