“Having it all” Three words which set women up to struggle

by Nov 7, 2023

The phrase “Having it All” has done untold damage

Yet amidst all the quiet quitting and lazy girl jobs articles around today, we STLL see “having it all” posts.


According to NYT, Joyce Gabriel and Bettye Baldwin published “Having It All: A Practical Guide to Managing a Home and a Career” The sound bite gained real momentum in 1982 by Helen Gurley Brown, then Editor of Cosmo  (not by Anne-Marie Slaughter) in her book Having It All.  She kicked off a “Having it all” movement. She advocated that it was possible to have a successful career, money, great kids and relationships, look fabulous, have fun, PLUS great sex.

It essentially was a way of giving women permission to pursue a career. This gave way to a whole host of other, and what should be dated terms like “working mum,” and “mompreneur” etc, ad nauseam. Sadly they are still in use. It’s all about getting time poor women to manage their time better and cope with stress.

Don’t forget this was at a time when grey was still a colour, not a shade and a play room was a safe place for kids.

Women and work

This was also a point in our history when women were just starting to enter the workplace in a serious way and only a very small percentage were university graduates. It was a time when women still felt guilty (and were made to feel guilty) about working outside the home and needed permission to do so. “Career girls” identified in the 70s, by this time had mutated even further into “working Mums” separating them from “stay-at-home mums” (a.k.a. normal/real women) which only served to create a rift between the two groups.

Being a working Mum was a luxury and women were made to feel they had to incorporate all the responsibilities of being a “normal/real woman” with their professional jobs. Having a career was a supplement to our proper work. It spawned the damaging “invisible shift” trap that went on to eventually suck women into burnout.  It contributed to women still assuming the greater workload of household chores. Those three words set us up to struggle.

In today’s culture and workplaces, women have a different experience and this is catch phrase is no longer appropriate or relevant. They need to havve different expectations and so do the people around them.

Women Today

Today women represent 60% of university graduates and make up 50% of the workforce. 30% of major breadwinners are women. The notion of “having it all” is an outdated stereotyping concept that embeds perfectionism into a woman’s life. They are chasing the holy grail. It doesn’t exist. Or if it does, it comes in different forms for different women and also their partners. Having it all may also come at a price. Previous generations came to understand that it really meant “doing it all” or “managing it all.” For most women this is exhausting and many women of the era felt duped.

In 2004 Shirley Conran of “superwoman” fame (as in the book) who was around before even HGB, eventually came to realise:

“you don’t need a pair of breasts to take a child to the dentist”


having it all


Two career families

Today with salaries stagnating at the same levels as the early 80s, many families are economically reliant on a two-income household. It’s no longer a luxury for women to go out to work. It’s not a supplement but a necessity for many. The phrase also means different things to different women in different geographies. It fails women of colour who trail behind their white female counterparts, particularly in terms of salary.

Check out: 3Plus Career Coaching Programs for aspiring women

Can you have it all?

So not only are women today encountering corporate resistance, but many are still working out how to navigate jointly agreed priorities within their relationships to find somewhere near the balance they are looking for. Gender balance is more than a workplace issue. It isn’t just about equal split of household chores or 50% of executives being female. Although that would indeed be good. It is about redefining gender expectations and letting go of the penalties we impose when both men and women, boys and girls step out of their pre-defined boxes.

Women had started to make inroads into domestic stereotyping but got overtaken by the global pandemic. Even though men took on some extra domestic chores during lockdown, it wasn’t as much as their female partners. Subsequently, we are seeing some backsliding from men. During the pandemic men for example increased their time cooking meals. However, they cut back on this too except in one geography, which almost surprisingly is Italy. Today women cook twice as many meals as men.

Gender balance at home

Both men and women should be given the freedom to be carers and nurturers, or assertive revenue generators or a combination of both. Maybe at different times, or even at the same time. It shouldn’t matter. It should reflect the culture and realities of the times we live in.

Suggesting women try to “have it all” fails both men and women in equal measure.

I love this quote from Michael Ray Gender Equity Expert


A recent U.K. survey says that in the “largest ever study of the workforce” 90% of men want a flexible working and it should no longer be considered the “mummy track”.

Flexible working was defined as either “part-time, or if full-time, a work pattern that involves reduced hours, shift choices or the ability to work at home for some, or all, of the working week.”  Research from Unilever found that 85% of men want to spend more time with their children yet are denied by predominantly male bosses.

having it all

Work life balance

The survey also set out to ‘bust the mum myth,  break the stereotypes and “preconceptions that flexible working is only for women with children”  Men should be able to take paternity leave without stress from their peers and bosses. Organisations need to reflect shifts in modern culture and many are slow to do so as we discussed at the Unleash round table on parenting. They are in some cases decades behind. Gen Z is leading the way in this push for change with stronger demands to resist corporate gaslighting in their “quiet quitting ” campaigns. Work-life balance and career opportunities are almost equally important to them and many would take a pay-cut for increased flexibility.

So I plead with women coming through the ranks, it’s time to bury that phrase. 

You really don’t want to go back in time. You don’t need or don’t even want to have it all.


Don’t try to have it all. Find out what you can do instead

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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