All the President's Men, but Where Are the Women?

The Presidential Conference had a notable gender imbalance on its panels. Tech entrepreneur Weili Dai, one of the few women powerhouses present, spoke to Haaretz about how she does it all.

Can women have it all? It’s a question that’s been discussed for decades, but particularly in the months following Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic.

In “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” published a year ago, Slaughter explains her reasons for resigning from her dream job as director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department – the first woman ever to hold that coveted position. The reason: she couldn’t hold the job and also be a functional mother, even though her two sons were already heading into their teen years.

The article struck a nerve and bounced around the blogosphere like none other in recent memory – except maybe “The Case Against Breastfeeding” by Hanna Rosin in the same magazine in 2009. In part these essays turn on its head the once-sacred wisdom imparted to my generation by the feminist movement. Most of us will not manage to march on towards the upper echelons of our professions, Slaughter and Rosin essentially argue, because choosing motherhood will inevitably set us back.

In a position paper to the Presidential Conference, Hebrew University Psychology Professor Amia Lieblich takes on the question and says, in short, nonsense: Women can have it all if they choose the right professions and partners.

“The fierce conflict between family life and career mainly revolves around the period when the children are infants, and even if we include their adolescence like Slaughter, it is merely a short and passing phase in the family life,” Lieblich writers. “In general, it is all about time-management on one hand, and a delicate system that is either supportive or destructive on the other hand.”

Here are the highlights from the three ways Lieblich says this can be done:

1. The woman must pick a working environment that allows a flexible schedule that she can very much control. Hospitals and law-firms for instance, are completely out of the question since they present impossible challenges to mothers of young children.

2. One should hope that the woman has a partner who perceives her work as equal to his, and enjoys her success. He should also be willing, and able (in terms of his job) to share – perhaps even 50% -- of the tasks concerning handling and educating the children.

3. Related factors have major importance: the workplace must not be judgmental or criticizing and it must view the family as part of the employee’s self and welfare.

I was keen to find Lieblich on the schedule of speakers at the conference – and didn’t. When I asked, I was told that hers and the five other position papers served as inspiration for the shaping of various panels at the conference.

Interesting, because in every panel I attended, there was one woman to four men. A media panel had one woman on a panel of five (plus a female moderator), while on three panels to do with education and “tikkun olam” – or fixing the world – women were well-represented, making up at least half of the participants. But when it came to many of the heavy-hitter panels  - two on  issues of war and peace, economics and high-tech,women were either absent or were at most one voice to a ratio of five.

How is it that an Israel-based conference focused on “tomorrow” came up with so few female powerhouses, not including megastars Barbra Streisand and Sharon Stone?

Weili Dai, the co-founder of the Marvell Technology Group, stands out among the few superwomen who did get prime billing at the conference – and embodies what a tomorrow-focused conference ought to have on its roster. The Chinese-American businesswoman, who moved to the U.S. from Shanghai when she was 17, is the only woman co-founder of a global semiconductor company. Today is has 7,000 employees, about 20 percent of them in Israel.

“I think a woman can lead any industry,” she said in an interview with Haaretz. “I was able to do it because I’m passionate about being a caretaker, not just for my family but for the industry.”

Both of her sons, age 23 and 25, are PhD students at the University of California at Berkeley, where she met her husband in a moment of “geek meets geek,” she jokes. Together, they started Marvell when the boys were four and six.

“People say, ‘How did you do it?’ Well, when they were off from school, I brought them to the office with me. I let them sit there in the conference room with me and do their work or drawing so I could keep an eye on them. It’s really about how you manage it. If you’re passionate about whatever you do, it’s doable.”

The “bring your kids to work” phenomena Dai describes is one answer – for some.

The New York Times explored this in a 2009 article, “Maternity-Leave Alternative: Bring the Baby to Work,” showing that an increasing number of women were bringing infants to work rather than parking them for long hours in daycare or with a nanny. But when I tried pulling that one, suggesting to my boss of about a year ago that I bring my four-month-old baby to the office for about a third of my workday – I had a private office in the building, after all – he quickly put the kabosh on it, digging up a company decision that children were banned from the office premises altogether.

Dai had the foresight and the vision to create her own reality, though not every profession affords that possibility. And Slaughter hasn’t actually fallen from professional grace: She’s now a professor at Princeton, finding academia a bit softer on family life than high-profile policymaking. We can only hope that all the president’s men will find more women like them to bring to Jerusalem for next year’s conference.

Eyal Toueg