“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter [Book Summary]

Book Summary

As promised in my previous article, here is the book summary of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter.

 

The Context of the Book

Anne-Marie Slaughter is a Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and is now the President and CEO of New America.

She wrote this book after serving as the Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department under U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (2009-2011).

At that time she had to commute from Princeton to Washington DC leaving behind her family for 5 days every week for 2 years. After that period she decided to come back to her university duties instead of continuing to work in the State Department. Her two young boys needed her at Princeton. She didn’t choose family over work, she continued working full time as a professor. However, her job in academia gave her more time and flexibility to be with her family.

Slaughter was judged for her choice and she started to question the feminist ideals she grew up with. That led her to write an article for The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which trigged intense discussion about work-life balance and become one of the most read articles in the history of the magazine.

In her book Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, Slaughter presents her vision about what true equality between men and women really means. She also proposes a new focus to balance work and family not only for women but also for men.

Questioning the Feminist Narratives

Slaughter starts her book by questioning the feminist narratives she believed in. The reality of working women is quite different from the mantra repeated over and over:

You can have it all, if you are committed enough!

You can have it all, if you marry the right person!

You can have it all, if you sequence it right! 

Slaughter argues that these are only half truths and give the illusion to young women that it is entirely up to them.  Here are the whole truths according to Slaughter:

You can have it all if you are committed enough to your career…

AND you are lucky enough never hit a point where your carefully constructed balance between work and family topples over.

You can have it all if you marry the right person…

Who is willing to defer their career to yours

You stay married

And your preferences regarding spending time at work stay unchanged after having children or caring for ageing parent(s).

You can have it all as long as you sequence it right…

If you succeed in having children whenever you plan to

You have an employer who permits you to work part-time or on a flexible schedule and still sees you as leadership material

Or take time out and find a job that puts you on a leadership track once you decide to comeback in regardless of your age.

Competition vs. Care

Slaughter proposes to redefine the work-life balance issue as a care problem rather than a women problem. Men are also concerned by this issue as much as women. She argues that most women in a high-profile career actually have unequal partner who is the primary caregiver for their family. Exactly like male CEOs do.

Men are also forced into the breadwinner role. Those who want to take more time off for care-giving responsibilities may be overlooked for promotion.

On the other hand, the work culture values long hours over quality work (in the US), preventing parents (men and women) from being present for their families.

In short, the work culture favours men working long hours with full-time wives caring for their kids or ageing parents.

The real work-life balance struggle…

is to combine competition and care in a system that rewards one and penalises the other? Competition produces income while care creates people. Both are equally essential to our species. So, why do we value one over the other?

Metric to evaluate caregiving vs. breadwinning

One reason why we value competition over care is the assumption that anybody can give care, while breadwinning requires training and therefore more investment.

Slaughter challenges this assumption. She backs up her arguments with neuroscience findings on early childhood development and what it takes to provide GOOD CARE.

The outcome of high quality care is healthier and more educated individuals that  add more value to society. In other words, high quality care results in human capital that drives more income and value.

The difficulty is how to measure the impact of high quality care. It can takes years before one can see the results. However, measuring breadwinning impact is immediate and straightforward.

Caregiving jobs

For the same reason we value jobs that drive more income than caregiving jobs, like teaching, nursing, etc. For example, it is very hard to measure learning outcomes for a teacher. But how many times do we hear a story of a teacher who profoundly influenced our lives in a good or in a bad way?

Because of a lack of tangible metrics, we consider caregiving jobs low value jobs and therefore allocate lower wages.

What’s a Better Future?

In this book summary I focused only on the first two parts. In the last part of her book Slaughter proposes her vision for the future. She gives solutions to balance the two major counterparts: women and men; work and family. In the next blogpost, I will discuss these solutions in details.

I didn’t discuss many insights in the first two parts of this book, such as “Half-Truths About Men” and “Half-Truths in the Workplace”. Another point I didn’t address here is how Slaughter thinks that the next women’s movement is a men’s movement.

I found this book full of insights backed up with reliable studies. I highly recommend it!


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