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posted: 5/26/2014 7:16 AM

Q&A with Anne-Marie Slaughter: Gender parity at work, home

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  • Anne-Marie Slaughter, the chief executive officer of the New America Foundation.

    Anne-Marie Slaughter, the chief executive officer of the New America Foundation.

By Lillian Cunningham, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Upon writing the Atlantic magazine cover story "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" two years ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter quickly became known for her views on women's issues as much as for her longtime foreign policy expertise. Slaughter, now chief executive officer of the New America Foundation, had served as dean of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Excerpts of an interview:

Q: How would you characterize your approach to leadership?

A: I took over the Woodrow Wilson School as dean. I was 42. I came into a school with 70 faculty, 300 students, 100 staff, and I really had to figure out how I was going to be a leader. I looked for inspiration to Joseph Nye, a mentor who was dean of the Kennedy School. There's no question he's in charge, he's responsive, but he's a little distant. I would describe it as a kind of Olympian style, and it works well for him.

It was never going to work for me. I am not quiet. I tend to immediately forge relationships. I can't hold myself aloof.

Leadership styles are personal. You can read books and look at other people, but if it doesn't reflect your personality, your way of interacting, your strengths -- and probably your weaknesses -- it's not going to work.

Q: What other leadership challenges have you wrestled with?

A: John Sexton, who is president of NYU, said, "A good leader knows what he or she is not good at." I have focused on that a lot.

At 55, I can strive to be better, but I'm not going to change some fundamental dimensions of my personality. I'm better at big think. I'm better at mobilization and energy and transformation. But I've come to realize I need someone under me who can keep the trains running. You need to be honest that you're not good at everything and compensate for it, rather than hoping tomorrow you'll wake up as somebody else.

Q: It's been two years since your Atlantic article. What have you taken away from the process of putting those ideas into the public square and the reaction?

A: I never expected the reaction there was. I've spent two years giving speeches to probably 150 audiences, and I've changed my own thinking a lot. I see this issue now much more in terms not of discrimination against women but rather of not valuing the work women have traditionally done, not valuing the work of care -- whether it's done by a rising executive or by a single mother.

Q: What do you think about the term "woman leader"?

A: Every woman leader I know, myself included, would like to be known as a good leader, or a successful leader, or an effective leader -- not with that adjective "woman". That is unquestionably the world we want to get to. Until we get rid of that adjective, we know we have not gotten to anything like equality and parity.

On the other hand, it is still harder for women to lead than it is for men to lead, and people expect things of women they don't expect of men. When women act like men, they are much more likely to be punished for it. So this conversation just has to continue until we are in a situation where it's no longer striking that a leader is a woman.

Q: Pattie Sellers, who organizes Fortune's Most Powerful Women summit, once said she doesn't think we will ever see a day where 50 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. That shocked a lot of people, since she's such a big advocate for women's leadership. Do you think we will ever reach 50 percent?

A: I do think we will hit a day in which virtually all professions have much more parity than they do today. Will it be 50-50? That seems an abnormal state, but I can imagine it fluctuating around 60-40, or 40-60, where there is rough parity in business as well as in medicine, in banking, in education.

But it's got to be both directions. We should not just be focusing on whether women are moving into men's professions; we need to be focusing on whether men are moving into traditional women's professions. I would like to see 50 percent of our teachers be men. I think that would be better for kids, and I think it would be better for the profession -- just as I would like to see 50 percent of our bankers be women, or our CEOs.

People have to be equally able to choose the kind of profession they want, and the combination of breadwinning and caregiving they want. If we can destroy male stereotypes in the next 20 years the way we've destroyed female stereotypes, we are going to see a whole lot more flow in and out of all professions.

Q: Are you seeing change come out of the discussions that you and Sheryl Sandberg sparked?

A: I give Sandberg a lot of credit for the parts of "Lean In" that are valuable for younger women -- the parts that say, "Sit at the table. Don't apologize before you speak. Be willing to ask for a raise."

I'm also seeing more women and men willing to be assertive around the ways in which they need to be caregivers as well as breadwinners. I see more willingness to say, as one of my employees emailed, "No, I can't go on this trip with you, because my wife did all the child care last week, and this week she needs to work on a big case. It's my turn."

I think that's just a very healthy development, that we make clear we live life in the round -- and that includes taking care of the people we love.

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• Cunningham is the editor of The Washington Post's On Leadership site and writes features for the section. Follow her on Twitter: @lily_cunningham.

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