Reeval­u­at­ing roles key to redefin­ing equal­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - TAKING STOCK - BY LIL­LIAN CUN­NING­HAM lil­lian.cun­ning­ham@wash­ WASH­ING­TON­POST.COM/ONLEADERSHIP

Anne-Marie Slaugh­ter has come to re­gret that her site-crash­ingly pop­u­lar At­lantic piece was ti­tled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” For one, she has since de­cided it’s not just women who can’t have it all. What’s more, she says, “hav­ing it all” isn’t even the point.

In her new book, “Un­fin­ished Busi­ness,” she as­serts that the real prob­lem isn’t about work-life bal­ance — it’s that we ut­terly de­value the im­por­tance of care­giv­ing roles in our so­ci­ety. The con­ver­sa­tion with Slaugh­ter, who now leads the Wash­ing­ton-based think tank New Amer­ica, has been edited for length and clar­ity.

Q. This book be­gan as an ex­ten­sion of your 2012 ar­ti­cle. How dif­fer­ent did it end up be­ing from what you orig­i­nally en­vi­sioned?

A. This book is very dif­fer­ent from the ar­ti­cle. I couldn’t have writ­ten this book three years ago, be­cause I didn’t be­lieve then what I now write about. What I’m re­ally now talk­ing about is the work that we do in­vest­ing in other peo­ple — as moth­ers, as fa­thers, as chil­dren tak­ing care of our own par­ents, as some­one tak­ing care of any­body who is dis­abled or ill.

That work of in­vest­ing in oth­ers is ac­tu­ally just as im­por­tant as the work we do for money.

What shifted your views?

I started think­ing my way through the women’s move­ment and how we had come to de­fine equal­ity — that women are equal to men only as long as they are do­ing the work that men have tra­di­tion­ally done.

That’s not a full gen­der rev­o­lu­tion. That’s say­ing, “Men were the ones who earned the in­come, and now women can be men.” When women do that, they’re equal, but women who are car­ing for oth­ers are still very much de­val­ued. If you’re re­ally go­ing to have equal­ity, you’ve got to value both kinds of work.

Part of what you sug­gest is switch­ing the con­ver­sa­tion from “work-life bal­ance” to “care­giv­ing.” Why do you think mak­ing that change is im­por­tant?

A. The first thing it does is it widens our lens to all women. When we talk about work-life bal­ance, we’re talk­ing about a nar­row slice of women at the top, right? Be­cause bal­ance is a lux­ury. Yes, we have too few women at the top, but we also have far too many women at the bot­tom. What’s hap­pen­ing here is it’s not just about gen­der.

If you are a woman who doesn’t have care­giv­ing obli­ga­tions, you’re earn­ing some­where be­tween 92 and 96 per­cent on ev­ery male dol­lar. If you are a woman with care­giv­ing obli­ga­tions, you’re earn­ing closer to 70 to 72 per­cent on the male dol­lar.

What’s re­ally go­ing on here is we are dis­crim­i­nat­ing against peo­ple who have to care for oth­ers, which is a role that so­ci­ety needs peo­ple to play.

Right now, we’re fo­cus­ing on the prob­lem that if you’re at the top and take time out to take care of oth­ers, you’re knocked off your lead­er­ship track. But much more im­por­tant is that if you are a woman in the mid­dle class or a low-in­come woman and you take even a day or two off to care for oth­ers, you could lose your job. You get docked pay. You don’t have ac­cess to af­ford­able day care.

Q. I imag­ine your con­clu­sion that care­giv­ing is a bet­ter con­struct must have come partly out of the feed­back on your orig­i­nal piece, in­clud­ing some of the crit­i­cism that the work-life bal­ance con­ver­sa­tion caters mostly to those who are priv­i­leged, white and sub­ur­ban.

A. Yes, I was ac­cused of trick­le­down feminism. I knew I was writ­ing for the At­lantic, right? I never had any doubt that I was talk­ing to a fairly nar­row slice of women. But, yes, I took that crit­i­cism on board and thought much, much harder about the con­di­tion of all women.

The other criti- cism that I re­ally took on board came from men. Men wrote to me, in­clud­ing gay men, and said ,“How dare you frame this as a woman’s is­sue?” They were right. . . . So I re­ally changed my views of what men want but don’t dare say. And, also, if we don’t change those roles for men, we will never get to real equal­ity.

Q. You write about how lan­guage in our work­place, such as the ques­tions we ask and the la­bels we use, are ac­tu­ally hold­ing back our progress. What is some of the worst lan­guage we need to ditch and re­place?

A. We should get rid of “stay-ath­ome mom” and “stay-at-home dad.” I find that to be very of­fen­sive. It says that the place you’re sup­posed to be is the work­place. If you’re at home, you need an ad­jec­tive. We should also talk about “work­ing fa­thers” as well as “work­ing moth­ers,” right? We need to make clear that they have a dual iden­tity the same way women have a dual iden­tity.

And let’s get rid of the word “help.” Let’s stop say­ing, “My hus­band helps” — be­cause that is re­ally say­ing, “It is my job to run the house­hold, but he helps me do it.” No, no, no, no, no.

Q. Aside from some of th­ese lan­guage shifts, what are one or two big changes you would love to see in work­places?

A. Where do I start? There’s a long list. What I want to see is: How do we work flex­i­bly enough so that peo­ple who have chil­dren or par­ents or spouses, or who want to care for them­selves, have time? It’ s not about how many hours you’re in the of­fice. It’s about get­ting the work done on time with the qual­ity that is de­manded of you.

And then, if you take ad­van­tage of flex­i­bil­ity poli­cies, you shouldn’t be stig­ma­tized for it. Some com­pa­nies have all th­ese re­ally pro­gres­sive poli­cies, but the minute you use them, you’re not a player.

Q. You and Sh­eryl Sand­berg have been two of the strong­est con­tem­po­rary voices on women’s is­sues, and there are some dif­fer­ences be­tween your views. If her boiled-down ad­vice is “lean in,” what’s yours?

A. To boil it down, my ad­vice is break the mold. Do not ac­cept the hi­er­ar­chies you are given. Do not ac­cept the as­sump­tions about the work­place that you are given. Do not ac­cept the ideas about male and fe­male roles you are given.

Q. In the course of the past three years of writ­ing this book, what per­sonal les­son have you taken away?

A. I now try very hard when I meet some­body to not say im­me­di­ately, “What do you do?” That’s such a clas­sic Amer­i­can thing. I try to ask a ques­tion that will let me see the whole per­son. “Have you read a good book lately ?” or “What did you do I ask some­thing that says we are more than our work.

How many women were jour­nal­ists, prose­cu­tors, doc­tors, then took time­out for care and dropped off the screen be­cause all any­body wants to know is what they do? And when they say some­thing like, “I’m car­ing for my par­ents,” that doesn’t seem to count.

So it’s re­ally changed how I ap­proach other peo­ple. And also, when I meet a teacher or a nurse or a ther­a­pist or a coach, I im­me­di­ately think, “This per­son is do­ing the most im­por­tant work in our so­ci­ety.”

Anne-Marie Slaugh­ter: “We ut­terly de­value . . . care­giv­ing roles.”

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