Jill Abramson, the former editor of the New York Times, teaches at Harvard and is writing a book about the transformation of news.
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 bestseller 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. This was hardly a feminist catfight (though some in the media tried to portray it as such), since both authors shared the goal of seeing more women in power and amplified each other.
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?
Under heat, some companies are tripping over themselves to launch new family-friendly policies. Netflix announced last month 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. (The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 provides for 12 weeks of unpaid leave for employees at companies of a certain size.) On Netflix’s heels, Adobe said it will offer paid leave to employees who need to care for sick family members. 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.” (So, certainly, did the cover art showing a pouting toddler crammed into Mommy’s workbag.) 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.
Slaughter also admits to being a bit naive about her work schedule when she took her position at the State Department, which required her to be in Washington Monday through Friday, far away from her husband and two sons in Princeton, N.J. In the book, she reprises some of the gripping scenes from the article, such as when Andy, her husband, called her at work to say one son had skipped school and had been picked up by the local police. “I received several urgent phone calls — inevitably on the day of an important meeting — that required me to drop what I was doing and take the first train back home.”
That experience caused Slaughter to question the feminist narrative she grew up with and had always championed. After quitting and returning to Princeton, she also began to ask why success meant valuing career achievement above all else.
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.” She stipulates that this could happen “tomorrow,” if men would join women in demanding it.
If this sounds utopian, it is, and Slaughter recognizes that she may be dismissed as being in “left-wing la-la land.” However, 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 — a point that unites many feminists, including Sandberg and the actress Emma Watson, who has spearheaded the gender-equality HeForShe campaign at the United Nations. Several recent studies have shown that when family leave and flexible time off are offered only to women, the careers of the women who take advantage of these policies often suffer. That’s less true when men use them.
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’s right that as long as the issue of work-life balance is portrayed as a woman’s concern, things won’t change.
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 also includes voices of women of color who have criticized the feminist movement for being elitist and deepening gender segregation. She quotes Taig Smith, who prefers the term “womanist” to “feminist.” Slaughter believes that her call to revalue care can reunite women.
The book is organized in short sections with somewhat shopworn titles, such as “Focus on Results,” “Taking Charge” and “Have the Conversation with Your Boss.” 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, when women make up only 5 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives, occupy 15 percent of the most senior corporate positions and are still a big minority in Congress. And, as of 2013, women still earned only 82 percent of what men do. Forty-two million women in the United States live in poverty.
It does seem that, for us to achieve a truly egalitarian society in which men and women have an equal chance to rise in their careers and take equal responsibility for their families, everything has to change. 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, though, 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.
By Anne-Marie Slaughter
Random House. 328 pp. $28