Can women have it all? If you’re a working woman, you’ve read your fair share of inconclusive articles that seek to answer this sphinxlike mystery. This topic comes up as a national discussion with only slightly less frequency than those “why women—never men—are soooo single” articles.
This time the question of women having it all is cocktail conversation fodder once again thanks to an admission by PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where she said that she didn’t think women could have it all—whatever “all” means, because despite the abundance of these conversations about women having it, I’ve never been quite sure what “all” actually is. Anyway, Nooyi’s perspective echoed the sentiment of that very popular Atlantic magazine cover story from 2012, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The title clearly explains the gist of the artlcle.
Here’s what Nooyi told folks in Aspen:
I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. My husband and I have been married for 34 years. And we have two daughters. And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother. In fact, many times during the day you have to make those decisions. … We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I’m not sure they will say that I’ve been a good mom. I’m not sure. And I try all kinds of coping mechanisms.
So back to what “all” is. It sounds a lot like striving for unattainable perfection. Here we have a woman who, from the outside looking in, has the elusive “all,” or at least what I thought, but was never sure, was always being talked about when women—only women, never men—engaged in these “having it all” discussions: a great career, a mate she’s married to and a kid (or two). Nooyi is the head person in charge of a global brand, PepsiCo—friggin’ Pepsi! She’s been married for 34 years and has two children. And this very accomplished, long-married mom doesn’t think she has it all?
Something’s wrong here. But the problem isn’t with Nooyi; it’s with a culture that has screwy expectations of women who work. They’re too damn high. Women are striving to reach some unattainable superwomanlike existence in which they’re all at once like the definitive mother Clair Huxtable to their kids, catering to their man like Beyoncé and displaying Oprah-like genius to their employer.
While I’m with the whole overachiever motto of “Shoot for the moon because even if you miss, you’ll still be among the stars” philosophy, I also know that one person trying to be three different people is exhausting, and Sybil ended up in an institution trying to do something like that.
Perhaps I’ve missed the conversations about men having it all, but I’m certain that this “all”—this expectation to do everything perfectly—is not asked of men. Nobody wonders how a man juggles his family life and his career, or whether he will be able to fulfill his duties as president because of his grandfather obligations.
Maybe it doesn’t happen because men automatically get everything by virtue of their male anatomy, or perhaps they are not held to the same standard. It seems that men just get to be contently flawed and enjoy Superman as a comic book hero instead of as a model of manhood that everyone with a degree and a penis should be striving for. Women, whether they work or not, need the same leeway.
Instead of trying to have it all and be perfect—largely a marketing gimmick to make women insecure and buy more stuff (see The Beauty Myth for this argument in detail)—women might just be better served by cutting themselves some slack. Women might also do even better to recognize that “all” doesn’t come all sparkly and wrapped in a neat bow the way it does at the end of a Hollywood movie.