Can Women (Or Anyone) “Do It All” Through Sequencing?

businesswomanBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

The perennial “Having It All” debate at times leads to the concept of “sequencing,” which suggests that women can in fact have everything they want from work and family life, if only they stagger their timing of when they focus on each. (As a side note, some have bristled at the idea that having it all is exclusively a women’s issue—see a Wharton professor’s post on the HBR Blog Network for this perspective.)

The concept of sequencing continues to be promoted by some prominent female leaders, such as Michele Flournoy, formerly the highest woman in the Pentagon, and disputed by others, such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the state department under Hillary Clinton and author of the controversial article published last year in The Atlantic called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

In an interview with NPR for All Things Considered, Flournoy comments:

“I just think … there’s a sequencing. I mean, I’m one who believes that you can have it all—you just can’t always have it at exactly the same time with equal intensity. My career has looked like a sine curve in terms of balancing and rebalancing. Different periods where I’ve had more intense career focus versus more of a family focus.”

The NPR interview notes Flournoy’s admission, however, that the vision of sequencing isn’t possible for everyone, since many women lack the support that they’d need to rebalance while still remaining competitive. This leads to the counterpoint of the argument: that sequencing is a myth.

In an interview with Slaughter published in The New York Times, Slaughter suggests that women need to stop perpetuating the idea that doing it all is possible if you simply rely on sequencing:

“We say either ‘you can have it all’ or ‘you can have it all, but not at the same time.’ The first is true only in extraordinary circumstances. … I also wanted to say to my generation, ‘Hey, we’re not actually helping by just repeating this mantra.’ For those of us who have managed who do it, we need to admit that we are the exception and not the rule. We need to stop congratulating ourselves and focus on the reality for most women.”

Which side of the fence do you fall on? The Glass Hammer polled a group of women from diverse industries, as well as career experts, for their experience and feedback.

New Term, Old Fallacy

The very term “sequencing” makes some people’s skin crawl. “The worst advice I heard early on, even fairly recently, in my career was, ‘You can have it all, just not all at once,’” says women’s career expert Gretchen Duhaime. “Fortunately I see the tides turning on this. At the last major women’s
conference I attended, not one of the speakers uttered anything even close, instead promoting the idea of following one’s passion.”

Libby Gill, author of You Unstuck, suggests that sequencing is just “a more palatable way to describe the conundrum of having it all.”

“It is just another fallacy of the work/life balance trap,” says Gill. “The myth of work/life balance is that there is an answer out there somewhere. In fact, balance is—and always will be—a very personal challenge that each of us must solve in our own imperfect ways.” 

Gill adds that while there are certainly periods of more intense need, such as when caring for a newborn or a sick family member, no one can effectively slot child-rearing or elder-care efforts into neat time sequences. “As women, I believe we need to have the courage to be more transparent about our needs, more willing to ask for help, and more demanding on our behalf.”

Planning Ahead

Some, however, do believe in sequencing, and have experienced its effects firsthand. Kaamna Bhojwani-Dhawanis is a 33-year-old mother of two. Her observation: “I absolutely think women can have it all through sequencing, because the alternative, which is trying to do it all at the same time, doesn’t work.”

Bhojwani-Dhawan worked for four years before having kids to make sure she was at a “decent place” in her career. She then took four years off from the traditional working world to avoid feeling torn between her career and her kids. During that time, she started Momaboard, a website for parents who travel, and wrote the New Dad Book.

When her youngest child turned one, she decided to reenter the traditional workforce. “The experience and skills I had kept up held me in good stead,” she says. “Even then I chose carefully—I looked for companies that offered challenging work, career progression and money, but with an understanding of what it meant to be a mom.”

As a result, Bhojwani-Dhawan became director of marketing for Coliloquy, a Silicon Valley firm with a progressive work culture. “I work part-time and travel sometimes, but am around most afternoons to take my kids to classes or the park. I feel like I pretty much have it all.”

Automatic Sequencing

Can you always plan for sequencing, or does it just happen? In some cases, as with Tara Wilson, general counsel at Wilson, lf, a boutique law firm, it’s the latter. Wilson was an attorney at Skadden, an AMLAW 100 law firm, before becoming a mother of two children (now ages four and two) and launching her own firm.

“Sequencing seems to be the very definition of how my career and life as a mother is playing out, without me realizing there was a technical term for what I was doing,” says Wilson. “I focused on my academics and career for many years and attained the status, wealth, and experience I set out to before taking an extended maternity leave to have my son, and in quick succession, my daughter.”

Wilson has built a strong practice working around her children’s current schedule, and in September will step-up to “working mother’s hours” while her son and daughter are in school full-day (until 2pm).

“While I did not envision my career unfolding in exactly this manner, I did know that I wanted to raise my kids, so I would need to take the focus away from my career while they were still in diapers,” says Wilson. “I am so grateful that I am able to focus on my kids while they are home – and when their time is occupied at school, mine will be occupied in my firm’s new office.”

Peggy Murphy, executive vice president for technology staffing division sales for Eliassen Group, also feels in retrospect that the term “sequencing” fits her career trajectory, though she didn’t plan for it.

“I did not have a particular set order for doing things when I began working,” says Murphy. “As I was growing in my career and gaining leadership opportunities, I never thought about starting a family. I never thought, ‘Okay, I’m getting older, it’s time to settle down and start having kids.’ For me, that occurred naturally, as part of a progression through life. I just always felt that everything would happen in its own due course, and it has for me.”