Tuesday, June 26, 2012

“Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”: A Man’s Response

A few days ago, I awoke to a flurry of activity on my Facebook newsfeed discussing the Atlantic Magazine article by Ann-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” In her thought provoking essay, Slaughter argues that despite the courageous struggle fought by previous generations of women, the work environment of prestigious, high powered jobs continues to inhibit women, by forcing them into unnecessary and unacceptable trade-offs between their parenting and professional commitments. An intensely clientelist culture that fetishizes billable hours and frowns upon those who dare prioritize family over work, even on weekends, has made it impossible for women to lead healthy balanced family lives in a way that men in similar positions often manage.
Slaughter, the former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, makes a compelling case for the reconfiguration of the work environment to make it more family friendly. Extend the hours of the school day. Increase the use of communication technology to facilitate working from home. Change work culture, making default practices more accommodating of familial commitments. Without substantial reforms like these, not only are governments and firms going to continue to lose talented female employees, making society writ large worse off, but women will remain in an uphill struggle filled with unfair barriers that systematically discriminate against them.
Many of my female Kennedy School peers have called on men to give their opinion on the essay, some suggesting that we have little incentive to embrace the proposed changes, others arguing that we have just as much to gain as women. So as a man, what are my thoughts?
The core of Slaughter’s argument, as I read it, need not be gender specific. It’s claim, rather, is that America needs to adapt its work culture to embrace a new understanding of the good life. One that places family at its core. For Slaughter, this is one where she is “able to spend time with [her] children,” enjoying “the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals.” These activities, are common to millions of families across America, but are by no means ordinary. They may not have the influence or financial earnings of a high power job, but are nevertheless a rudimentary part of life. One that defines us, satisfies us like nothing else. Family is not something to be sidelined by professional commitments. No matter how important.
I full heartedly embrace Slaughter’s call. It is not clear to me, however, why this invitation to re-imagine a more family friendly professional environment is something that women specifically ought to value. The more successful women have been over the past fifty years in redefining the workplace as somewhere that everybody has a right to participate in equally, the more men have seen their roles at home transform. Men now often make professional sacrifices too for the sake of their family. This is something that I experienced in my life for example. Just as my mother delayed the completion of her degree to give my brother and I the support and attention we needed growing up, my father, who had already earned his before we were born, then delayed his PhD to make time in our teenage years to help us with our homework and coach the soccer team.  
These are things my grandfathers’ generation probably never would have even thought, and were certainly never expected, to do. Spending time engaged in the everyday rituals of parenthood may have been the sole remit of women in the bad old days, but that is not to say that its simple magnificence is lost upon men today now that times have changed. And this is perhaps my most important take away from thinking about Slaughter’s article. Women’s liberation has not been a zero sum game. Men who are now participating in their children’s lives more than they otherwise would have are enjoying newfound meaning.
My best male professors at the Kennedy School all have spoken of things like putting off the next book, skipping conferences, leaving office strictly at 5.30pm or (appropriate in this case) returning from a dream job in Washington because their spouse dislikes the capital. I was speaking to Martin Wolf (a hard nosed economist from the Financial Times) about his career a few months back, and he reflected adamantly that if his job had ever gotten in the way of his marriage, he would never have hesitated to find new employment. I do not mean to suggest that this is representative of all, or even most men but it nonetheless indicates that men’s priorities are changing.
What I liked about this essay was that it embraced family as the centre of the solution, not part of the problem that ‘progress’ tries to solve. Something that progress needs to accommodate, not be accommodated by. Part of the directionality of our collective pursuits. It differs dramatically from the message of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for example, where Nora, the protagonist leaves her children to escape her controlling husband. I remember as a teenager being conflicted after the play, by a twin sense of relief that she escaped her horrid life and anger that she had left her children. I remember arguing that it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, you’ve still got a responsibility to care for your children. This essay pays head to this truth, and makes a better case, I believe, for a more just, fair society because of it.
And I think men should, and will listen. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Photos: Their Monasteries are in the Clouds

This weekend, with the monsoon season finally lumbering into action, I went to visit Taktsang, the famous Tiger's Nest. After a 6am start, the adventure soon had to be diverted elsewhere as the main road from Thimphu to Paro became impassable due to landslides. 

Instead, we visited Chagri Dorjeden, the Buddhist monastery established by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1620. 

It was a breath-taking introduction to the temples of Bhutan.

Cars line up hundreds of metres back. An unusual sight in Bhutan. A landslide has made the road impassable.

A group of locals consider solving the problem themselves as it becomes apparent that help will be slow in coming this early Sunday morning. They begin to hammer at the enormous rock, hoping to roll more manageable pieces off the cliff.

We head back to Thimphu, stopping to take examine the traditional Bhutanese architecture and of the rice terraces.

Amidst the clouds,  hanging off the side of the mountainside, Chagri Dorjeden comes into view.

Two monks make their way up to the monastery.

We make a friend along the way who cheerfully accompanies us up and down the mountain. Traditional Bhutanese hospitality.

