“Having It All” Author: American Work Culture Must Change

“We have to find a way to value men and women who are privileging their private responsibilities as well as professional responsibilities,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter. But none of this will be simple.

Anne-Marie Slaughter. Princeton University / AP

“The last six months have changed who I am,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter Wednesday. She was speaking of her megaviral Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which overnight made her a major voice in the (often contentious) conversation about work and family in America. Despite her long career in foreign policy, she said, “as far as the world is concerned, this is what I now stand for.”

Slaughter was talking with Big Girls Don’t Cry author Rebecca Traister at an event sponsored by the New America Foundation also titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” but Slaughter said she was moving away from this phrasing (and that it wouldn’t be in the title of her upcoming book on the topic). Instead, what she wants is for women — and men — to be able to have a career and a family without major tradeoffs in either sphere.

When it came to specific prescriptions, universal subsidized daycare (which Traister advocated even as she called it a “third rail” in American politics) came up frequently, as did paid family leave and flexible working hours. But these top-down changes alone wouldn’t be enough, said Slaughter. She described the condescending comments she got in Washington whenever she mentioned her children, and noted that high-level workers would have to feel comfortable taking advantage of things like flextime in order for them to work: “Ambitious people won’t change unless we change the culture as well as the policies.”

It was easy to see why these issues are so contentious. During the question-and-answer period, a young woman who identified herself as Alana S. said her friend had been turned away at the door when she tried to bring her two children to the event: “A lot of young conservative women who are having kids at 24 or 25 years old are being left out of the conversation because we can’t even get in the door.”

And universal daycare, with its implication of a governmental role in family life, she said, “would conflict with conservative sacred truths.” She added later that she supported policies that would promote marriage, “the only institution where men and women have true equality in the sense of equal access to material wealth and equal access to their children.”

A stay-at-home mom in attendance said that public conversations about work-life balance tended to leave her out too, sending the message that “my job is a waste of time” that “could be done by anyone.” She added, “If you give up one minute with your child, you’ve given up something.” Still, she said she didn’t feel children needed a parent at home all the way up the age of 18. And several attendees pointed out that for many families, having two working parents is a necessity, not a choice.

Slaughter noted that she wanted to see change for men too. She half-joked that the country would be a better place “if we could only do for fatherhood what we’ve done for cooking,” making it a highly-valued skill men would be proud to show off. And on a more serious note: “We have to find a way to value men and women who are privileging their private responsibilities as well as professional responsibilities,” their relationships with their partners, children, and parents, as well as with their jobs.

And one of the only men in the audience sounded a note of hope. He was a social scientist from Norway, where parents get a full year of guaranteed leave and large companies must have boards composed of at least 40% women. He said his American friends call Norway “Legoland,” like it’s a toy country that could never be real, but he argued that a modified version of those same policies could work here, if we were willing to push for them. He also noted that he hadn’t initially planned to come to the event — he was there in place of his wife, who had to work.

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