Can Women “Have It All”?

Can “women have it all”? That is, can women have a family and a high power job? In a recent Atlantic cover story Anne Marie Slaughter argues that it’s impossible. A few days after it’s publication we learned that Marissa Mayer would leave Google and become the CEO of Yahoo. Which is news worthy in it’s own right, only 20 women serve as CEO in all of the Fortune 500 companies, but the Internet was a buzz after the announcement because she’s…. wait for it… pregnant. In this piece Nathan Palmer will explore the barriers women and mothers face in the modern economy and also ask, “why do women have to be mothers to ‘have it all’?”

Marissa Mayer, CEO Yahoo
Marissa Mayer, CEO Yahoo

At 37 years-old Marissa Mayer is the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500[1. The Fortune 500 is a list of publicly traded companies that are ranked by annual gross revenue by Fortune magazine. In other words, these are arguably the 500 most important publicly traded companies] company. However, not only is she the youngest CEO she is one of only 20 women CEOs on all of the Fortune 500. Let’s pause for a second, that means while women represent 51% of the population they represent only 4% of the top leadership of the corporate world. What’s going on here? Why aren’t more women making it to the top of the corporate ladder?

While there are many factors that can help explain why women are better represented at the top including discrimination in promotion, discrimination in hiring and job placement, etc. I’d like to explore the gendered expectations within heterosexual families. Women, more than men, are expected to be the primary care givers for children and aging parents. Heck, some of you reading this might argue that women are “naturally better parents”[2. This, of course, is a gender stereotype that is not supported by science and one that hurts both women and men.]. The responsibility for parenting is disproportionately placed on women and because of it they are less able to promote their careers by taking high-power high-demand opportunies and more likely to take time off from their career for family reasons. One study that looked at people in highly competitive jobs found that nearly half of the women took time away from the ultra-demanding jobs, while only 12% of men did (Hewlett 2010; Hewlett & Luce 2005). When these women return to the highly-competitive career track they are often years behind the men who never left. What’s worse is, even when women don’t have children they still face the stereotypes that women aren’t reliable enough for high-power high-demand jobs.

Feminists, among others, have long argued that women should be able to reach their career dreams while also having the family they want. Society affords men this luxury, so why should women not be able to have both? That’s why there was a flurry of debate and outrage when Anne Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning for the Obama administration and a strong feminist advocate, published an article titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”. In the piece Slaughter says that when women try to have a family while pursuing a high-power high-demand job, they are always failing at one or the other.

This brings us back to Marissa Mayer, because while her status as the youngest Fortune 500 CEO made headlines, that was nothing compared to the buzz surrounding her announcement that she is pregnant. Mayer who is due in October promptly told reporters that, “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.” Mayer’s decision to have a shortened maternity leave, or what some are calling a “pregnancy pause”, created a media firestorm with some people calling her naive/foolish, some questioning whether more women should choose the pause option, and yet others wondering what this means for the rest of women in the corporate world.

The double standard surrounding this entire debate is, if Mayer was a man married to a woman due in October, no one would blink an eye. Obviously a new dad doesn’t have to recover physically from childbirth or deal with the physiological changes of motherhood, but beyond that why should we treat professional mothers[3. We should note that not all new mothers deliver their children. Adoptive mothers also take maternity leave] differently than we treat professional dads?

So can women “have it all”? I’m unqualified to say and as a man I can’t even speak to the experience of being a working woman/mother. That said, the sociologist in me wants to ask a completely different question. Who says that having a family AND a high-power job is how women “have it all”? The assumption that to “have it all” women must have children seems rooted in the stereotype that a woman’s worth is defined by her ability to raise and care for a family [4. For a great discussion about the absence of this option from the public discussion around women “having it all” check out this piece from sociologist Lisa Wade.] This narrow conception of what it takes for women to “have it all” limits women.

Working mothers (and fathers) need more options. The idea that parenting is not the concern of “serious” workers comes from a bygone era where working men were not expected to parent and parenting women were not expected to work outside the home[5. I feel compelled to point out that even this is a myth. Many women of color and low income women never had the option to forego working for parenting.]. If we don’t make a space for modern parents and gender norms don’t change, we shouldn’t expect the gender composition of the Fortune 500 to reflect the gender composition of the larger society.

  1. Let’s pretend you are in charge of everything for a day and you want to fix the inequalities parents face in pursuing demanding careers. What changes could we make to society at large to help parents? For instance, if K-12 schools didn’t take summer’s off it would make it easier for parents to work year-round.
  2. Sociologists argue that women are often judged based on how well they can raise a family. Where do you hear this message being communicated in the media, religion, education, and any other aspect of culture and society?
  3. Recently the American Sociological Association found that both male and female sociology professors with children were equally likely to have achieved tenure and reached other markers of an “ideal” academic career. However when we look at other disciplines we find that female professors with at least one child are less likely to earn tenure than their male counterparts (Ceci & Williams 2011). Why do you think sociology is different from other disciplines?
  4. Do you think Mayer’s decision to reduce her maternity leave and work throughout it, will send a positive message to women/parents at Yahoo or not? Explain your point of view.


  • Ceci, Stephen J. and Wendy M. Williams. 2011. “Understanding Current Causes of Women’s Underrepresentation in Science.” The Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • Hewlett, Slyvia Ann. 2010. “As Careers Paths Change. Make On-Rampling Easy.” HBR Blog Network. Retrieved on July 29, 2012.
  • Hewlett, Sylvia Ann. and Carolyn Buck Luce. 2005. “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success.” Harvard Business Review 88(3):43-54
  • Hewlett 2005

    Hewlett & Luce 2010

    Ceci & Williams 2011