Anne-Marie Slaughter Grasping at Straws in “Have it All” Article

by W.F. Price on July 2, 2012

In this month’s edition of The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a very long article explaining that women “still can’t have it all,” but should be able to if only we make the right changes. As is commonly the case with female writers, Slaughter devotes an enormous amount of page space to herself, assuring readers that she is indeed a very accomplished, professional woman, and that when she quit diplomacy, it was her choice.

Although the article struck a chord with women across the US and gained massive exposure online, the gist of the article – that women are not actually exempt from reality – is not new. We’ve been making the point on this site for quite a while now. But perhaps a woman with a federal imprimatur needed to say it to get women to pay attention.

Unfortunately, Slaughter can’t seem to see the issue through to its logical conclusion, instead clinging to the notion that more social engineering will deliver women into the magical promised land of limitless opportunity. She takes what could have been a helpful article putting things in their proper perspective for women who have to make a choice between family and career, and turns it into a feminist crusade for more power, more control, more everything.

The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.

So how does she propose creating this equal world? Well, her first idea is finding the right spouse. The husband has to acquiesce to being a kitchen bitch, and to support her in her career by shouldering the majority of the domestic work. Essentially, she’s calling for an Amazon society — not equality.

Sandberg’s second message in her Barnard commencement address was: “The most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is.” Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, recently drove that message home to an audience of Princeton students and alumni gathered to hear her acceptance speech for the James Madison Medal. During the Q&A session, an audience member asked her how she managed her career and her family. She laughed and pointed to her husband in the front row, saying: “There’s my work-life balance.” I could never have had the career I have had without my husband, Andrew Moravcsik, who is a tenured professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton. Andy has spent more time with our sons than I have, not only on homework, but also on baseball, music lessons, photography, card games, and more. When each of them had to bring in a foreign dish for his fourth-grade class dinner, Andy made his grandmother’s Hungarian palacsinta; when our older son needed to memorize his lines for a lead role in a school play, he turned to Andy for help.

In order to implement her scheme, we’d have to find a veritable army of men willing to live life as a housewife to support all these powerful, accomplished women. If the army of men to do this can’t be found, then a lot (if not most) of these women are going to miss out on being mothers, and wasn’t the point of “having it all” that women could be both supremely powerful and mothers at the same time?

Timing of children.

If women have the kids young, she says, they can focus their efforts on their career by the time they are in their 40s. Not a bad idea. However, she goes on to say that women don’t want to do this any longer, correctly noting that young women don’t marry and have children while still young and at their peak in fertility for “understandable” reasons. You see, getting married and having kids early takes away all those wonderful opportunities for capitalizing on one’s sexuality in grad school and the early career. So she suggests relying on reproductive technology (oocyte cryopreservation) which, incidentally, costs about as much as a new car. This means a lot of women will put it off in favor of that new car, hoping they can still push out a kid or two before the ovaries fully shut down. This leads, once again, to the conclusion that a lot of them will not have a family and, therefore, not have it all.

Changing work culture.

Make it so that employers no longer favor people willing to put in long hours, or those who are “driven” in exceptional ways. Here she bizarrely argues that employers should see childcare as akin to hobbies such as long distance running.

Consider the following proposition: An employer has two equally talented and productive employees. One trains for and runs marathons when he is not working. The other takes care of two children. What assumptions is the employer likely to make about the marathon runner? That he gets up in the dark every day and logs an hour or two running before even coming into the office, or drives himself to get out there even after a long day. That he is ferociously disciplined and willing to push himself through distraction, exhaustion, and days when nothing seems to go right in the service of a goal far in the distance. That he must manage his time exceptionally well to squeeze all of that in.

Be honest: Do you think the employer makes those same assumptions about the parent? Even though she likely rises in the dark hours before she needs to be at work, organizes her children’s day, makes breakfast, packs lunch, gets them off to school, figures out shopping and other errands even if she is lucky enough to have a housekeeper—and does much the same work at the end of the day.

She leaves out the fact that long distance running is a hobby. If the job calls on you to miss a race or skip training a few times, it isn’t a big deal. However, you cannot simply tell your kids “mommy/daddy has to spend all weekend at the office, so you’re on your own until Sunday evening.” That’s called “criminal child neglect.” I grew up with a few kids whose parents treated them that way; one girl in particular was “forgotten” fairly frequently and would stay at school after hours crying until her mother “remembered” her.

