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The choice: an anthropological analysis of whether woman can have it all

November 22, 2012

A bit of a change up in topic for this piece which does not address any foreign policy issue but rather an issue that is present in many different nations.

Ann Marie Slaughter, a former senior director in the US State Department, recently wrote an impressive article called ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’ arguing that today’s society forces women to choose between career and family. Though state provisions such as maternity leave aim to allow women to prosper in both spheres of their life, their effectiveness is limited.

In the UK 30,000 women a year lose their job due to pregnancy (Hopkins and Sunderland, 2009). A poll of 1,148 adults revealed that 70 per cent of mothers were re-entering the job market earlier than originally intended because of financial concerns, with over half saying they were returning to work six to 12 months sooner than they expected (Hogarth et al., 2009: 40-41).

Slaughter herself names numerous high profile women who made an unambiguous choice between family and career: two of the three female Supreme Court justices are single and childless; Michèle Flournoy stepped down after three years as undersecretary of defence for policy to spend time with her family; Mary Maitlin, counsellor to Vice President Dick Cheney, stepped down in order to spend more time with her daughters (Slaughter, 2012).

As I am neither a woman who has to endure the difficult balancing act nor an employer who has to incur the financial obligations of providing maternity support for employees, I will steer clear of morally judging the current state of affairs or suggesting what is the ‘right’ role of women in the workplace or the home. What I seek to show is that an anthropological analysis illustrates that the choice between work which takes place away from the home and child care/fertility is a dilemma that crosses cultures and time, and that the exceptions to this rule provide lessons about how the modern industrialised world could resolve this dilemma.

Anthropological analysis of gender roles

The sexual division of labour has long been a central topic in anthropology and highlights a central theoretical schism that anthropology has to deal with as both an art and a science: the explanation of behaviours as either socially constructed or based on biology. Notable anthropologists such as Margret Mead and Clifford Geertz argued that masculine and feminine roles and traits were entirely social constructs (Wood and Eagly, 2002: 700-701). However Wood and Eagly’s comparative synthesis of 185 ethnographies (first hand anthropological studies of other cultures) found a common pattern in labour activities that were predominantly/exclusively male or female.

Wood and Eagly argued that male activities such as the hunting of large land and aquatic fauna, mining and trapping, are incompatible with infant care and take place far away from the homestead (ibid: 704-709). In contrast activities that were more likely to be female, such as water collecting, cooking and fuel collection, could be done in conjunction with infant care (ibid). They also showed that the strength demanded for a job, a biological difference that has commonly been interpreted as integral in defining sexual roles, had a much smaller effect in determining how activities were sexually assigned (ibid: 721).

An important finding was that this cross-cultural pattern was not entirely rigid and the allocation of tasks was flexible with only a few tasks being almost entirely exclusive to one sex. For example, in societies where women contributed more to the subsistence economy, there were commonly post-partum sex taboos and early supplemental  feeding regimes to increase birth spacing and reduce the time needed for nursing (ibid: 709). Wood and Eagly suggest that the marked increase of women in the paid labour force stems from women’s increased control over reproduction and the decline in birth rates (ibid: 721).


Of course it is commonly accepted that while sex is biological ‘gender’, the expectations and assumptions made about a member of each sex, is cultural. Thus technically gender and sex can be in opposition to each other and, while such instances are rare in the ethnographical record, when women enter male roles and engage in male activities, fertility is normally sacrificed. In essence, a woman to change her gender must forsake what defines her sex. A notable example is the Balkan men-women. In numerous societies in the Balkan highlands, a woman could renounce marriage and swear virginity and so gain male privileges such as smoking, socializing with men in public, inheriting property, bearing weapons and engaging in feuds, in short she became an ‘honorary man’ (Djajic Horvath, 2011).

War as an activity is still, even in the Western world, perceived to be the domain of men. It requires mobility, long periods of time away from the home and placing oneself in physical danger. Yet ethnographic examples of women-warriors and men-women show that a renunciation of reproduction can allow women to enter this arena. Balkan men-women often engaged in blood feuds (ibid).  The all-female Dahomey Royal Guard were expected to be entirely chaste to enable them to carry out their role as warriors (Silverblatt, 1988: 439). A more recent example are the women rebels in the Mau-Mau uprising: Kikuyu women could join the rebels only if they were single and free from domestic duties, as soon as a woman became pregnant she had her rifle confiscated and was returned to her village to become a domestic mother (Kanogo, 1988: 87-88).

Socio-cultural anthropologist Sherry Ortner argues that virginity “downplays the uniquely feminine capacity to be penetrated and give birth to children… a non-virgin is downgraded to mere womanhood” (Silverblatt, 1988: 447). This statement explains why in many past societies women enter the occupational role of men through a renunciation of what biologically defines them as female.

The workplace/home divide

The current problem women face stems from the fact that, like war and hunting, the modern work place is generally far from the home and modern occupations cannot normally be done in conjunction with child care. With the Industrial Revolution came the increased separation of workplace and homestead (Abrams, 2001).  It was also during this period that the idealised image of the purely domestic woman, whose sole role was childcare and household management, was created (ibid). Women today have inherited a work arena which is distinctly separate from the private sphere and have spent decades fighting the image inherited from the days of the Industrial Revolution.

