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We Need to Tell Girls They Can Have It All (Even If They Can't)

Author: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy
June 29, 2012
TheAtlantic.com

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In my first year at Harvard business school we studied that rarest of breeds: a female protagonist of a case study. In this case it was Anne Mulcahy, a 20-year company veteran who was "leading Xerox through the perfect storm." As the discussion unfolded, something strange happened: Our class of 80 students began asking whether Mulcahy had what it took to be CEO, since the case mentioned that she had stopped to cry on the side of the road during a particularly stressful time in the business and that she had children. Within 15 minutes, a course about business leadership became a discussion about work-life balance.

I now want to raise an uncomfortable question: Is all of this talk about our personal lives undermining women? And do we spend as much time encouraging girls to excel as we do helping them balance work and family?

The response to Anne-Marie Slaughter's wonderfully powerful cover story speaks directly to the long pent-up need to have this very public conversation about ambition and parenting. But as Barnard President Debora Spar writes, we also shouldn't dismiss the message of Sheryl Sandberg's 2011 commencement speech. There's a reason Sandberg urged the future career women in her audience not to "leave before you leave." The truth is that we're still not urging girls and women to aim for the top and then stay there. And women are both part of that problem and the solution.

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