work life balance scales

Anne-Marie Slaughter on how to support caregiving and change our toxic work culture

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s been following up her much-discussed 2012 Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” with a book on the subject, and offers a taste of it in the New York Times this past weekend. She’s clearly listened to the critiques of her initial article — particularly around the priviledged perspective and framing that implied that work-life conflict is women’s concern alone. And her latest piece offers a stronger structural analysis of a toxic work culture that affects everyone and is everyone’s problem.

This looks like a “women’s problem,” but it’s not. It’s a work problem — the problem of an antiquated and broken system. When law firms and corporations lose talented women who reject lock-step career paths and question promotion systems that elevate quantity of hours worked over quality of the work itself, the problem is not with the women. When an abundance of overly rigid workplaces causes 42 million American citizens to live day to day in fear that just one single setback will prevent them from being able to care for their children, it’s not their problem, but ours.

The problem is with the workplace, or more precisely, with a workplace designed for the “Mad Men” era, for “Leave It to Beaver” families in which one partner does all the work of earning an income and the other partner does all the work of turning that income into care — the care that is indispensable for our children, our sick and disabled, our elderly. Our families and our responsibilities don’t look like that anymore, but our workplaces do not fit the realities of our lives.

Slaughter mentions the fact that “the problem is even more acute for the 42 million women in America on the brink of poverty,” but it’s worth driving home the point further: It is low-income workers who are most devastingly affected by our lack of support for working families. For example, as I explored in a recent piece at Pacific Standard, without a paid maternity leave law, many poor women are forced to risk their health by returning to work just a couple weeks afer having a child. And while Slaughter argues that “we used to have [an infrastructure of care]; it was called women at home,” the retro breadwinner-homemaker model was never accessible to low-income women and women of color.

Echoing smart folks like Stephanie Coontz, who shows how our outdated workplace policies are keeping us from building the egalitarian partnerships we want, and Ai-Jen Poo, who calls for a “caring majority” that values and properly supports both paid and unpaid caregiving, Slaughter calls for both policy change and culture change. Her recommendations for reform are on point — though I’d add raising the minimum wage to the list, since there’s really no hope for work-life balance if you have to work two jobs just to make enough to survive.

To support care just as we support competition, we will need some combination of the following: high-quality and affordable child care and elder care; paid family and medical leave for women and men; a right to request part-time or flexible work; investment in early education comparable to our investment in elementary and secondary education; comprehensive job protection for pregnant workers; higher wages and training for paid caregivers; community support structures to allow elders to live at home longer; and reform of elementary and secondary school schedules to meet the needs of a digital rather than an agricultural economy.

[...] Change in our individual workplaces and in our broader politics also depends on culture change: fundamental shifts in the way we think, talk and confer prestige. If we really valued care, we would not regard time out for caregiving — for your children, parents, spouse, sibling or any other member of your extended or constructed family — as a black hole on a résumé. We would see it as engaging in a socially, personally and professionally valuable activity. We would see men who lean out for care as role models just as much as women who lean in for work. We would think managing kids matters as much as managing money.

Read the rest here.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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