Editor's Weekly: Can women have it all? That's the wrong question
Dear Beaconites -
The lives of two women in the news this week speak volumes about how opportunities and attitudes have -- and haven't -- changed in three decades.
Sadly, astronaut Sally Ride was back in the spotlight when she died of pancreatic cancer at age 61. Ever the picture of calm ultra-competence, she brought an understated charm to her star turn as America's first woman in space and to the rest of her life. Characteristically, she kept her illness quiet, kept the focus on her work rather than herself.
Yet it was her personal story that inspired -- the story of someone who worked hard, stayed humble and used her fame to raise the aspirations of others. As a measure of the obstacles she had to overcome, the New York Times obituary noted some of the weird questions she faced before her historic flight -- would she wear makeup in space, for example, or did she cry on the job?
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a personal example is worth more than a thousand words of encouragement. When my children were in grade school, we saw Ride at a convention. I can't remember what she said, but I can't forget the glow of excitement in the eyes of my daughters and sons. What a thrill to witness visible barriers of discrimination crumble and invisible barriers of low expectation disintegrate.
And yet, more than 30 years after Ride's historic ride, we're still having the same old conversation about whether women can "have it all." Marissa Mayer, the newly appointed CEO of Yahoo, set off another round of debate recently when she announced that she's pregnant and plans to take only a brief working maternity leave after the birth of her first child.
That has prompted cascades of comments -- praise of Yahoo for hiring her, criticism of Mayer for giving motherhood short shrift and worry that her example will put pressure on average women to follow her work-centric example.
Three points stand out from this debate. First, Mayer is one of only 20 women who currently head Fortune 500 corporations, a mere 4 percent of the total, according to the AP. That's a reality check on progress, a reminder that decades after women have entered the workforce en masse, we remain underrepresented at the top and undercompensated on the salary scale.
Second, the revolution in women's roles at work has not been accompanied by a revolution in cultural attitudes or easily available options to help moms -- and dads -- meet their obligations at home.
There's no more important task than rearing the next generation, we are assured by leaders of all political stripes. But neither government regulations nor workplace policies do much to help parents balance work and family obligations. Basically, you're still on your own to figure things out, and we're all still operating in the shadow of patterns that put family care responsibilities heavily on the shoulders of women.
Perhaps that's why the question of whether women can have it all just won't go away. The third point that stands out in current discussion is that this is the wrong question to be asking. I'd rather ask whether parents can have it all. Or whether we as a society can provide equal opportunity at work and real commitment to meeting family responsibilities at home. Or, more basically, I'd rather ask what having it all means and how we might all benefit from the endless variations that people might develop on that theme.
You might wonder why any of this is relevant in a letter from an editor. It's not a journalist's job to pick the right answers to the complicated challenges in the news. But it's very much a journalist's job to ask the right questions -- questions that lay bare the weaknesses of conventional wisdom and unexamined assumptions, questions that allow everyone to see old problems in a new light.
As the stories of Sally Ride and Marissa Mayer showed this week, we journalists often fail this most fundamental test. At the Beacon, we aspire to do better. We hope you'll hold us accountable to the high standard you deserve.