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3Qs: Can women have it all?

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former director of policy planning at the State Department, have revived an old debate over whether women can simultaneously be great mothers at home and top professionals in the workplace. We asked Jamie Ladge, an assistant professor of management and organizational development in the College of Business Administration, to reflect on whether women can “have it all.”

In an essay for “The Atlantic,” Slaughter posited that women would only achieve true equality as leaders by insisting on “changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices.” By contrast, Sandberg has said that talented women should resist “leaning back” in their careers, an exhortation that, Slaughter contended, “contains more than a note of reproach.” Who or what needs to adapt in order for women to achieve equality in the office: women or the workplace?

There’s no question that organizations need to change, but women, who are now 50 percent of the workforce, are driving that change.  This is not just a woman’s issue.  What man wants to work 80 hour work weeks and have no life? I talk about these issues with my students, all of whom want flexible schedules and alternative career paths. But when push comes to shove, many employees don’t accept these company offerings in fear of looking bad and derailing their careers.

I don’t think there is something women need to change other than simply trying to live up to their own expectations rather than outdated societal expectations. Last weekend I had a conversation with a woman in her late 40s with a successful career in high finance. She surprised me by saying that she left her job at a company that is known for being very good with work-life balance because she was simply burned out. She is unmarried without kids, but she wanted to do something that was more fulfilling and go into the nonprofit sector.  This is not just about balancing work and family demands; it’s about wanting to have a life beyond one’s career.

A new study of 1,000 college-educated Millennials has found that only 20 percent of women would like to follow in the footsteps of their female superiors. How and why has the drive for corporate achievement among women changed over the last several decades?

I don’t think it’s only young women who are not interested in following in the footsteps of their female superiors in the workplace. Many of my students say that they don’t want to, regardless of whether they’re men or women or whether their superiors are men or women. The fact is that it’s quite difficult to have role models today because of what’s expected of us in the workplace. After downsizing and rightsizing, people have to work a lot harder to prove themselves, often at the expense of their personal lives. A 2005 study of top executives found that more than two-thirds of those in line for CEO-type positions said that didn’t want them. The reason they often gave was that they wanted more balance in their lives. So this is really much bigger than being a women’s issue. In actuality, it’s everybody’s issue.

Some experts have claimed that closing the leadership gap between men and women by, say, electing a female president, would go a long way toward improving the well-being of all women. What impact do you think having a greater percentage of women in powerful professional positions would have on corporate culture?

I don’t think any one female leader could have a sweeping impact, but I do believe in strength in numbers. The more female leaders we have, the more comfortable people will be with them in charge. Having said that, a good leader makes his or her mark not based on gender but by how and what he or she has accomplished.