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Nurses, fathers, teachers, mothers. Why do we devalue someone the minute they care for others?

Anne-Marie Slaughter discusses her book, "Unfinished Business" and how it's evolved from her 2012 article "Why Women Can't Have It All." (Video: Lillian Cunningham, Randolph Smith and Jayne W. Orenstein/The Washington Post)
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Anne-Marie Slaughter has come to regret that her site-crashingly popular Atlantic piece had the title “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All." For one, she has since decided it's not just women who can't have it all. What's more, she says, "having it all" isn't even the point.

In her new book, Unfinished Business, she asserts that the real problem isn't about work-life balance—it's that we utterly devalue the importance of caregiving roles in our society. The conversation with Slaughter, who now leads the Washington-based think tank New America, has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. This book began as an extension of your 2012 article. How different did it end up being from what you originally envisioned?

A. This book is very different from the article. I couldn’t have written this book three years ago, because I didn’t believe then what I now write about. What I’m really now talking about is the work that we do investing in other people—as mothers, as fathers, as children taking care of our own parents, as someone taking care of anybody who is disabled or ill.

That work of investing in others is actually just as important as the work we do for money. I now look at my mother’s work as a homemaker as well as her work as an artist, and I say, “Those things are equal.” I didn’t believe that three years ago.

Q. What shifted your views?

I started thinking my way through the women’s movement and how we had come to define equality—that women are equal to men only as long as they are doing the work that men have traditionally done.

That’s not a full gender revolution. That’s saying, “Men were the ones who earned the income, and now women can be men.” When women do that, they’re equal; but women who are caring for others are still very much devalued. If you’re really going to have equality, you’ve got to value both kinds of work.

Q. Part of what you suggest is switching the conversation from “work-life balance” to “caregiving.” Why do you think making that change is important?

A. The first thing it does is it widens our lens to all women. When we talk about work-life balance, we’re talking about a narrow slice of women at the top, right? Because balance is a luxury. Yes, we have too few women at the top, but we also have far too many women at the bottom.

What’s happening here is not just about gender. If you are a woman who doesn’t have caregiving obligations, you’re earning somewhere between 92 and 96 percent on every male dollar. If you are a woman with caregiving obligations, you’re earning closer to 70 to 72 percent on the male dollar.

What’s really going on here is we are discriminating against people who have to care for others, which is a role that society needs people to play. Right now we’re focusing on the problem that, if you’re at the top and take time out to take care of others, you’re knocked off your leadership track. But much more important is that, if you are a woman in the middle class or a low-income woman and you take even a day or two off to care for others, you could lose your job. You get docked pay. You don’t have access to affordable day care.

Q. I imagine your conclusion that caregiving is a better construct must have come partly out of the feedback on your original piece, including some of the criticism that the work-life balance conversation caters mostly to those who are privileged, white and suburban.

A. Yes, I was accused of trickle-down feminism. I knew I was writing for The Atlantic, right? I never had any doubt that I was talking to a fairly narrow slice of women. But yes, I took that criticism on board and thought much much harder about the condition of all women.

The other criticism that I really took on board came from men. Men wrote to me, including gay men, and said, “How dare you frame this as a woman’s issue?” They were right. They also said, “I am not any happier with my role as a mandated breadwinner than women used to be as the mandated caregiver. I want to be able to spend more time with my children.” So I really changed my views of what men want but don’t dare say. And also, if we don’t change those roles for men, we will never get to real equality.

Q. Why is the title of your book Unfinished Business? The heart of the book is so much about caregiving—is the fact that the word is not in the title anywhere partly proof that the concept isn’t de-stigmatized enough yet?

A. You put your finger on it. If you call this book anything with care in the title, most people will not want to read about it. They just won’t. So part of it is exactly a problem I’m attacking, but I have to accept that change comes slowly.

The reason behind “unfinished business” is: That describes most working caregivers' lives, certainly working mothers'. If you talk to a woman between 30 and 50 who is taking care of kids and holding down a job, she will say, “My entire life is unfinished business. I never get to finish anything. I never feel like I’m ever doing anything all the way.”

Then on the more meta level, this is the unfinished business of the women’s movement. We’ve made enormous progress. There’s no question that lives of women have been transformed; but lives of men have been transformed much less, and you can’t have a halfway revolution.

Q. You write about how language in our workplace, such as the questions we ask and the labels we use, are actually holding back our progress. What is some of the worst language we need to ditch and replace?

A. We should get rid of “stay-at-home mom” and “stay-at-home dad.” I find that to be very offensive. It says that the place you’re supposed to be is the workplace. If you’re at home, you need an adjective.

We should also talk about “working fathers” as well as “working mothers,” right? We constantly say a woman has two jobs: She’s working and she’s a mother. But we don’t say that about men. We need to make clear that they have a dual identity the same way women have a dual identity.

And let’s get rid of the word “help.” Let’s stop saying, "My husband helps"—because that is really saying, "It is my job to run the household, but he helps me do it." No, no, no, no, no.

Q. Aside from some of these language shifts, what are one or two big changes you would love to see in workplaces?

A. Where do I start? There’s a long list. What I want to see is: How do we work flexibly enough so that people who have children or parents or spouses, or who want to care for themselves, have time? It’s not about how many hours you’re in the office. It’s about getting the work done on time with the quality that is demanded of you.

And then if you take advantage of flexibility policies, you shouldn’t be stigmatized for it. Some companies have all these really progressive policies, but, the minute you use them, you’re not a player. Somebody just told me they were taken out of the bonus pool the minute they started working part time. That’s ridiculous.

Q. You and Sheryl Sandberg have been two of the strongest contemporary voices on women’s issues, and there are some differences between your views. If her boiled-down advice is "lean in," what’s yours?

A. To boil it down, my advice is break the mold. Do not accept the hierarchies you are given. Do not accept the assumptions about the workplace that you are given. Do not accept the ideas about male and female roles you are given.

Q. In the course of the past three years of writing this book, what personal lesson have you taken away?

A. I now try very hard when I meet somebody to not say immediately, “What do you do?” That’s such a classic American thing. I try to ask a question that will let me see the whole person. “Have you read a good book lately?” or “What did you do last weekend?” I ask something that says we are more than our work.

How many women were journalists, prosecutors, doctors, then took time out for care and dropped off the screen because all anybody wants to know is what they do? And when they say something like, “I’m caring for my parents,” that doesn’t seem to count.

So it’s really changed how I approach other people. When I meet somebody who is caring for someone else, I think to myself, “That’s fabulous. Let me find out more about this person.” And also, when I meet a teacher or a nurse or a therapist or a coach, I immediately think, “This person is doing the most important work in our society.”


Read also:

Is 'having it all' as simple as getting men to demand that, too?

Exhaustion is not a status symbol

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