She should have it all. That's the message of one of the top-grossing movies this past week, Pixar's "Brave."
The heroine princess shoots straighter arrows than the guys, rides better than knights and puts her mother in her place by turning her into a bear. In the end, the princess saves the day by persuading the king to abolish arranged marriage and recognize female power.
In recent weeks, the real-life equivalent to Pixar's animated story has been playing itself out. Anne-Marie Slaughter, an eminent scholar, has also bested the competition in credentials and quality of her work. Yet in serving at the State Department as the first female director of policy planning, Slaughter found it difficult, even with a supportive husband, to do her job and care for her sons. She reported it all in a lengthy Atlantic magazine article.
Slaughter offered a short version of her solutions to the Associated Press: increase the number of female politicians and change the culture in government and companies. "We need to change our social policies more fundamentally with good day care, school that ends the same time work ends and really providing for more integrated work and school life," Slaughter said.
In her description of the skewed work-life balance at the State Department, Slaughter speaks truth to power. There are diplomats at Foggy Bottom who miss baseball games, know their children only through Skype, and nonetheless endure the contempt of colleagues who put in even more hours. But that is not because these diplomats are women. No one at the State Department has it all, not even Secretary Hillary Clinton.
Life at the State Department is tough because the jobs are mostly process-oriented. They involve interacting with colleagues: writing memos to other people in government, responding to memos, setting internal policy and reacting to mysterious arbitrary demands from multiple parties. That takes a lot of time.
The same holds for jobs at inward-turned corporations. Developing and sustaining corporate culture is a goal at many companies -- the golf retreats, the executive teamwork matter a lot, or even most. Any process-oriented company demands face time. This also holds true for jobs that are about internal teams -- crafting a deal, say, at an investment house, before you go out to make the sale.
But there is another kind of work, in which women may excel even during the child-rearing stage. That is the results- oriented job. If you are supposed to produce or sell 100 widgets a week, and you produce or sell 101, you win. If your job is to produce great ideas for the outside marketplace of ideas, and you do that yourself, you win, too -- no one will care how many children you have or when you get the job done. The key is that the market provides irrefutable evidence of your success. Such work is just as hard as the process-oriented kind, but more rewarding, and allows more flexibility.
Women who deliver results as measured by the external marketplace can run into trouble when they rise in government departments or corporations, for the higher jobs frequently demand more process. Sometimes being No. 2 means being available to translate and transmit the chief's shifting wishes. Sometimes high-level jobs require intense interaction with other company departments. If your company makes screws for the widgets you sell, you have to get the screws from the other department. That eats time.
But every company features a different results-to-process ratio. For women choosing employment, this ratio is as much worthy of scrutiny as the work-life balance. Women already study such general dynamics, as has been documented by the scholar Boris Groysberg. In a book on executive talent, "Chasing Stars," he says women conduct more research about companies before accepting a job offer.
Encountering a culture or process that gives them difficulty, women protect themselves against failure. "Women in a male-dominated profession appeared to nurture stronger external (and therefore portable) professional relationships," Groysberg finds.
The easiest way out of the land of process is obvious: start your own company, where results matter even at the top, or set yourself up to sell outside, rather than sell inside.
More women are doing that than in the past, according to a study by the Commerce Department's Economic and Statistics Administration. From 1997 to 2007, women-owned businesses in the US grew by 44 percent, or twice as fast as those owned by men. The percentage of startups led by women that sought venture capital increased to 20 percent in 2011 from 12.6 percent in 2000, according to the University of New Hampshire's Center for Venture Research.
Continuing that growth depends on the availability of capital to women. The will is already there. "It's important to know that women who leave high positions almost always do so in order to find more satisfying alternatives, not to opt out," says Sally Helgesen, co-author of "The Female Vision: Women's Real Power at Work." The only place some of us differ with Slaughter is on solutions: She wants more regulation; others want more capital.
My own experience is that women who wish to rise high within the process-oriented company can. But the women tend to succeed more often before having children, or when their children have grown, or if they have no children. During the small-child or even teen phase, women perform better when performance is measured by external result. These jobs or projects can be lonely -- writing a book, as Slaughter has, for example. These pursuits deprive women of office camaraderie. But they compensate in other ways.
In other words, women can have it all, but not usually at the same moment. Sometimes you have to live serially. To imagine otherwise is to live a cartoon.
Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg View columnist and the director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the Bush Institute. The opinions expressed are her own.