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Ladies, Let's Move Past the 'Having it All' Debate

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By most measures, I have it all: fulfilling work, a wonderful family and friends. At least, that's the 10,000-foot view. Come a little closer and you get a clearer picture of my life, which in addition to all the successes includes disastrous meetings, unpaid bills and epic #momfails.

Still, I not only think I have it all, I want more and I'm getting pretty fed up with this constant assumption that will never happen. I lay the blame of this defeatist approach on this fruitless discourse that has dominated any discussion about women's advancement in business over the last year in half with one, irritating line: Can we have it all?

It's time to put an end to the "having it all" madness. For one, this meaningless term serves only to make the most successful women feel like failures. On a broader level, it also insinuates that the feminist dream of equal opportunities to men is inherently flawed, as in our struggle for progress we somehow forgot some basic biological function.

Rather than stay on track with this meandering debate, we owe it to ourselves, and future generations, to refocus our attentions on real issues: a stubborn wage gap, the under-representation of women in senior roles and covert discrimination in the workplace. At the same time, let's continue to highlight successes, which most recently include Janet Yellen's nomination as the first female chair the Federal Reserve and Kathleen Taylor's appointment as the first woman to chair a board of directors at a major Canadian bank.

Before ending this chapter, it's important to recognize that this "woe-is-me" approach to professional women started out with the best of intentions when Anne-Marie Slaughter eloquently wrote about being pulled apart by her role at the State Department and the needs of her struggling, teenage son. Then Sheryl Sandberg came out with Lean In and invited women to take more chances, while suggesting their husbands change more diapers. Recently, Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College weighted in with her own book, Wonder Women, where she examines that the success of feminism lead women to think, "because we could do anything, we felt as if we had to do everything."

Hundreds of less famous people -- myself included -- have weighed in on what it means to have it all, not only in the conventional sense but how it relates to men, the childfree and even women who don't want it all.

Jennifer Hawkins, vice president and general manager of Merchant Services at American Express Canada calls 'Having it All' a "poor term that can actually set ourselves up for failure." Expecting harmonious work-life balance at all times is unrealistic. Yet, she also suggests that it's time to step back and realize that this conversation was born from an abundance of opportunity.

"We have so many more options than our mothers and grandmothers had. And because we have so many more options, we're trying to balance more opportunities," she added.

That dearth of options may come as little solace to the many professional women too busy struggling with the day-to-day obstacles to worry about the future of this conversation. And we owe it to them in particular to move away from this broad and fruitless discussion in favour of focusing on solutions to real problems.

"I see the 'Having it All' conversation as an artifact from a world that has since moved on. It's based on assumptions about work that are no longer true for the majority of workers," observed Jane Watson, an HR professional in Toronto and blogger at TalentVanguard.com. Ms. Watson explained that the choice to try to get a well-paid job and have children is really no longer a choice many have, taking into consideration today's workplace landscape, which includes contingent work, stagnant wages, unemployment and the rising cost of housing and child care.

"Given the economic and employment picture over the last several years, I would argue that most women no longer have a choice -- they have to do both because having a family, and a home, and childcare requires two decent salaries, or if raising children without a partner, one very good salary. So, I guess at the core of my annoyance with 'Having it all', is that most of those conversations focus on high-powered executive women, who can usually afford to hire help, and ignores the fact that the vast majority of women travel both of these avenues, and don't have much choice in the matter," she added.

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