Thursday, June 21, 2012

Work-Life Balance: Why Can't Women Have It All?

In an Atlantic article that will be much read and much discussed Anne-Marie Slaughter sets out to correct the lies that feminists have been telling young women.

Sort of.

By that I mean that she is of two minds about the problem of work-life balance.

Can women have it all? Slaughter says that, as of today, they cannot. A woman cannot have a high-powered career and raise her children as she would wish.

Some women do it, Slaughter recognizes, but they are, as she sees it, super-women. For most women the goal merely promotes feelings of inadequacy, even feelings of having betrayed the feminist cause.

Unrealistic expectations do not help you to conduct our life. Mix them with impossible demands and you are on the road to misery.

The Atlantic summarizes her basic idea:

It’s time to stop fooling ourselves, says a woman who left a position of power: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.

Slaughter herself had held a high-level policy job in the State Department. Her teenage sons lived in Princeton, NJ with their father.

Her husband had stepped in as the primary caregiver. Yet, one of her sons was feeling abandoned and he let his feelings be known.

One day Slaughter was attending an important diplomatic function. She was distracted, however, by the situation at home:

I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. Over the summer, we had barely spoken to each other—or, more accurately, he had barely spoken to me. And the previous spring I had received several urgent phone calls—invariably on the day of an important meeting—that required me to take the first train from Washington, D.C., where I worked, back to Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived. My husband, who has always done everything possible to support my career, took care of him and his 12-year-old brother during the week; outside of those midweek emergencies, I came home only on weekends.

Slaughter’s situation was ideal. Her husband was not only supportive; he was a tenured professor. Thus, he was not worrying about job security, was not competing for a promotion, and could control his schedule.

Previously, Slaughter had been an academic herself. With a flexible schedule she easily mixed her job and motherhood. Once she joined the State Department all that changed. She got to experience the life in the real world:

In short, the minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be—at least not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.

Some women can do it; most women can’t.

So far, so good.

Yet, Slaughter holds fast to her feminist creed. She wants to see gender parity throughout the labor market, with an equal number of women and men at every level of every organization.

The American economy has many problems today. Every American should want the economy to improve, to provide more jobs and opportunity for every citizen. Under the administration that Slaughter proudly served the economy has not been doing well at all.

Of course, you cannot grow the economy if you are distracting yourself chasing a pipedream of gender equality.

Achieving feminist goals would require government bureaucrats, lawyers and judges to take over the labor market. How well do you think that new regulations and new lawsuits will advance the goal of economic growth and prosperity? Slaughter does not recommend such a takeover, but it is, by my lights, the inevitable outcome of any effort to achieve her feminist goal.

I will not run through Slaughter’s ideas about how the workplace should adapt to feminist ideology, because, after all, the workplace has already made many of those adaptations and the schools have already introduced gender-neutering education.

How’s that working out for economic growth and employment?

Of course,  you cannot telecommute to a cocktail party. When the cocktail party is an integral part of your workday, as happened in the case Slaughter described, technology is not going to solve the problem.

Telecommuting works for some people, but it also undermines office camaraderie and the different kinds of bonding rituals that co-workers typically undergo.

Conference calls are nice, but people need face time. Most emotion is communicated through facial gestures. And no one gives managerial responsibilities to someone who does not put in a considerable amount of face time. You are not going to trust someone you never see face-to-face. You are not going to promote someone who refuses to look you in the eye on a daily basis.

People compete for promotions. They compete by working harder and longer, even by sacrificing aspects of their personal lives. Do you want to say that some people should not be allowed to work longer hours because others have childcare responsibilities? How would you enforce that?

Slaughter recognizes, more clearly than most that her dreams of feminist utopia must crash into reality. They fail because mothers and fathers are not interchangeable.

Slaughter writes:

Still, the proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case.

Here I step onto treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes. From years of conversations and observations, however, I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.

Of course, this is heresy to feminists, and Slaughter compensates by offering  a myriad of ways for women to maintain their face time with their children while still pursuing high-powered careers.

Still, she is quite right to underscore the differences between mothers and fathers. And she is correct to describe the difference in terms that are reflexive and innate, not the product of socialization.

More importantly, Slaughter identifies the set of cultural values that have produced these problems.

She says:

You should be able to have a family if you want one—however and whenever your life circumstances allow—and still have the career you desire. If more women could strike this balance, more women would reach leadership positions. And if more women were in leadership positions, they could make it easier for more women to stay in the workforce.

Slaughter adheres to these values. I consider them to be the problem.

In my view it's a rank distortion to say that life is or should be about getting what you want, when you want, with whom you want and from whom you want.

We owe this misleading idea to the therapy culture.

Life is a negotiation. It’s a negotiation between what you are good at and what the market will pay for. If you want to do what you are good at, fine. If what you are good at is not exactly what you want to do, adjust your expectations.

Life is a negotiation between the biological imperative to reproduce and the available supply of potential mates.

Life is a negotiation between your duties to your family and your duties to your job.

One thing that it’s not about is getting what you want no matter what.

The notion that we ought to reconstruct the marketplace in order to ensure that feminists can continue to tilt at windmills is serious mistake.

As for the larger question: why can't women have it all? The answer is simple: because no one can.

[All discussions of Slaughter are referring to Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. I posted my thoughts on Sandberg previously. Link here. ]

1 comment:

n.n said...

why can't women have it all? ... because no one can

Exactly! Dreams of instant gratification, whether material, physical, or ego do not occur without consequences.

This is why we experience corruption and evolutionary dysfunction. Denigrating individual dignity only serves to exacerbate the causal forces. Perhaps she does not comprehend why slavery and other acts of involuntary exploitation were rejected. Why a majority of a population reproduces in the minority, and more women choose elective abortion of their children, which is all effectively genocidal and partly self-inflicted.

The natural and enlightened orders are merely inconvenient obstacles to individual self-gratification. No wonder more people (and especially women) consume psychotropic drugs in order to escape reality if only for a moment.