ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER is a respected American foreign-policy expert. A prominent “liberal hawk” advocating the protection of human rights around the world, she has served as the policy-planning director for the State Department and, before that, as the dean of Princeton University’s prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. But Ms Slaughter only became a near-household name when she waded into America’s “mummy wars”, the fight over how women can both raise healthy families and lead high-powered careers.
In 2010 Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, began giving speeches on women in the workplace. She encouraged her audiences to remain committed to their jobs, and offered advice about self-confidence and cultivating senior “sponsors”. The talks earned her broad acclaim, and their message was the core of her bestselling book, “Lean In”.
In July 2012, however, Ms Slaughter took a meat cleaver to Ms Sandberg’s insinuation that anyone with brains and determination can navigate the work-family obstacle course. In a cover story for the Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, Ms Slaughter revealed that the reason she left her high-octane government job was to spend more time with her two teenage sons. Despite enjoying advantages most working mothers could only dream of (two upper-middle-class incomes and a husband with flexible working hours) she decided she could not properly support her children, who were in Princeton, while living five days a week in Washington, DC. No one could accuse Ms Slaughter of lacking the will or the skill to get ahead in a man’s world. The problem, she wrote, lay not with weak-kneed women but with the structure of the American workplace, where 24-hour demands made it impossible to be both a professional leader and a steady presence in family life.
The article has been read 2.7m times, prompting what Ms Slaughter calls a “tsunami of response”. Some critics took her to task for “leaning back” and setting a poor example for career women. Others assailed her for preaching a “plutocratic” feminism focusing on the problems of the rich and powerful. Following a multi-year discussion tour, Ms Slaughter has now expanded her views into a book.
“Unfinished Business” retraces much old ground. On her dispute with Ms Sandberg, she is resolute. “We often cannot control the fate of our career and family,” she writes. “Insisting that we can obscures the deeper structures and forces that shape our lives…Plenty of women have leaned in for all they’re worth but still run up against insuperable obstacles…Sandberg focuses on how young women can climb into the C-suite in a traditional male world of corporate hierarchies. I see that system itself as antiquated and broken.”
Ms Slaughter has widened her conceptual lens in response to her critics. Whereas the Atlantic article was written “for my demographic [of] highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place”, “Unfinished Business” is full of voices from outside her social group. She cites working-class mothers like Tanya Sockol Harrington, who cannot finish a university degree while raising four children. She quotes black feminists, such as Taigi Smith, who writes that “historically, white women were working hard to liberate themselves from housework and child care, while women of colour got stuck cleaning their kitchens and raising their babies.” And she reproduces a “blistering but justified letter” from a gay man, who fears that her framing of work-life balance as a women’s issue could set back homosexual families’ struggle for recognition.
Ms Slaughter has backtracked from her claim that women’s “maternal imperative” might explain why they so often choose family over work. Instead, she says, the root problem is a systematic imbalance in the esteem granted to “two complementary human drives: competition, the impulse to pursue our self-interest in a world in which others are pursuing theirs, and care, the impulse to put others first.”
Discrimination against caregiving, the author writes, harms women, non-whites, gays and stay-at-home dads (who often lurk behind female CEOs) alike. And it wreaks broad damage. She cites studies showing that children who receive high-quality care up to the age of five were four times more likely than a control group to go to university, and that the elderly have far better odds of avoiding nursing homes if they have several children and at least one daughter. America’s skills shortage might lie in caregivers who have been squeezed out of the workforce. “As a society we lose massive amounts of talent,” she writes. “We lose the distance runners, the athletes with the endurance, patience, fortitude and resilience to keep going over the long haul.”
Ms Slaughter should be applauded for devising a “new vocabulary” to identify a broad, misclassified social phenomenon. And she is razor-sharp on outlining the cultural shifts necessary to give caregiving its due—particularly those from her side of the gender divide. For women to achieve equality in the workplace, men will need to be equal in the home. And Ms Slaughter concedes that women, who “define the nature of masculinity as much as other men do…have to find and embrace an image of a man who can care for children; earn less than we do; have his own ideas about how to organise kitchens, lessons and trips; and still be fully sexy and attractive as a man.”
The book also offers some valuable suggestions for employers. She touts the success of “results-only” work environments, which have been adopted at many big firms and let staff work whenever and wherever they want as long as they accomplish their tasks. And she gushes over the family-friendly policies of the Pentagon, which subsidises on-site day care and allows members to take time off for family without hindering their careers.
But Ms Slaughter is also realistic about the limits of doing good while doing well; many companies will choose not to make changes. To level “the playing field for those businesses that are trying to do the right thing…we need the kind of political change that establishes a new floor.” And she offers a laundry list of public policies that would establish an “infrastructure of care” in the United States, similar to the systems in Scandinavia. It includes adjusting school schedules to match work schedules, raising wages for people in caregiving occupations, public investment in child care and early education, paid family leave for both sexes and stronger anti-discrimination laws and enforcement.
“Unfinished Business” leaves some unfinished business of its own when it comes to making this wish list a reality. Anyone as versed in foreign policy as Ms Slaughter knows that hope is not a strategy. She says electing more women to political office would help. This suggestion is perhaps a veiled presidential endorsement of her former boss, Hillary Clinton, who blurbed her book, and it may only be setting another laudable but distant goal. But by putting these issues on the agenda, Ms Slaughter has already taken an essential first step.