In spite of the strong cross-cultural link between the sexual division of activity and fertility, the exceptions shed light on how a restructuring of society could allow women to, in Slaughter’s words, ‘have it all’. Although the hunting of large fauna is cross-culturally assigned as a man’s job, the Agata women of the Philippines not only consistently hunt but do so during their prime reproductive years (Goodman et al., 1985: 1201-1202). This is probably due to the ecology of the region the Agata inhabit: in contrast to most hunts which can take days if not weeks, 95% of the 430 observed Agata hunting trips occurred within 10 km of the homestead (ibid: 1203).

Goodman et al. noted that: “The feasibility of hunts of less than a day’s duration appears to be an important factor in the prevalence of hunting among Agata women” (ibid: 1204). Most importantly hunting did not necessarily impede child care: because women hunted in teams with dogs, as opposed to men who hunted alone with weapons, infants could be carried on a female hunter’s back and older children could be brought along (ibid: 1207).

The example of the Agata illustrates that when the organisation of the economy is set up in a manner which allows women to combine child care with certain occupational roles, women can and will enter those roles. Slaughter herself admitted to leaving her prestigious job as Director of Policy Planning for the State Department to return to her Princeton professorship, where her flexible working hours and autonomy allowed her to manage her time so she could both see the kids and attend to her career (Slaughter, 2012).

Removing the choice

Slaughter identifies the need for an economy that allows women to not have to choose and points out that technological innovations such as video conferencing and the adoption of more flexible hours can make this possible (ibid).

Anthropological evidence supports Slaughter’s conclusion that the best way to avoid women making the choice between children and career is to remove it. Doing so would offer employers a huge pool of talented labour in the form of women who may have chosen to pursue an entirely domestic role. Slaughter cites a study of 527 companies which found that those with family friendly policies had higher perceived performance than industry competitors (ibid).

My analysis does rely on one controversial assumption: that child care is the role of women and cannot, or is unlikely to, be done by men. Slaughter herself addresses this assumption:

“I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.” (ibid)

She does acknowledge that such an opinion is treading on dangerous ground and could be dismissed as stereotyping (ibid). Having spent time working in a high powered job and rubbing shoulders with numerous powerful women, her opinion is informed, even if it may be anecdotal. Survey data and figures support her assertion. A survey of 2,443 women and 653 men, all holding degree level qualifications, found that 44% of women who left a high powered job did so for ‘family time’ while only 12% of men stated the same reason (Hewlett and Luce, 2005). In Finland, a country which allows parents to divide the majority of parental leave (a system that will soon by adopted in the UK) and is known for having a one of the highest female employment rates in the EU, 92% of leave days are taken by mothers (EU, 2012). It is worth noting that Finland has the highest female employment rate in the EU (ibid). Cultural change may mean that eventually men and women take equal responsibility for childcare. However cultural change tends to be gradual. Meanwhile women are still facing a choice between professional and domestic success. Women who intend to attempt to succeed in both spheres face discrimination from employers.

That is not to say that the struggle for cultural change should be abandoned. However it is probably more effective to extend flexible working hours to men than to demand inflexible working hours of women and to declare them as noncompetitive and a financial liability when they take maternity leave.

I am well aware of the range of opinions on the issues discussed above and would like to hear any well-constructed criticism, alternative opinions or supportive comments.


Abrams, Lynn. 2001. Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain. BBC History Website ( Copy available from author.

Djajic Horvath, Aleksandra. 2011. Of Female Chastity and Male Arms: The Balkan Man-Woman in the Age of the World Picture. Journal of the History of Sexuality 20(2).

European Alliance For Families. 2012. Finland: Towards a Healthy Balance between Work and Family Life. European Union Website ( Copy available from author.

Goodman, Madeline J, Griffin, P Bion, Estioko-Griffin, Agnes A and Grove, John S. 1985. The Compatibility of Hunting and Mothering among the Agata Hunter-Gathers of the Philippines. Sex Roles 12: 1199-1209.

Hewlett, Sylia Ann and Luce, Carolyn Buck. 2005. Off-Ramps and On-Ramps. Harvard Business Review 83(3): 43-54.

Hogarth, Terence, Owen, David, Gambin, Lynn, Hasluck, Chris, Lyonette, Clare and Casey, Bernard. 2009. The equality impacts of the current recession. Equality and Human Rights Commission, Research Report 47.

Hopkins, Kathy and Sunderland, Ruth. 2009. Pregnant Staff Face New Wave of Bullying. The Guardian Website ( Copy available from author.

Kanogo, Tabitha. 1988. Kikuyu Women and the Politics of Protest: Mau-Mau. Pp78-99 in Images of Women in Peace and War: Cross-Cultural and Historical Perspectives, edited by Sharon MacDonald, Pat Holden and Shirley Ardener. London: The MacMillan Press.

Silverblatt, Irene. 1988. Women In States. Annual Review of Anthropology 17: 427-460.

Slaughter, Ann Marie. 2012. Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. The Atlantic Website ( Copy available from author.

Wood, Wendy and Eagly, Alice H. 2002. A Cross-Cultural Analysis of the Behavior of Women and Men: Implications for the Origins of Sex Differences. Psychological Bulletin 128(5): 699-727.


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