Anne-Marie Slaughter has good timing.
When she wrote “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in 2012, it became one of the most-read articles in the history of the Atlantic. Not long afterward, Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” was climbing the best-seller list.
They focused on the same question from different points of view: why so few women reach the very top. Sandberg urged women to be more ambitious and not to leave their jobs prematurely because of fear over balancing work and family. Slaughter, who had recently left her post as the State Department’s head of policy planning, described her agonizing choice to return home to her husband and sons, decrying a punishing, workaholic culture that defeats a lot of capable women with families.
Now comes another clarion call from Slaughter, this time in her book “Unfinished Business.” It is being published just as a new question is percolating: Has the workplace, especially in the tech industry, become so cutthroat and brutal that it’s impossible for anyone, of whatever gender, to have a sane life outside of work, family or no family?
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Under heat, some companies are tripping over themselves to launch new family-friendly policies. Netflix announced in August that it will offer unlimited time off with pay for many new mothers and fathers for the first year after the birth or adoption of a child. Some companies will even pay for a nanny to accompany new mothers on business trips, will ship pumped breast milk home for traveling moms and will reimburse employees the cost of freezing their eggs.
But Slaughter is convinced that, as long as big organizations penalize caregivers and reward employees who compete the hardest, not much will change. “Unfinished Business” is part manifesto and part do-over of some sections of the Atlantic article.
Aware that many people found the “having it all” mantra offensive because of its unrealistic, selfish connotations, Slaughter now regrets that it was the title of her piece, even though she recognizes that it “undoubtedly sold more magazines.”
She was also attacked for being a plutocrat feminist, concerned only with the high-class problems of affluent women. She has taken pains in her book to be more inclusive of service-economy and lower-skilled workers, though “Unfinished Business” still mainly speaks to the highly educated and affluent.
As a manifesto, “Unfinished Business” is more radical. Change, Slaughter writes, “cannot be achieved within the system. The discussion must move from being about work-life balance to discrimination against care and care-giving.”
This is her central thesis. “I am not proposing to devalue competition; I am proposing to revalue care, to elevate it to its proper place as an essential human instinct, drive, and activity. If we can actually teach ourselves to value competition and care equally, to think that managing money and managing a household full of other human beings are equally valid and valuable occupations, we will be on the way to real equality between men and women.”
How do we get there? “If both men and women traded off caring and competition in more equal measure, then it would become much easier to customize both workplaces and careers to allow more time for both.”
Her case for revaluing and better compensating caregiving is compelling. Its attributes, including patience, adaptability, courage, humility and hope, would surely improve many organizations. Absolutely vital, Slaughter argues, is getting men to demand change, too.
Slaughter’s husband, Andrew Moravcsik, just wrote his own Atlantic piece, “Why I Put My Wife’s Career First,” urging fathers to take on primary parenting roles. But getting men to join the fight is complicated.
Claire Cain Miller, who frequently writes about workplace culture for the New York Times, recently described how young millennial men have more egalitarian attitudes about family, career and child care. But as they age and move ahead in their careers, they find that they “aren’t the dads they thought they’d be.” Researchers told Miller that men say, “I didn’t realize how much of a ding it would be on my career” to devote more time to family.
Slaughter skillfully exposes half-truths in the workplace, such as viewing the scarcity of female leaders as a “women’s problem” instead of a “care problem.” Women without children earn almost the same as men in many fields, while married mothers earn 76 cents on the male dollar. She makes it a point in her book to speak beyond the elite and notes that no flexibility exists for low-income, hourly workers, including the women who occupy 62 percent of such jobs.
She does cite specific policies and examples that might help revalue care, including changing school schedules to meet the needs of a digital economy instead of an agricultural one, and higher wages and training for paid caregivers.
It’s hard to fault Slaughter for the largeness of her call for change.
But given political realities, including weakened unions, the persistence of the workaholic ideal and the fact that technology has so quickly enabled the 24-hour workday, I certainly don’t share Slaughter’s belief that change can happen overnight.
But she’s right that there is something fundamentally wrong with a society that values managing money so much more than raising children well.
“Unfinished Business” by Anne-Marie Slaughter (328 pages; Random House; $28)