Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Women Can't Have it All *

J. Howard Miller

The July 1 Atlantic tells a cautionary tale. Anne-Marie Slaughter's Why Women Still Can't Have it All maps the deadly land mines for career-minded women, then calls on our collective conscience to disable the mines. (She also had a great interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air and with Larry Mantle on AirTalk. She's making the rounds.)

There are few surprises in the story for anyone who has worked toward establishing herself as a career professional. What comes as a relief, however, is the parsing of the myths for professional women—spelling out the Jedi Mind Tricks that women and corporate America pass off as an acceptable way to do business. Things will have to change, Slaughter says, if women really want to move ahead in business.

But I wonder if one pop culture myth has been overlooked. By insisting that mothers be able to "have it all" through working at home, flex time and videoconferencing, is that reinforcing a fiction as well—that both parents should work full-time? For the benefit of children, should we be talking about how mothers can work more, or should we talk about creating a social and economic structure throughout our culture so that one parent—male or female, based on the family's choice—always can be home to support children and engage with them?

Slaughter mentions this in her interview on Fresh Air, in the framework of allowing flexibilities to men as well, so parenting can be equally shared.

I don't mean to take the focus away from the ridiculous gender discrimination that continues forty years after the feminist revolution: salaries, promotions, job descriptions. Slaughter is right to point out the failings of businesses that value female workers less, through our societal assumptions. But should it be a societal assumption that both parents must work outside the home—and maybe work full time—in addition to investing in their family? Are we setting the bar high enough?

What if Slaughter's question focused more on the children: How can we as a society invest in our children and build support for family, such that either parent could succeed professionally? 

If men—who are conditioned to "provide" for their families—felt free to stay home all day knowing the bills would be paid by his wife's fair wage, would some of the issues Slaughter raises resolve themselves in the workforce? If lesbians raising children together knew that one salary would carry the family, would both mothers still work? If children could be assured one parent always would be available to take care of them, would they feel more self-assured, confident, secure?

Is the real issue that our culture values parenting and maintaining a household so little, that parents flock to external careers to find personal fulfillment—which further confounds the satisfaction and ease of the parenting journey?

Lori Gottleib, in her Atlantic response to the Slaughter piece, says as much. She writes that a full time job is a trade-off for either parent:
The problem with Slaughter's so-called dilemma is that it never occurs to her that maybe the math doesn't work. You can't give 100 percent effort to two full-time, demanding endeavors. You have to cut back on one or the other or both. So, like grownups, we make choices. I don't use a cell phone for work and have never sent a text in my life, precisely because I made a choice that I'm incredibly grateful to have: I can forgo assignments if an editor calls when I'm not home. ... I can turn down therapy clients I'd enjoy working with during primetime evening hours because I don't want to miss my son's bedtime more than one night per week.
If taken in the framework of a society where both parents must work outside the home, or in careers that even afford telecommuting and flextime, or under the assumption that children do not notice the loss of the attention they do not receive, of course Slaughter is right. But think about her proposed solutions in this environment: With the ability to video conference, text, and work on flex time, can we police our own work time? Is this how we model a balanced life to our children, by filling each moment of downtime by serving someone else? What will this do to marriages and family relationships? What will children learn about building their own professional and personal relationships?

Slaughter is right in certain contexts, but I think some of her thinking is magical. I appreciated her discussing with Terry Gross how, as a professor, she used to tell students: "Women can have it all, you just figure it out," but then she realized, when working in a position with required hours and far less flexibility, that it's not possible until women—and men—have control over their own time.
"If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us."
Isn't that why they call it "work" — we don't always have control over the time, as employees. Even though my job as an elementary teacher "ended" at 2:40p.m., I still needed to prepare materials, lesson plan, grade work, rearrange the seating chart to manage discipline issues.... you get the idea. There was hardly a single morning I got in later than 6:00 am and there was hardly a single night I got home before 6 or 7:00 p.m. Could I have done some of that stuff at home? Sure, but I wasn't all that great of company—because I was working. Just because your time is flexible doesn't mean it's a great setup for engaging children (at any developmental stage).

Gottleib takes Slaughter's entire premise to task:

So why do women with choices have such a hard time accepting this? Thirty years ago women used to complain that they wanted "a wife." Now that women like Slaughter have wives (in the guise of her husband who, functioning as a single dad, took care of two kids and the entire household every weekday for two years while he also held down a job and earned a living), they don't like being the husband very much. To their surprise, it turns that husbands don't "have it all" either. And Slaughter is mad as hell to have worked this hard and given up so much only to discover that being the husband kind of sucks. Being the husband requires far more compromise than she and many high-powered women ever imagined.

In this society we've created, we value paid jobs outside the home more than the job of raising and nurturing children and creating a healthy environment where they can go. We look at the question: "Shouldn't women be treated equally in the workforce" or "Shouldn't men have flextime too" but what about the questions: Should both parents feel obligated to work at a job? Shouldn't we value the work that is done at home, raising children, so families can achieve a real balance for children? So at least one parent does not have to choose?

Women can't have it all. To win the professional gains is to lose the richness of the family journey for both parents and children. Men, as Lori Gottleib points out, never had it all and maybe never wanted "it all." Gottleib has been far more succinct in her rationale than I can be here, but my view is: Children need family at home to guide them, for at least a majority of the time. Each family's mother will offer a different rich experience than the father, so dictating the gender of a stay at home parent is probably arbitrary—each family should choose what's best for its situation. I am disappointed that the current economy forces many parents to make choices that preclude their ability to spend as much time with their kids, especially in the early years. How do you have one parent at home with the kids when there only is one parent? I have no idea.  What about when the parents are in trouble and can't function as the role models? Well, obviously there are exceptions. Some families are lucky enough that grandparents or other extended family can step in, and that's important for kids, too. 

I am grateful to Anne-Marie Slaughter and Lori Gottleib for writing on this issue and opening the dialogue. It's an important discussion. What's your opinion?

*For some reason the text in this type wasn't displaying well, so I've tried to work on the formatting to fix it up. Sorry for the updates.

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