Can women have it all? Well, it’s just the wrong question

Lisa Annese
Topics Gender

Indra Nooyi, CEO of global multinational PepsiCo, recently responded with a firm, “No” when asked the question, “Can women have it all?”  Since then, a flurry of op-eds, blogs and articles have surfaced over this ubiquitous question with some women saying they can have it all, some saying they can’t, and still others say they can have it all but not at the same time. Let’s not forget the furore unleashed from Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 article in The Atlantic where she argued women can’t have it all.

But rather than attempting to seek an answer to the same question, taking one side or the other,  I’d like to take the discussion a bit further and suggest that the question itself is at best, an entirely irrelevant one, and at worst one that creates division and passes judgement on women. 

What is ‘all’ anyway?

Having it ‘all’ is a nonsensical proposition that is entirely dependent on the term ‘all’ being clearly defined and commonly accepted. If you were to ask ten different women or men what ‘having it all’ meant to them you would get ten different responses.  Indeed, having it 'all' will vary for individuals and families, and at different life stages.

Clarity about the definition of 'all' is available in every dictionary from Oxford, Macquarie to Webster.  It is generally agreed that 'all' means to have the "whole amount or quantity". But it is more complicated than that.  As an adjective, 'all' is a quantifier that assumes something is completely given or absorbed by; as an adverb 'all' shows that something is being used to its full extent, and as a determiner, 'all' is used to describe everything or each individual one or the whole of it without exception – you get my drift.

To show I am a woman of the modern age, I even asked Siri the question: “Can women have it all?”. Siri responded in her monotone voice, “I don’t know what that means”. Neither do I, Siri. One thing is certain, if we can’t define it then we have no hope of achieving it!   

What stereotypes underpin this question?

The underlying assumption in asking the ‘having it all’ question is that women must choose between having a career and family (in the traditional sense) – it has to be one or the other and they are mutually exclusive. The subtext here is that women are the carers, and those who have successful careers do so to the detriment of their children and families. Or that women who want to balance their work with time with their children, are not being committed to their careers. 

The ‘having it all’ questions also conceals the illusive nature of ‘choice’, ignoring the economic reality that many families need two incomes to service the family debt or maintain a standard of living.

Unfortunately, the recent Australian Human Rights Commission’s report examining the prevalence and nature of discrimination against pregnant employees and people returning to work after parental leave found that almost a half (49%) of all mothers surveyed reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace. This shows that there are still many women who cannot even have a pregnancy and a job at the same time, let alone contemplate the question of ‘having it all’. 

Importantly, we rarely seem to ask, “Can men have it all?” as noted in Anne Summers’ 2013 opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald. When a man chooses to ‘have it all’ by participating fully in the workplace, do we really think he is also choosing to spend less time with his children? It seems not. He is generally viewed by our present Western mores to be an excellent provider.  The underlying (and untrue) assumption here is that men add little value as carers of children, and that the benefit of spending more time at home is his alone and not for his children.  And what about when a man chooses to spend more time with his children, do we say, “Isn’t he wonderful”? Or isn’t it more likely that men who choose to be carers are viewed with suspicion because they question deeply held beliefs about a man’s masculinity and the need to be ‘the provider’? The reality is that the workplace will punish him just as severely as it presently punishes women who try to create flexible career paths for themselves.  The Australian Human Rights Commission’s pregnancy report also found over a quarter (27%) of fathers and partners reported experiencing discrimination when requesting or taking parental leave or when they returned to work.  So both men and women are subject to ‘gender backlash’, being punished by behaving outside the stereotype for their gender. 

So what should we be asking?

The reality is that, despite the undeniable challenges, more and more women are successfully combining careers and families. The advent of more flexible workplaces and a desire amongst men to participate more fully in caring responsibilities and to have some balance in their lives, is changing the picture. DCA’s Men Get Flexible! research found a significant number of men desire greater access to flexible work than they currently experience and this is especially the case for young fathers. Rapid developments in technology are also enabling work to be performed anytime and anywhere. But as our Get Flexible! research shows, much more needs to be done to make flexible working standard practice.

So instead of continually asking the question, “Can women have it all?”, why don’t we use our collective energies to answer the question, “How can we create a world of work that is flexible enough so women and men can make the choices that suit them and their families?”.   

Now that’s a question I really want answered!

Lisa Annese
DCA's Chief Executive officer

Twitter @LisaAnnese@DivCouncilAus

For more information on how you can mainstream flexible work and careers in your workplace, call DCA on (02) 8014 4300 or email us at

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