Think Again: Working Women: Why American Women Are Better off Than the Lean-Inners and Have-It-Allers Realize

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"You Should Be Able to Have a Family if You Want One ... and Still Have the Career You Desire."

SHOULD? MAYBE. WILL? NO WAY.

There are always tradeoffs between career and family. That goes double for women.

When Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote the words quoted above in the Atlantic, the former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, incoming president of the New America Foundation, and all-around overachiever ignited a furious global discussion among feminists, post-feminists, post-post feminists, and just about everyone else. Now, with the publication of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's No. 1 bestselling book, Lean In, women's work-life balance is Topic A all over again.

Slaughter and Sandberg approach the problem from different angles; the former focuses on the barriers created by an inflexibly demanding workplace, while the latter emphasizes women's internal obstacles, like self-doubt and a speak-only-when-called-on approach to life. But Slaughter and Sandberg probably agree on the ultimate goal: a world where, as Sandberg puts it, women run "half our countries and companies" and men run "half our homes."

Neither answers a basic question, though: Is this vision even within the realm of possibility? Some Americans like to think so and tend to look longingly across the ocean for solutions to the work-family dilemma. It's easy to see why they imagine hope lies abroad, in the more liberal corners of Europe and among progressive innovators everywhere. Americans are famously reluctant to try federal solutions for social issues, and at any rate, the failure to create a gender Shangri-La appears to be pretty far down on their list of complaints. By contrast, the European Union has announced a procession of treaties, agreements, reports, monitoring data, and targets since its founding, all in the service of making Sandberg's vision a reality. And truth be told, when it comes to official efforts to advance women, even the most unlikely candidates--Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Kyrgyzstan, to name just a few of the countries that now use quotas to empower women--seem to have leapfrogged past the United States.

But here's what the lean-inners and have-it-allers need to ponder: Everywhere on Earth--including in the Scandinavian countries that have tried almost everything short of obligatory hormone therapy aimed at equalizing power between the sexes--mothers remain the default parent while men dominate the upper echelons of the business world. There are limits to what governments can do to create gender equality--and it's time we acknowledge it.

"Women in the United States Are Worse Off."

WRONG.

In fact, American women are far more likely to work full time and rise to the top levels of business, academia, and professional fields like law and medicine--though not politics--than women in other developed countries. According to a recent study by Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, American women are about as likely as American men to be company managers, while women in the researchers' comparison group of 10 other developed countries were only half as likely as men to have made it that far. In fact, the United States has the highest proportion of women in senior management positions of any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of the world's most developed countries. At 43 percent, it is a percentage that comes close to women's 47 percent overall share of the U.S. labor force.

Indeed, the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks the United States eighth globally on gender equality in economic participation and opportunity, ahead of Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Iceland. According to Blau and Kahn, 24 percent of working American women are in the professional fields, compared to only 16 percent of working American men; the gap in other countries also favors women, but by much less, 19 vs. …