FORTUNE — In what felt like a knockdown, drag out election season, we heard plenty about the problems in Washington and improving the lives of American women. As a foreign policy professor and a woman who has worked in Washington, Anne-Marie Slaughter knows these issues all too well.
Slaughter currently teaches at Princeton, but last year, she ended a two-year term as the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department. She was previously dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Slaughter also, suddenly, reignited the perennial debate among working women this past summer after she wrote an article in The Atlantic called “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” She spoke with Fortune about leadership in Washington and why women should not blame themselves if they are struggling to balance work and family.
An edited transcript is below.
Fortune: You’ve been a dean and you’ve worked in the State Department. How do you lead differently in academia versus in the government?
Anne-Marie Slaughter: Well, my one-liner is that in academia, you’re rewarded for coming up with a really big idea that has only your name on it, but in Washington, you’re rewarded for cutting big ideas into little ideas and getting other people to think they thought of them. It’s an old adage in Washington that you can get anything done if you don’t want to take credit for it, and it is true.
But the real difference is Washington is the politics. I don’t know if the politics are fiercer but they’re different. I had to watch my back a lot more.
People were out to get you?
They certainly are very happy to cut you out. It’s just the way the town tends to work. It’s not a place that rewards team collaboration very often.
But I had to send very different signals, and I did. I would actually tell my people, “look, success is not having defended our turf, success is having gotten our ideas adopted.”
Were you rewarded for achieving your definition of success?
There are a number of projects that I am just enormously proud of having been part of, but my fingerprints are often not on them. It’s just the way it has to be. You know and your team knows, and inside, the Secretary will give you credit if she can, but by and large, it’s about a larger goal.
So how do you convince yourself to do major projects when your name isn’t on the work?
That is where I think being an academic really helped. I knew at some point I was coming back here. I have an outside life and an outside identity that many people inside don’t have.
I also made a choice early on that I wanted to be able to look back and have achieved one big thing. So I volunteered for this Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review which was a real bear because it had never been done before it involves putting state and aid agencies together and it was a huge process headache and a lot of people didn’t want to get anywhere near it.
Did that work? Does it hold up?
Yeah, it does. In fact, I often get students who say they want to get a job with some initiative or office that the QDDR was part of and I feel just enormously proud. I feel like, “yeah we did that, and it’s going to have a real impact.”
How should people think about leadership if they truly want to work across agencies and cultures, like you did for that project?
I would say it’s the difference between being at the top of the ladder or the center of the web. Power is whom you bring together and how you bring them together and what you enable. You are still exercising power, but it is a much more empowering kind of power.
And how, if at all, has your role as a female leader change after you wrote the article in the Atlantic?
Ah. Well, it certainly added an agenda to a life that was pretty full. Hanna Rosin has said I’m the woman who left the State Department to spend more time with my children and then I wrote an article about it, so it means I’ll never see my children again. I did not, of course, expect it to take over my life.
But I felt a sense of responsibility that is just part of being a teacher, a mentor, a mother — just somebody who looks after other people. And people tell me every single day how much they’ve talked about it, what a difference it made.
When I read it, I just thought, “thank God I’m not crazy.”
That’s one of the things that makes it worth it for me — so many women were out there thinking it was their fault. Many have had to make compromises they didn’t expect to make and they feel like failures and they’re not failures, it’s the system.
We have not enabled people to have children and be with those children and still stay on the career track in ways that allow them to rise over the course of a lifetime.
Somewhere along the line, we got to a place where saying, “I’m choosing not to accept the promotion because I want to spend more time with my children” is regarded as some kind of weakness or unprofessionalism, and that’s very bad for society as a whole.
When I sort of ripped it open, everybody was like, “Whoa, I’m not alone.”