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.