Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay in The Atlantic stirred up a lot of controversy over family-work balance. Unfortunately, she focuses on individual versus systemic problems. If we instead see the balance issue as one that affects families and not just women, we have a better chance of effecting meaningful change.
Is it just me or are so-called women’s issues coming up more frequently than usual? This time, the blogosphere and other media outlets are in an uproar over an article in the most recent issue of The Atlantic entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. Catchy title. The piece was written by Dr Anne-Marie Slaughter, a tenured professor at Princeton University, who was discussing her decision to leave her job as director of policy planning at the State Department after only two years in the position.
It is a very long article and covers a lot of things, so it is difficult to summarize. However, Slaughter’s basic premise is that the family-work balance that so many women strive to have is next to impossible to achieve. The article was very hard for me to read because, while it was thoughtful and articulate, it didn’t go far enough and there were several things she got wrong. Plus, it is personal for me.
I know a lot about this issue because I have lived it. I left a job I dearly loved because of my employer’s refusal to allow me any kind of balance at all. At three months postpartum, I was informed that people who prioritized family didn’t make tenure in that department. Looking around at my colleagues and the lack of parents with small children, I realized that this statement was true. Later, as I struggled mightily to make it work, I was notified that I was expected to be at work from 7 am to 7 pm. When I explained that such hours would mean I never saw my young son, I was told that was the price I had to pay. That price was too high (and a ridiculous one to boot), so I quit.
I was one of the lucky ones. I was fortunate enough that I had the means and the opportunities to find work that was more accommodating to the needs of my family. Yet it didn’t end for me there. I still feel the need to explain to people that I was good at my job, that the news of my leaving was greeted by a literal avalanche of emails, cards and phone calls from past and present students as well as colleagues, all lamenting my exit. I also have to tell people that while the move was necessary for me, it was unnecessary in the overall scheme of things. The price they wanted me to pay was inflated and should never have been asked. Yet it keeps getting asked all the time and in many different professions, largely because of the way the issue has been framed. Slaughter’s essay, while attention-grabbing, hasn’t really made things better.
This issue is not new.
One of my biggest irritations with Slaughter and the people responding to her essay in such force is that they all seem to be acting like this is some new discussion that we’re having. It isn’t; people have been talking about this for years. The concept of family-work balance was last a media darling in 2003 when Lisa Belkin wrote a New York Times op-ed about women “opting out” of the workforce. Groups like Momsrising, Center for WorkLife Law, and the Families and Work Institute (which, to her credit, Slaughter did mention) have been researching, writing, adjudicating and talking about this issue for years. Where has Slaughter been that this is now a “new” phenomenon? And why didn’t she mention more of these groups so that people actually have some places to go where they can get involved and make a difference?
Feminists are not at fault.
For someone who professes to be a feminist, Slaughter sure did a lot of feminist blaming in the article. She talked about how some of her feminist colleagues tried to talk her out of writing such an article because of the damage it would do to feminism. She explained that prior to this experience, she had been a “good” feminist who toed the party line. She also said young women had been told by feminists that they could have it all. Although she didn’t come out and directly call feminists liars, the implication was there. And that is wrong.
Sure, there have been some feminists who worked like the typical male worker (i.e., ignored family concerns in favor of careers) and then chastised other women who they didn’t view as ambitious enough. Slaughter acknowledged that some of these women had little choice but to remain silent and make the tough compromise, but there was also the implication that they were doing younger women a disservice by the way their lives had gone. This seems like a very unfair generalization.
Moreover, like many political groups, feminists are not this monolithic entity that agrees upon everything. Thus, there have been plenty of feminists who have been saying for years that this issue should not be hefted solely on the shoulders of women, that it is indeed a cultural problem and not a personal one. When I went through my struggle to balance my job, feminists (and feminism in general) were a vital lifeline for me, offering encouragement, suggestions and sometimes just shoulders to cry on. Consequently, for The Atlantic article to be accompanied by a helpful interview with Slaughter entitled “Have Feminists Sold Young Women a Fiction” is maddening. Yes, by all means, let’s blame those darn feminists who dare to advance the cause of fairness and who have the gall to try and work toward a better life for everyone.
