When speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, PepsiCo CEO Indra K. Nooyi told the audience, in no uncertain terms, that women can't have it all.
In a conversation with David Bradley, owner of The Atlantic, Nooyi broke ranks with female corporate titans like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Meyer who have, the former explicitly and the latter implicitly, diminished the tension between being a parent and having a career. Unlike her peers, Nooyi acknowledges that at some point balancing family and work becomes a zero sum game — and she is not afraid to admit she has chosen work. This is a wonderful thing.
Nooyi told the audience:
I don't think women can have it all. I just don't think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all... Every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions... We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I'm not sure they will say that I've been a good mom. I'm not sure. [Nooyi via The Atlantic]
When taken literally, the phrase "have it all" is problematic. Nobody can have it all. Even if they could, what exactly would it be? How successful a career must one have? How much face time with one's kids? Does it include time for gardening, traveling, or fireside chats with one's best friends from college?
Still, as clumsy and misleading as it is, "have it all" has become the go-to term when discussing the speed bumps women continue to stumble upon when trying to fulfill — and sometimes shed — their traditional roles as mothers with their new roles as ambitious and successful career women.
Weeks away from the White House Summit on Working Families, we have reached a moment in which long-fringe issues like the importance of parental leave, paid sick days, and flexible workplaces have become mainstream. Just last week Daily Beast columnist Michael Tomasky said that "for her 2016 campaign, Clinton should make paid family leave a — no; the! — central plank," and The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn agreed, pointing out that Clinton's record in such matters is a promising one.
We are in the process of reimagining our workplace laws, and sometimes even changing them, to accommodate the reality that many of our workers also have familial responsibilities. The fact that this is a national discussion means it is more important than ever that women be honest, to ourselves and others, about what is at stake when women enter the workplace, whether for a high-powered job or a part-time freelance gig.
By being brutally honest, as Nooyi was, we can see in full daylight the many ways in which mothers are still seen as the primary caretakers, even by mothers themselves and even when they are CEOs. She told a story about how her daughter was upset when Nooyi was unable to attend a weekly parents' coffee hour at her school. Nooyi then called the school to find out how many other working mothers couldn't make it either, using this list to defend herself to her daughter. "You have to cope because you die with guilt," she said.
Speaking of guilt, the other benefit of Nooyi's candidness is that it pushes us to reckon with the fact that something is lost in the parent-child relationship when a parent of either gender takes on a demanding job. This doesn't mean that one shouldn't or can't have a demanding job and a family, or that women should shoulder all the responsibility or bear all the guilt. Just that it helps us understand why many women still gravitate toward the mommy track or part-time work — and why men increasingly regret not spending enough time with their children.
With Nooyi and the rest of us, it isn't about right or wrong, so much as coming face-to-face with the fact that we all make hard choices for which there aren't easy answers. In moments of change like this one, it is best to be honest about exactly where we are before we figure out where we should go next.
Elissa Strauss writes about gender and culture for TheWeek.com.
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