The deep green surroundings on the walk up are bursting with all manners of life.  After hiking up the steep trail,  the monastery finally comes into view.

We were allowed to enter without a letter of permission.

Mini prayer wheels.

One of the thousands of designs found on Bhutanese architecture. 

Two monks chat. 

A small candle prayer hut in the monastery.

More designs. Reminds me of the old British University style architecture.

And more designs...

To the top. Slippery steps.

Clouds and tree clad mountains surround the monastery into the distance.

Local visitors feed the left overs of their lunch to the stray dogs.

Journey completed. We make our way home.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Canteen

The Bhutanese are unrelentingly sociable. Embellished tales of recent visits by academic dignitaries and racy office banter dance about the tobacco smoke that hugs the old wooden picnic table in the back garden of the canteen. Even with strangers, the conversation is never forced nor the silence ever awkward. More like a verbal game, quiet at the table is spent in respite, anticipating the oncoming crack at any idiosyncrasy the next subject of abuse happens to have.

“Is smoking not banned in Bhutan?...” I ask. 

My inquiry is answered with earnest, wordy responses that utterly fail to provide clarity. I wonder if the ambiguity is intentional, a convolution to avoid the intrusive question, but decide it is not. The Economist article I read must have had it wrong so…  

A tray of yogurts arrive (their plastic tops unsealed).

Unsweetened but deliciously refreshing, the yogurt is more creamy and natural than any I’ve tasted before. It’s the first dairy product I’ve had since arriving in this chili infested land and lines the walls of my stomach, soothing my gut. Chilies in the Cheese Omelet. Chilies in the Chicken Pizza. Chilies in bloody everything..

After the yogurt, the frequency and predictability of bathroom visits returns to normal. Thank God. Most restrooms I encounter are flooded holes in the ground, toilet-paper used up long ago.

During the first few days, I became increasingly aware of my foreignness. Squeamish, precious, Western, I wonder how I must look to the locals.. like the tourists in Babel, scared of life outside my hyper -sanitized bubble? Do the flies buzzing about the food not bother ANYBODY else?

After a generously timed one hour long break we head back to the office, returning to the familiar sound of rats trampling hurriedly across the wood-chip ceiling, their claws scuffing the panels.

This is my first time living in a developing country. In many ways, I didn’t know what to expect. At this early stage, despite appearances, the discomforts of life outside 02138 are more interesting than perturbing however.

Let’s hope it stays that way…

Friday, June 15, 2012

Photos: From Dublin to Paro

This should ideally been my first post. Below are the photos of my journey from Dublin to Paro, via Dubai and Bangkok.

A traveller hurries to his flight. I bought this camera to document my time in Bhutan. This was the first photo I took.

Waiting at Dubai International airport for 8 hours, I eventually boarded a plane like this one.

Finally on my Druk Air Flight. I left Ireland on Tuesday morning at 9am and arrive at my Bhutanese home at 8.30am on Thursday Morning.

As the plane descends below the clouds, I get my first sight of Bhutan.

Finally about to land!

My first weekend. Through the prayer flags, you can see the outskirts to the south of Thimphu.  

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Home in a foreign land

Yesterday (Saturday 9th of June) I went for a walk up one of the mountains. The prayer flags were beautiful.

There are stray dogs everywhere, lying exhausted across the roads, defeat in their bloodshot eyes. With composition akin to a lazy cow. Not like the dogs I know back home.

Upon arrival, I am immediately struck by how utterly different life in Bhutan is to my experiences in the West. The taxi drivers invite you to dinner with their family. The burgers are put on display in plastic wrappers, pre-cooked. The air is purer than a sea breeze (and yet its thinness leaves you gasping for breath). The mountains are lined with colorful prayer flags. Just look at the buildings.

And yet it is essentially the same. The procedures of human interaction. The untidiness of a city under construction. The greyness of the sky looking down upon the valley. And with modernization, the last Shangri-La seems at times to be slowly fading away.

In Bhutan however, the mother of the genius peculiarity of Gross National Happiness, balance pervades all aspects of the development agenda. Indeed, there is little desire amongst government officials for creative destruction. The modern endeavors to complement rather than replace the past.

On my second day in Bhutan, I am invited to observe the opening meeting of the National Assembly’s Session. The recently instituted seat of democracy, the parliamentary chamber elegantly marries the routines of political liberalism with monarchical customs and the ancient rituals of the country’s Buddhist religion. The antediluvian tapestries and faint smell of incense fit comfortably by the flat screen televisions built into the walls of the assembly and the Gohs and Kiras (The Bhutanese national dress) look at ease beside suits and dresses.

Work begins on Monday, when I will get a chance to begin examining the theory and practice of GNH in detail. I wonder will it be, as I hope, a replicable model for development beyond the Himalayas.

A sign that Bhutan is entering an economic heyday, this gigantic Buddha has been constructed on the mountainside overlooking Thimphu, the capital.