Employers value people who are available not necessarily because of some driven quality, but because of their availability. When a problem comes up and everyone else is otherwise occupied, the available person will be called upon to handle it. Employers really don’t like letting these people go. They win through attrition — just like a distance runner.

“Redefining the Arc of a Successful Career”

Here Slaughter argues that because people now live longer, the traditional career peak of 45-55 is obsolete. This means, according to Slaughter, that women should be able to take breaks, switch roles, parent for some time, and then peak at some point after that. I’m sure this works for some people, such as judges and senators (assuming they rely on dumb luck like Patty Murray). But for the typical hard-charging career man or woman, stressful, competitive jobs require more from them than they want to – or are able to – perform as they approach retirement age. So why should they peak as high as those who can give it their all in their prime?

She’s ignoring basic facts of biology here. Surgeons, for example, are known to peak in their 40s, after which their abilities decline. Trial lawyers probably follow a similar trajectory. Professional athletes, of course, peak far earlier. The thing is, there are only a choice few jobs in which people can continue to rise past the age of 50. There’s a big difference between being adequate and being in one’s prime. If you spend a large proportion of your prime working years taking care of kids, you simply aren’t going to rise as high. It’s a trade-off Slaughter isn’t willing to acknowledge.

“Rediscovering the pursuit of happiness”

Here I can find some common ground with Slaughter. She admits that after years in Washington, she found herself longing to go home. And why not? Slavish devotion to “the job” is not most people’s cup of tea. Most of us work to live rather than the other way around. An afternoon on the beach with the kids almost always beats a day in the office.

But then she shows how absolutely ignorant feminists are when it comes to what motivates most men at work. She stresses that men are ambivalent about their careers as well, as though this is some kind of revelation that men only discover at the end:

Seeking out a more balanced life is not a women’s issue; balance would be better for us all. Bronnie Ware, an Australian blogger who worked for years in palliative care and is the author of the 2011 book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, writes that the regret she heard most often was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” The second-most-common regret was “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” She writes: “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.”

This goes without saying, of course, but apparently women think that for all these years men were getting up and going to work because they were selfishly serving their own interests, only to discover on their deathbed that they wanted something else after all. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Men don’t work only for themselves, and we all know that. In fact, most of us work so that we can have a family. It is the very fortunate (and widely despised) man who can pull off having a family without working for it. Women have far more choice in this regard.

“Innovation” will do the trick

Here Slaughter reverts to the kind of bureaucratic language that tends to make my eyes glaze over, but there are a couple ideas I support. Amusingly, she interprets the issue in a far different manner, however.

In fact, while many of these issues are hard to quantify and measure precisely, the statistics seem to tell a different story. A seminal study of 527 U.S. companies, published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2000, suggests that “organizations with more extensive work-family policies have higher perceived firm-level performance” among their industry peers. These findings accorded with a 2003 study conducted by Michelle Arthur at the University of New Mexico. Examining 130 announcements of family-friendly policies in The Wall Street Journal, Arthur found that the announcements alone significantly improved share prices. In 2011, a study on flexibility in the workplace by Ellen Galinsky, Kelly Sakai, and Tyler Wigton of the Families and Work Institute showed that increased flexibility correlates positively with job engagement, job satisfaction, employee retention, and employee health.

This is only a small sampling from a large and growing literature trying to pin down the relationship between family-friendly policies and economic performance. Other scholars have concluded that good family policies attract better talent, which in turn raises productivity, but that the policies themselves have no impact on productivity. Still others argue that results attributed to these policies are actually a function of good management overall. What is evident, however, is that many firms that recruit and train well-educated professional women are aware that when a woman leaves because of bad work-family balance, they are losing the money and time they invested in her.

Even the legal industry, built around the billable hour, is taking notice. Deborah Epstein Henry, a former big-firm litigator, is now the president of Flex-Time Lawyers, a national consulting firm focused partly on strategies for the retention of female attorneys. In her book Law and Reorder, published by the American Bar Association in 2010, she describes a legal profession “where the billable hour no longer works”; where attorneys, judges, recruiters, and academics all agree that this system of compensation has perverted the industry, leading to brutal work hours, massive inefficiency, and highly inflated costs. The answer—already being deployed in different corners of the industry—is a combination of alternative fee structures, virtual firms, women-owned firms, and the outsourcing of discrete legal jobs to other jurisdictions. Women, and Generation X and Y lawyers more generally, are pushing for these changes on the supply side; clients determined to reduce legal fees and increase flexible service are pulling on the demand side. Slowly, change is happening.