This issue is systemic, not individual.
While I’m glad that Slaughter is once again bringing the family-work balance issue to the forefront of the national conversation, I am disappointed that she not only brought nothing new to the table but also served to reinforce some of the problems, the biggest one being that this is an individual issue. For example, in her article, Slaughter quotes Mary Matalin, who (when stepping down from her job in government to spend more time with her daughters) said, “Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.” The implication here is that if women could just figure out how to control their schedules, everything will be fine. Really? This seems very disingenuous and hurtful.
After I made my decision to leave academia, I still participated in groups and conferences on this topic. I thought that I could offer a first-hand experience that could be helpful in changing the overall system of academia in particular. However, after constantly having to defend myself for not having done enough or for not doing things in the correct way, I gave up. I no longer wanted to hear from people who hadn’t gone through what I did that I hadn’t sought enough help (or the right help), hadn’t tried other strategies or that I should have just given in to what they wanted so I could be a mentor to others going through the same thing. I think it was the last one that really sent me over the edge. While I recognized the reason for blaming individuals (because if you can make it their fault, it won’t happen to you because you’ll do everything right), it still made it tough to bear, especially when it wasn’t their life that had to change.
Slaughter seemed to be doing the same thing. Although I’m certain that she meant well, putting both blame and pressure on individual women to transform society will change nothing and I would think that someone as accomplished as Slaughter would understand this. Yet, in addition to feminists, she also blamed women leaders who compromised family time for career for not being honest enough about the situation or, as in the case of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, for subtly reproaching young women about their choices. She went on to tell her particular demographic (highly educated, well-off women) that they should be doing more: “We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.” I adamantly agree that we desperately need more women leaders yet this issue is more about societal problems than personal ones.
The fact of the matter is that the American culture of work has disintegrated to the point that employers believe all-work all the time is actually a good business model. It isn’t. Research on the topic repeatedly demonstrates that productivity is associated with rest, health and happiness — not increased hours — while creativity actually requires down time. Yet Slaughter’s suggestions hovered more around trying to figure out how to fit family time into a 50-hour work week versus trimming down the work week in general. She talked a lot about changing the style of working instead of transforming the dynamic of work. However, if we’re ever to make family-work balance a reality, the structure of the work week is where we need to start. Europe gets this; America does not.
This is not a woman’s issue.
One of the problems with issues like this is that they are still perceived as a woman’s problem. Even the phrasing “Have it all” is divisive, as it seems to imply wanting more than you ought to have versus wanting what should be everyone’s. As I hope I’ve made clear, family-work balance is a societal issue involving not just workers but also families. Slaughter did pay lip service to this but then spent much of her time talking about women. When this happens, women (usually feminists) are blamed for the state of events and individual women are supposed to solve the problem. But they can’t because it’s not within their power to do so.
In the comments section of this article and others like it, I saw many woman-blaming posts. The posters claimed that women are too ambitious, too selfish, too entitled and so on. Social psychological research points out that blaming the oppressed group for their mistreatment is a common tactic designed to maintain the status quo. If the powers-that-be can convince a lot of people that the women bring this problem on themselves, then nothing gets done, families still suffer and the people with the true power to change things (like employers and politicians) don’t have to lift a finger.
Class issues were ignored.
Slaughter took great care to acknowledge that there are class issues inherent in this discussion, and her article was not designed to address them. However, ignoring the glaring class issues involved was a big problem for her analysis. This lack of inclusion made her commentary easy to dismiss because it doesn’t encompass the experiences of the vast majority of parent workers, it led to a focus on personal versus systemic solutions, and it meant a huge lost opportunity. Slaughter had the chance to speak out about the problems faced by low and middle income families and single parents — you know, the parents who traditionally cannot get such media coverage — and she didn’t take it.
