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Young: Balance is fine; so is working a lot

The cover of the July/August 2012 issue of

The cover of the July/August 2012 issue of The Atlantic featuring an article by former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter. The piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter describes her struggles balancing a high-powered career with raising her two sons. Photo Credit: AP

'Balance" is the watchword in the perennial debate on whether women can "have it all." Let's have more women in power, the argument goes, and they can remake society in a way that lets both women and men have more flexible lives incorporating work and family.

But not so fast. "Balance" is not for everyone, and expecting women in particular to be its champions is just another form of sexism.

There is a common notion that the exorbitant career investment expected as the price of success is merely an artificial consequence of patriarchy. In a more egalitarian world, we're told, you would have enough time to be a chief executive, Nobel Prize-winning scientist or top-level policymaker, and still attend your children's soccer games.

True, in some workplaces, people who don't put in long hours are unfairly penalized even if they are as productive as their more work-focused colleagues. Likewise, women (and, even more so, men) who spend a year or two as full-time parents may be penalized simply for appearing to be insufficiently career-oriented.

But let's face it: some types of work really do require intense commitment. In modern science, taking even a couple of years off can easily cause you to fall behind the most current research. In a competitive business environment, spotting and seizing an opportunity at the right moment can make all the difference. A high-level career in foreign policy requires being on hand to respond to a crisis abroad -- and sometimes (gasp!) to give it a higher priority than a crisis at home.

This isn't to say that the only way to have a career is to be a workaholic. Anne Marie Slaughter, who brought all this to a head recently with an essay in the Atlantic Monthly, has had a productive work life as an academic and writer even after leaving her State Department job, in part for more family time. For many women and men alike, low-pressure jobs are not only more family-friendly but more fulfilling.

But is that the only way? In many work/life discussions, there is an implicit assumption that strong commitment to work is practically self-imposed slavery -- or, at least, a poor choice one is likely to regret. (Last year's Margaret Thatcher biopic "The Iron Lady" suggests, evidence-free, that Britain's former prime minister has been haunted by such regrets in old age.) After former General Electric CEO Jack Welch raised hackles at a meeting of female executives by stating that women need to "over-deliver" and forget "balance" if they want top jobs, some commentators took him to task for ignoring the real problem: men's willingness to rob themselves of a full life in pursuit of top jobs.

Yet there are people, of both sexes, for whom "work vs. life" is a false choice because work is their life -- and they find such a life meaningful.

Can the workplace be restructured to make it easier to combine work and family? Yes, and we have made major strides in that direction. But someone who gives nearly all of his or her time and energy to work will, all else being equal, achieve more at work than someone who gives much less. The only way to prevent such "unfair" competition would be to keep "workaholics" from working as much as they want.

Perhaps the answer is not more balance for everyone, but more respect for diversity. Here's a radical thought: Women, like men, should be able to leave most hands-on child care to a spouse (or a grandparent, or even a nanny) without being stigmatized or guilt-tripped.

Of course that's not what all women want -- but for some, such arrangements can look an awful lot like having it all.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.