Then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy testifies during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Why the Pentagon's Top Woman Left the Job

All the White House M&M's in the world couldn't convince her to stay.

Then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy testifies during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Michele Flournoy's busy schedule made it difficult to attend her youngest son's school events during her time at the Pentagon.

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Michele Flournoy was formerly the top woman at the Pentagon. But she’s a “former” now because, with three kids, she decided she couldn’t do the high-powered Washington job anymore, leaving her gig as the undersecretary of defense for policy in 2012.

Flournoy explained what led up to her decision Tuesday night at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women dinner at the State Department.

“They were great little soldiers for a long time,” she said of her kids. But, at the same time she was working at the Pentagon, her husband, W. Scott Gould, was the deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs.

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“So there was no extra bandwidth between us," Flournoy said. 

The power couple was so busy that they both missed every single school event of their youngest son’s one school year. “Finally I promised, on a stack of Bibles, that I would be at the poetry recital in the spring,” Flournoy recalled. But, of course, a White House meeting on Iran got scheduled for the exact time of the recital. Flournoy went home to apologize to her son, and he didn’t take it well.

“He burst into tears, floods of tears, just an ‘I can’t take it anymore’ kind of conversation,” she recalled. “And so I emailed the deputy national security adviser, who also had three young kids at home, and said, ‘Here’s the situation.’”

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The meeting indeed got rescheduled. “And not only did he reschedule the meeting, when I showed up the next day there was a goody bag waiting for my son with a note saying, ‘On behalf of the president, we want to thank you for sharing your mommy with us,’” Flournoy said, noting that the baggie included some White House M&M's and other White House stuff. 

But M&M's and a nice note with the presidential seal weren't enough for her to stick around. “It was time,” Flournoy said of her decision in December 2011 to step down the next year and spend more time with her family.

And while Anne-Marie Slaughter – a former State Department official – wrote The Atlantic cover story “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and argued such a viewpoint in her piece, Flournoy has another: She believes women can have it all, and she did. 

“You can’t always have it in equal measure all at the same time,” Flournoy concluded.