The reality is that only women with careers who have the time, ability and connections to write such an article and get it published are talking about this issue. Men rarely cover this topic, and the parents who work at Walmart, in factories or who are working three jobs just to cover necessities generally do not publish articles in The Atlantic. Or it could be that they too have bought into the rhetoric and still think it is a personal issue they alone must solve. Reading Slaughter’s article would tell them no different.
Although Slaughter acknowledged that her life situation is vastly different than that of most mothers, she still talked about “wanting to be home” with the kids as if it is actually an option for the majority of mothers and fathers. It isn’t. Many parents work several jobs or maybe even just one job with incredibly long hours in order to survive. When they get home, they have to attend to tasks like making dinner, doing laundry, and going to the grocery store. If they are lucky, they might get to check homework or spend a few minutes with the kids. Their work hours eat into their family hours on a regular basis and if anyone gets sick, they must take time off of work without pay and perhaps run the risk of getting fired. Finding affordable childcare can be a nightmare, forcing some families to leave young children at home without adequate supervision. And that is just the tip of the iceberg, because this topic also must include pregnancy, the lack of paid parental leave, and the necessity of breastfeeding.
Consequently, it is only when you start talking about class issues that you see how systemic the problem truly is. The solutions advocated by Slaughter just don’t pass muster when you factor in the vast majority of working parents. And that is why leaving them out of the equation was such a bad idea.
Her solutions were mostly individual and American.
While I’m glad that Slaughter at least attempted to put forth ideas for how to solve the problem, her solutions seemed more like band-aids. The answers that she spent a great deal of time explaining were mostly individual ones, like choosing a supportive spouse (really?!) spacing out the timing of children correctly, working from home, and women “stair-stepping” their careers to peak later in life. She also talked about “revaluing family values” as just a change in perspective (not policy) and enlisting the help of men. Slaughter found it promising that men are now asking about family-work balance, but looked at another way, it is discouraging. Progress would mean that we’re moving toward a time in which every parent has balance versus a period in which neither parent does. We want a rising tide that raises all boats instead of an anchor that drags everyone down.
Slaughter’s last solution — more women leaders — is not one for which we can wait. She stated, “We may need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart.” I don’t see that strategy as a winning one. It sure hasn’t increased opportunities for African Americans to have one as President of the United States. Moreover, while I would dearly love to see a female president, 25 female Senators and an equal number of women in corporate America and our judiciary, I don’t see that happening soon. And how do we get more women in positions of power when too many women are struggling to juggle family life with work? This gets into a chicken or the egg type of conundrum. Nor do I have much confidence that merely getting women into places of power will be a boon for other women. You have to have the right women for that to work. So, what else is there?
Balance is possible!
Believe it or not, there is a wonderful movie made in 1980 called 9 to 5 that espoused some great strategies. The movie starred Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton and is a lot of fun but, beyond that, they showed how some family-work balance ideas could actually work. Among other things, they implemented job sharing, flex-time, part-time positions and an onsite daycare center in their company. They created these policies with an eye to how they could maximize employee satisfaction so that they would be productive while at work. While it is depressing that good solutions espoused over 30 years ago still haven’t been put into more widespread practice, we have to start somewhere.
Another good solution is one that Slaughter mentioned in her essay but seemed to gloss right over: make school schedules match work schedules. This one seems like a no-brainer, yet it’s rarely brought up, perhaps because that might mean making the switch in the workplace to fewer hours in general. Although people tend to shy away from this solution, it can work. Some of our friends in Europe have a 30-hour workweek and their productivity hasn’t gone down. They also do well with more paid vacation time, sick leave, family leave and a generally more laidback attitude toward work than we have. While family-work balance isn’t completely a non-issue there, it’s a lot less of one.
There are good, workable solutions out there, we just have to insist that they be applied to our workplace. Toward that end, I think that the best way to do this would be for collective action. There are numerous groups already working on these issues. In addition to the ones mentioned above, there is also Take Back Your Time, the Alliance for Work-Life Progress, the Labor Project for Working Families, Life Meets Work, the National Partnership for Women and Families and the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. If we can partner with those groups and do activism around this issue, perhaps things will start to change. If nothing else, it could turn the national conversation in a more productive direction.