Judith Rodin and the Myth of Women “Having it All”

If a trailblazer like Rodin says she wished she hadn't waited so long to have kids, where does that leave the rest of us?

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In 1994, when Judith Rodin, the current president of the Rockefeller Foundation, was leaving her post as provost at Yale to become the president at the University of Pennsylvania and the first woman to lead an Ivy League school, her former graduate students in Yale’s department of psychology came back to campus to throw her a going-away party.

While chatting with them, Rodin — the former department chair and first female dean of Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who’d written 203 academic articles, 64 book chapters and ten academic books (as co-author)during her two decades at the university — became aware of an odd dichotomy between the life paths of the men and women she’d formerly taught. The men, she told an almost all-female breakfast crowd assembled for the Women of Washington event at the W Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, had almost all gone on to full professorships at prestigious universities. Many of her female students, however, were on a slow track to more or less nowhere — or so it seemed to her, she said, in her “horrible value judgment way” of that time.

“Wasn’t I a great role model for you?” she recalled asking these young women, letting her disappointment show after a couple of glasses of wine.

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“’No,’” she reported that several told her. “’You were a horrible role model, because you were always strung out and anxious, trying to do too many things at once. We made different decisions with our lives, and we’re really happy.’”

Rodin shared this anecdote — after speaking more enthusiastically about “impact investing,” global philanthropy and innovative ways to reinvigorate American manufacturing, infrastructure and education — when an audience member, a self-described forty-something, mother-of-three professional, rose to her feet to ask the 67-year-old if she had any words of wisdom to share with women in the audience “on the younger end of the age spectrum.”

“If you knew what you know now,” the woman asked,  “What advice would you give, what would you do differently?”

After a pause, with an initial expression that looked almost angry, Rodin admitted there was much, indeed, that she would have done differently.

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“I waited until I got tenure at Yale to have my first child, and then I could only have one,” she said. “It is a deep regret.” And: “I always believed you could have it all, and I think I have been able to have much of it, but maybe I put too much pressure on myself.”

The going-away party, she said, truly became a turning point in her life. “I changed a lot of things in my life after that to really make sure I was focusing on balance and that success is defined by that more holistic outcome.”

Rodin’s personal recollections sparked a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience. And yet at least a few of us came away deeply unsettled by her reflections. What if Rodin had, in fact, lived her life in accordance with the principles for better living she was now passing on to the next generation? Would she have been able to do everything she has so inspiringly achieved? Would she have blazed the path for women at other Ivy League schools, mentoring and leading students and younger faculty, and working to nudge the University of Pennsylvania, at least, in a more family-friendly direction?

Asked these questions after the program ended, she was, once again, blunt and honest. “I don’t know,” she said.

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The American workplace is now filled with people — men and women — fueled overwhelmingly by anxiety. Some are temperamentally destined to operate in this way; most have been pushed deeper into fear by the wretched economy. Such conditions are not conducive to going out on a limb, standing up to bosses, pushing back against the on-call demands of our 24/7 work culture, for the sake of a healthier, happier, more “holistically” productive way of being.

Legislating change can only go so far (and in the current climate, won’t go much of anywhere).  That’s why it’s people at the top, like Rodin, who have to take responsibility for changing our work culture. Using the lessons they’ve learned — the regrets that many, male and female alike, say they harbor as they look back on time lost — to send employees home at a reasonable hour each day, and set a positive example themselves by saying an early goodnight. By welcoming workplace flexibility, honoring employees’ family commitments, celebrating vacation time, and encouraging employees who manage to creatively and successfully  build reasonably well-balanced lives, these leaders can help others to do the same.

“Horrible” role models are a dime a dozen.  It’s time for those in power — both men and women alike — to use their personal triumphs to redefine success for us all.

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