The writer is chief executive of the New America think-tank and an FT contributing editor
It is time to retire the idea of “having it all”. The phrase, popularised by Cosmopolitan’s Helen Gurley Brown, captured the goal to which many women like me aspired in the 1970s and 1980s. We wanted to have the same careers as our fathers without giving up the family lives many of our mothers had, with an extra dash of superwoman-hood thrown in. But this version of feminism was far too narrow.
Then, a decade ago, I wrote an article explaining the dilemma that had led me to quit my high-powered job at the US State Department. To my surprise, it went viral. The essay was entitled “Why women still can’t have it all”, focusing on the major changes society still needed to make to adapt to the needs of working women.
Since then, authors, filmmakers, and headline writers have wrestled with the controversial phrase but kept using it. Look at the 2022 film Having It All, following the lives of three women who “set out to live their dreams of balancing careers, marriage, and children.” Or the Cosmo article on the 40th anniversary of Gurley Brown’s book asking, “What does it really mean to have it all in 2022?”
In 2023, the answer is that the phrase itself is a tone-deaf, dispiriting and deeply sexist way to frame the debate about work and family — and about leadership. People around the world apparently agree, given some of the reactions to the media coverage of Jacinda Ardern’s resignation as New Zealand’s prime minister.
The double standards swirling around Ardern’s treatment are egregious. If a male leader with a young child had resigned, citing burnout, after five and a half years of leading a nation through multiple crises, we would have been pitched into a debate about post-pandemic mental health. If he had said he was leaving “to spend time with family” (that age-old euphemism for men forced out in disgrace), there would have been widespread speculation about a hidden scandal.
Yet when a woman leader says she has “nothing left in the tank”, much of the media assumes it is because she wants to spend more time at home, in part to relieve the guilt that she must feel about not being with her children. The BBC used and then retracted the headline, “Jacinda Ardern Resigns: Can Women Really Have It All?”
Enough. All human beings who work and have loved ones who need care feel the tug of dividing their time between work and family. Women feel it most intensely because society expects them to be caregivers — and castigates them when they are not.
Throughout her premiership, Ardern has pioneered a far more human style of leadership. Bringing her three-month-old baby to the UN general assembly acknowledged the obvious fact that many babies are breast-fed by their mothers. It also highlighted her partner’s critical role as lead parent — either home full time or with a flexible enough schedule for the many demands of parenting, from meetings with teachers to ear infections.
After the deadly 2019 attack on two Christchurch mosques, Ardern’s empathy was a model for all leaders navigating terrible human crises. And that same year saw her explicitly try to redefine the metrics of a healthy economy, with the release of the first New Zealand “Wellbeing Budget.” Her government aimed to tackle stubborn social problems by looking beyond traditional measures such as GDP and employment figures. The budget prioritised mental health, child wellbeing and support for the indigenous Maori and Pasifika populations while still striving for a productive nation and economic transformation. Critics have challenged how well New Zealand has performed against these new metrics, but the budget and the reasoning behind it accelerated a worldwide debate about what it means for a country to thrive.
From national wellbeing to her quick and decisive action to protect her people from Covid-19, Ardern has put New Zealand on the map for having the courage to elect her, twice, as she changed what leadership looks like. Her decision to step down, and her frank explanation, are of a piece with this new iteration — not of female leadership, but human leadership.
So unless we are prepared to apply the same standard to men, let’s banish the phrase “having it all” from our vocabulary. We must stop pitting women’s careers against bringing up children. It is long past time to move on to the far more interesting question: how can we rejig the metrics of success for all of us — whether individual leaders or entire economies — so that we can make room for care and wellbeing alongside competition and ambition.