Some readers may be surprised to find that I am a big supporter of the “flex-time” and “family leave” policies corporations are adopting. Why? Because when women leave the workforce to have kids, men need to pick up the slack, and since the woman is to be retained, new hires will be either temporary or contractors. Due to government regulations and the decreasing flexibility of the corporate model, there are a lot of opportunities for individual men or small companies founded by men to take advantage of this need for labor. Working in a corporation is hell for a lot of men, not in the least because of feminist policy, but if you’re the guy to whom they’re outsourcing the work women won’t or can’t do, you’ll never be out of a job.

The real reason the family leave and flex-time policies are increasing efficiency is exactly this new flexibility in the male labor market. Men are picking up the slack as independent contractors, and women are free to come and go as they please. Women will often pass up more pay for leisure time, so there’s another reason profits are better. Give a woman an option to take time off without pay, and if she knows she can come back and work more when she needs the money, she’ll often do it. In the meanwhile, men are performing the work she left behind, and getting paid for it. Best of all, these men don’t have to work directly for the corporation or firm — they are working for themselves.

But isn’t this simply a way for women to have high positions only in name? Sure, but who cares? As long as men are getting paid for the work, it doesn’t matter what the woman calls herself. However, it does go to show how much of this debate about “having it all” depends on appearances rather than reality.

Force men to support women

Perhaps the most encouraging news of all for achieving the sorts of changes that I have proposed is that men are joining the cause. In commenting on a draft of this article, Martha Minow, the dean of the Harvard Law School, wrote me that one change she has observed during 30 years of teaching law at Harvard is that today many young men are asking questions about how they can manage a work-life balance. And more systematic research on Generation Y confirms that many more men than in the past are asking questions about how they are going to integrate active parenthood with their professional lives.

Abstract aspirations are easier than concrete trade-offs, of course. These young men have not yet faced the question of whether they are prepared to give up that more prestigious clerkship or fellowship, decline a promotion, or delay their professional goals to spend more time with their children and to support their partner’s career.

Even though she has a couple teenage sons, I don’t think Slaughter has a clue what young men are thinking. Most young men, by now, are fully aware that there’s absolutely no guarantee that they’ll even be allowed to parent their children, so of course they’re going to question whether it’s worth putting off bonding with the kids to provide for the mother. So, rather than struggling with the same “choices” female students do, the young men are asking themselves whether it’s even worth putting in all that effort if they aren’t going to get a family out of it anyway.

Men simply won’t sacrifice if they know there’s no deal involved. Today, men are pretty well aware that the old deal doesn’t hold any longer. In the old days, a man who knew he could count on his nice young wife to hold down the fort while he went out and sacrificed his time for the family’s welfare would have taken the clerkship, fellowship, promotion, or whatever. He’d do it in hopes that his family would be happy, and that in the future they’d all have a nice life.

Today, the young man is hedging his bet. None of the women his age are interested in marriage anyway — they’re all working on their careers. What’s more, they’re sleeping with his manager and being promoted ahead of him.

Oddly, Slaughter reverses the typical argument, praising young men for being less ambitious, whereas most pundits just call them “slackers.” But she’s only doing so in hopes that they will be women’s political allies in the drive for installing women in superior positions over them. It isn’t going to work, despite her efforts. It’s too obvious how she and other feminists see them: as fundamentally flawed.

I continually push the young women in my classes to speak more. They must gain the confidence to value their own insights and questions, and to present them readily. My husband agrees, but he actually tries to get the young men in his classes to act more like the women—to speak less and listen more. If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us.

We’ll create a better society in the process, for all women. 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. But when we do, we will stop talking about whether women can have it all. We will properly focus on how we can help all Americans have healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people they love as much as the success they seek.

Sorry, Anne-Marie, but we’re not on board. It isn’t men’s job to install a female president; she can get there on her own if she wants the job. We will not be “enlisted” in service of women we don’t know who want to be our masters. We may not have as many choices as women, but we do have the choice of who we will work and fight for, and it won’t be you.

There is nothing more telling about this article than that it both begins and ends with demands for support from men. That’s feminism in a nutshell: “We want it all, so you have to give it to us!”

Well, here’s a little dose of reality for feminists: we couldn’t give you all you wanted even if we tried. We are mere mortals, and we recognize that. Furthermore, we are starting to recognize that the more we give you the more you’ll want, and we’re getting tired.

Too bad Anne-Marie; this time you’re going to have to do it yourself. We’ll be out fishing, hanging out with our kids, making craft beer or whatever strikes our fancy in our free time. You can have your glory — without us.

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