It’s Not a “Women’s Issue”

Ann-Marie Slaughter is on the cover of the Atlantic with an important essay about work and family. along with a stupid picture of a baby in a briefcase (which some art director stuck her with) and a stupid title/headline (which she did not write). She starts out with a personal anecdote, which I regret as an overused rhetorical trick, but ends up talking about the important stuff, which is bigger than her family’s work/child-rearing conflicts and bigger than the cultural habits and expectations that are especially tough on women. I’m not going to summarize it; you need to read it all.

The piece has stirred up a rousing discussion on a listserv I frequent along with thoughtful and on-target commentary, for example (and only for example; I have not trolled the web to get everything) here and here. But I did look at the first Google page of hits and found ten articles by women, which makes twelve, and two fairly flip paragraphs by one man. One would think the conflict between work and family is a problem women have, sort of like race being something black people have, or work mainly in women’s inboxes . Slaughter actually gets this right, but even among my liberal listserv colleagues, the women have had a lot more to say than the men, including the few men who weighed in (on the listserv, but not as far as I can tell in public) to take ownership of the issue. This state of affairs is wrongheaded on the facts (men and their kids also pay heavy dues trying to be good at work and at home) but more fundamentally wrong because we’re all in this together. Men have daughters and wives and depend on the value created (or not) by women at work, not to mention retiring on the taxes to be paid by all of today’s children.

The stupidity of the title is its implication that ‘everything’ is a reasonable thing to aspire to. Of course you can’t have everything, because there are 24 hours – not 25 or 240 – in each day of your three score and ten, and because if you’re a world-class shot putter you will not be a winning jockey for fundamental and intractable properties of muscle energy per unit of mass. A lot of the power of the article is its irrefutable certification that the family-job problem is not solved by money or caused by poverty or stupidity or ignorance: the Moravcsik-Slaughter household has all the IQ points, social capital, advantages of birth and status, and money they could possibly use. They have as much of everything as can be hoped for; the problem is that they can’t apportion their shopping basket optimally because of constraints that actually don’t have to bind us.

What Slaughter is about is that we could all have a lot more of two big important things if we organized life better, and her lessons are emphatically not that the way to go about that is women-centric. It’s complicated, because there is indeed misogyny all over the place and a lot of the bad habits and rules are especially hostile to women, so it would be wrong for men to just hijack the issue. The feminism issue here is twofold: indeed, women in particular deserve a better deal, but also, and partly for that reason, women have some useful stuff to teach everyone if we will just pay attention.

My main takeaway from the article is the enormous social cost of the macho workplace, created and managed by insecure men to assure their status by hazing routines and a sort of potlatch of self-abuse, and the positional arms race culture. How much more value (net of fringes etc. and pay) is actually created by one Stakhanovite working seventy-hour weeks and a wreck for thirty of them, than two people with a life and hobbies working thirty-five each? How many crises asking for work on Sunday are really crises? When it snows in DC, “non-essential” workers are asked to stay home. Raise hands, all those who are happy to signal their dispensability by sledding with the kids. Slaughter has a lot of good ideas in the way of changes in specific rules (like a nudge that extends the tenure clock for anyone who has a child rather than allowing people to have the extension if they ask for it). Is really good day care, the kind the French and Italians lay on and try to recruit all kids into, for employers? for women who want to work? for kids? or, as they think, for all of society including men and women alumni of the École Maternelles? The pervasive expectation that it’s good to be an attentive and engaged dad, but obviously parenting is mainly mom’s to assure, makes stuff like this come down on women more, or seem to, but a great deal of the myth built into top-level, competitive, workplace life (yeah, and blue-collar just-trying-to-make-the-rent life) is equal-opportunity, and sex-independent costly, jive.

I’m not a spokesperson for men, not proud to be a man (I didn’t choose to), but still, I’m ashamed that the people standing up and saying what is true about this stuff are still almost all women. It’s going to be a lot of work, and maybe cost us some net stuff and house square feetage, to fix this, and it’s both stupid and unfair to expect half the team to do all the lifting.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.