4 American Ways to Solve the Work-Life Balance Issue

Book Summary

[Book Summary: Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter]

In my last blogpost about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, I summarized Slaughter’s reframing of the work-life balance as a care issue rather than women’s issue.

I was quite disappointed of the last part of Slaughter’s book, in which I hoped to find more innovative solutions. For me the solutions she gave were very American in the sense that they reflect what Americans want to hear, and their idealization of “work-hard” culture.

To be fair, Slaughter did her best in addressing a wide American audience with political background and socioeconomical status. One has to understand the American history and work culture in order to understand these solutions. I am now reading a book by Caroline Fredrickson, Under The Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over. Fredrickson points out that the labor laws in the US today are based on outdated, misogynistic and racist assumptions. In a future blog post, I will share a summary of Fredrickson’s book.

Finish the business: changes to get to equality

1) Changing the way we talk

Slaughter suggests that the way we talk hides assumptions on gender roles. She proposes that we should change the conversation to include men and acknowledging their responsibility in caring for the family. We should also stop using language that supports outdated assumptions on gender roles.

Talking about Dads

Men babysit their kids

Imagine a man is out with his friends and someone asks him whether his wife is babysitting their kids. Isn’t that ridiculous? You don’t babysit your kids, you take care of them whether you are a father or mother. Saying such a thing assumes that fathers are not supposed to take care of their kids.

Stop using Mr. Mom

This goes even deeper in the US pop culture. Why is a man who takes care of kids called “Mr. Mom”? This is also based on the assumption that moms are the only ones who should take care of kids.

Stop over praising dads just for showing up 

Slaughter point out how much dads are usually over praised (by women) just for showing up, something moms have always done. She proposes to demand more from dads than just showing up, and that this should be reflected in the way we talk.

Talking about Work

How often do women get asked how they juggle work and family responsibilities?

Men extremely rarely get asked this question, which tells a lot about the assumptions we make about gender roles.

Working father vs. Working mother 

We often use “working mother” to describe a woman who has a job and has kids, but no one says “working father”. This is also an assumption about gender roles.

Stay home mom/dad as if the office is the norm

Slaughter argues that using the word “stay home mom/dad” puts pressure on parents who chose to take time off work to take care of their families. Using such wording assumes that being in the office is the norm. She suggests to using the term “full time parent”.

The author urges us to pay closer attention to the way we talk about families and work. In her opinion, the cultural change starts with changing the way we talk about men, women, family and work.

Refuse to play the competition game

She also encourages us to refuse to play “the competitive gam”. She notes that usually people talk about what they are doing and how busy they are, but rarely about what they care about. Thus, we consider seemingly busy working people as important, while a full-time parent is considered unimportant and uninteresting. Slaughter suggests to refuse to play this game and rather ask people about what they care about.

Slaughter believes that the change in the culture starts with everyone changing the way they talk about work-life balance and gender roles.

2) Career Portfolio

Career Portfolio is a new way to think about careers. Rather than having a major job where you climb the ladder to the top, you can have several part-time jobs with different skill sets.

From Slaughter’s point view, this is the result of the constant change in today’s economy. She argues that it could be a good thing for work-life balance since it gives people more control over their time.

She also points out the dark side of the on-demand economy, which includes such services as Uber and Airbnb. I believe that most people are unable to make a full living from the on-demand economy, which comes without benefits such as health and retirement. This is especially true in the US where health insurance is not provided by the government.

Even for someone who has a full-time job, Slaughter urges us to think about our career as a Portfolio in a sense it has phases where we develop different skills. She gives the example of her own career; a professor, a writer, a foreign policy expert, a speaker, etc.

She also advices readers to think about one’s career as changing in intensity depending on the family needs. For example, one can slow down when their kids are young and accelerate when the kids are less dependent.

Not sure it’s the best advice

I am personally a bit skeptical about this advice, the author herself points out that she didn’t have kids until she got her tenure as a university professor in her late 30s. It just comes back to the half-truth You can have it all if you sequence it right”. 

I am also not very optimistic about the career portfolio. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always guarantee a constant safe stream of income to support your family. Unless you have a very high profile career, it just makes people work more rather then giving them more time to care for their families. Because of the unstable income, people are always stressed out and always looking for more to fill the holes each month. Also, if you want to buy a house and secure a roof for your family, no bank will lend you money if you don’t have steady job.

3) Maternal paid leave

The US is the only developed country without paid maternity leave. I found an interesting analysis about this issue in this article: Why Is The U.S. The Only Developed Country Without Paid Maternity Leave?

We are populating the human race. It’s not a vacation. It’s hard important work. 

Naturally, Slaughter supports the idea of paid maternity leave but criticizes the lengthy paid leave of other developed countries. She supports this claim by studies showing that women who take longer maternity leave tend to decline in performance.

I haven’t checked these studies but I’m a bit skeptical about this claim. In the first part of her book, Slaughter argues that women can succeed in their career after having kids if they find the support at work and their employer still sees them as leadership material. I don’t know if these studies consider how the employers see working mothers. I am also afraid that these studies could be used to support employers to dismiss working mothers from promotion. We should be really careful about such studies.

Instead of maternity leave, I think it should be called parental leave. Child care doesn’t have to be only for the parent who gives birth, it could be shared between both parents. The couple could decide how to divide the labor depending on the needs of the newborn and the parents’ professional obligations. As an example, after the maternity leave designated for a parent who gives birth runs out, Canada allows parents to divide parental leave as they see fit. See this article for more details about Canada’s parental leave benefits.

4) Elect more women

Slaughter urges Americans to elect more women. She cites several studies showing that when the number of women increases within a group, men tend to address and even initiate discussion on care issues more often.

It seems obvious that women will better represent other women, independently of their political orientation. However, the studies show that women tend to represent a broader spectrum of the society. Women, regardless on their political orientation, tend to address care issues and look out for disadvantaged minorities more often than men in power do.

Governments with more women will better reflect the population and are more likely to create societies that care.  Unfortunately, the US missed a chance to elect a woman for president in the last presidential election. However, Americans did quite well in the last mid-term elections, where they increased the number of women in congress. The results of the elections were historical not only for women but also for minorities, where Muslim women and Native American women got elected for the first time. For more details about the results and stats, see this article.

Final thoughts

Reading this book made me think differently about the work-life balance issue.  In particular, I came to understand the roots of the problem, which are as complex as human evolution. Also, the solutions given by our predecessors are not necessarily final and we can always do better.

As much as I was disappointed by the solutions Slaughter proposed, I enjoyed reading this book and found it very insightful. I found some of Slaughter’s solutions too obvious, like paid maternity leave and electing more women. But these solutions make sense for the American audience. As a leading nation, the US needs to catch up on some basic labor laws.

Equality doesn’t mean women have to be like men. The issues working women and mothers face today are unique and need different solutions of their own. First, we need to reframe these issues as care issues rather than women’s issue. Then we need to rebalance our society between care and competition.


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