Why Do Women Really Leave Government?

In her Atlantic cover story, Anne-Marie Slaughter discusses her decision to leave the State Department to spend more time with her family. But a look at other women’s resignations reveals that the administration’s problem may be less about accommodating their families, and more about appointing women in the first place.

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Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of “Why Women Can’t Have It All.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter left her high-profile job working for Hillary Clinton to be with her teenage sons, she writes in an Atlantic cover story, “Why Women Can’t Have It All” — and she name-checks several other powerful women in government who made the same decision. But an examination of other resignations shows that while some women did leave for family reasons, many others left executive-branch jobs behind for other impressive opportunities. Failure to get women into government in the first place may be a bigger issue than family conflicts they face while they’re there.

“Juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible,” Slaughter writes — elsewhere, she terms this juggling act “having it all.” She adds, “I am hardly alone in this realization,” and lists three other high-profile women who left their government posts to be with their children, including George W. Bush assistant Mary Matalin, whom she quotes as saying, “Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.” Her message: the punishing schedule of government work is driving women out.

The Washington Post lists nine female Obama appointees who have resigned from cabinet, executive office, and regulatory agency posts during his administration. What’s clear from this list, and from appointees who remain, is that women are indeed underrepresented in such posts. As of 2009, just 32 percent of the President’s appointees were female. And Slaughter appears to be right that “the line of high-level women appointees in the Obama administration is one woman deep” — of the 10 women who resigned, just one has been replaced by another woman. In terms of recruiting women, the administration appears to be struggling.

But family demands may not be the main factor pushing out the few women who do make it in. One of these women, Carmen Nazario, former Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, did leave explicitly due to family obligations — she reportedly wanted to return to Puerto Rico to help care for her husband, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Four — Cathy Zoi, Kristina M. Johnson, Judith McHale, and Meredith Baker — left for jobs in the private sector. Two of these were controversial moves. Cathy Zoi was accused of conflicts of interest while at the Dept. of Energy, which may have contributed to her resignation, while Baker was criticized for jumping ship directly into a high-profile (and no doubt lucrative) job at Comcast, a company she used to regulate at the FCC.

Two women, like Slaughter, returned to academia. Christina Romer left the President’s Council of Economic Advisers to go back to the economics department at UC Berkeley, while Cecilia Rouse left the same group to return to Princeton. Rouse, a colleague of Slaughter’s, told BuzzFeed she too needed to return to Princeton in order to keep her tenure (professors there are granted a maximum of two years of leave). But, she added, “Did my family play a role? Yes. Working in the government is an honor, but it’s also a sacrifice.”

And two left their appointments to follow even higher governmental aspirations. Tammy Duckworth left her job with the Dept. of Veterans Affairs to run for Congress — and the most famous female appointee to resign from her job was Elena Kagan, who left her post as solicitor general to sit on the Supreme Court.

MIKE THEILER / Reuters

Justice Elena Kagan.

Of course, there’s no way of knowing all the personal sacrifices these women may have made to get where they were. And not all of them have the specific kinds of family obligations Slaughter did — Kagan, as Slaughter notes in her piece, does not have children. Still, it’s true that the women who have left high-level government posts in the last four years have generally gone on to prestigious positions, and their families haven’t usually been the primary reason for the switch.

These women are highly educated, and despite their demanding careers, may have more resources to help them juggle work and family than most. E.J. Graff wrote in the American Prospect that Slaughter’s points about the difficulties of balance were “even more true for people at the bottom, who have no sick leave, no choice in their shifts, no freedom to run over to the school if a child is sick.” And Rouse said the difficulties Slaughter had balancing work and family aren’t unique to government jobs — many careers that lack the flexibility of academia can also conflict with family obligations. That includes careers that are far less high-flying.

The Obama administration doesn’t seem to have a problem retaining female appointees — or at least, not one directly related to family issues. But it’s not doing a great job finding talented women, either initially or to replace those who leave. Work-life balance issues may be a part of that, but if so, they’re stopping women well before they reach Anne-Marie Slaughter’s level. Right now, the real problem may be less about keeping women at the highest levels of government, but getting them there in the first place.

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