It’s been nearly two years since the Atlantic ran a cover story about "Why Women Still Can’t Have It All." Yet that phrase still pops up everywhere.
Australian writer Megan Dalla-Camina recently toured the U.S., promoting the American launch of her book Getting Real About Having It All.
Business publication McKinsey Quarterly put the headline "No One Can Have It All" on an interview with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. And the June 2014 issue of Redbook featured a cover shot of actress Drew Barrymore by the line "Nobody Gets to Have It All."
Here’s the big reason for the "have it all" phrase’s ubiquity: it gets attention. The Atlantic article by Anne-Marie Slaughter was read one million times in the first few days, and was shared on social media 215,000 times.
But why exactly does that phrase get the clicks?
"I think it’s a code phrase that people understand right away," says Marti Barletta, author of Marketing to Women. Work and life conflict is complicated.
"Headlines are hard to write," says KJ Dell’Antonia, who writes and edits the Motherlode blog at the New York Times. "You want people to come talk about it," but stories about discussing reasons for conflict, and what we can all do to solve those problems doesn’t tweet well. "So you’re going to grab these catchphrases."
Every day, new people experience their first work-life challenge. People in the thick of it make new tweaks. "I have done this for two decades. I have never heard the same work-life fit twice," says Cali Williams Yost, CEO of the Flex + Strategy Group/Work + Life Fit, Inc. "It is literally like snowflakes."
All these snowflakes produce a lot of potential fodder. "I could run an essay on it every day," says Dell’Antonia. "We get enormous quantities of outside submissions. I look at all of them. I could run five essays a week on why I chose what I did, or why I wish I had chosen something different." With so much material out there, it keeps the conversation going—which means any new iteration taps into an existing audience.
"You have to meet people where they are," Dalla-Camina says of why she put the "have it all" phrase in her book title. "If you want to tap into a conversation, and change the conversation, you have to meet people where they are."
There is no right way to build a life. But since families and careers cut close to personal identities—and few people are blissful about their trade-offs—it’s harder to live and let live. "People do not ring in with vigorous comments about stuff they agree with, or stuff about which they are completely confident," says Dell’Antonia, noting that her posts about whether women can have it all often draw the most vim and vigor and discussion.
That’s a missed opportunity, says Yost, who calls the fervor a "visceral response."
"We could say, ‘All there is is what works for you.’ Instead we get into the mommy wars," she says—and the clicks keep going.
"Women in general are into self-improvement much more than men are," says Barletta. "That is one of the fundamental struggles of women. We’re always trying to make ourselves better."
Because of this, women may be willing to compare themselves to an unachievable ideal in a way that men don’t. No one talks about whether Jack Welch had it all because he didn’t make a home-cooked dinner every night and run the Cub Scout troop in addition to leading GE. "If Maxim put it on the cover—that men can’t have it all!—you’d have a lot of men saying, ‘I can’t!’" says Yost. "But they’re not forced to have that conversation." And likely they never will.
A slightly more positive spin is that people like to know the high and mighty are human. The photos of celebrities shopping for cereal on the "Stars—They’re Just Like Us!" pages of Us Weekly are perennially popular. Likewise, for some, learning that a brilliant and accomplished woman like Slaughter struggles can be liberating. That’s not the biggest reason people click and comment, but add it to the others, and you can fill the airwaves for days.