Monday, August 13, 2012

Anne-Marie Slaughter on “having it all” (Career-Sacrificing Partners, Maternal Involvement)

Dr. Slaughter also challenges another “half-truth” contained in Ms. Sandberg’s famous speech: “The most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is.”  Ms. Sandberg has publicly attributed having a spouse who fairly shares household responsibilities as a key to her own success in the business world.

Along similar lines, Dr. Slaughter noted that Lisa Jackson (the current administrator of the EPA) has also publicly cited her husband as her own “work-life balance.”  Apparently, Ms. Jackson’s husband has spent much more time with their kids and tending to their needs than she has.  Ms. Jackson cites her husband’s assumption of parental duties as a critical factor in her career success.

Before Dr. Slaughter wrote her recent article, I had previously read Ms. Sandberg’s quote, but was unaware of Ms. Jackson’s.  Unfortunately, I do think there is truth in those statements.  I know that I would not have been able to have the career I’ve had without my husband’s support.  When we were both working full-time, he did at least half of the childcare and other household work.  We would trade off when our older daughter was sick and couldn’t go to day care.  My husband worked next door to the day care center, so he did drop off, pick up and he took our daughter to most pediatrician appointments.  And as I’ve mentioned before, when we determined a dual career situation would not work for our family, my husband ultimately sacrificed his accounting career, so I could focus on my legal career while our kids were little.

But even though there is truth in statements such as Ms. Sandberg’s, I don’t condone that truth.  There is something broken and dysfunctional when one spouse must completely give up his/her entire career so that the other spouse can have any career at all.  And because so few men would make the personal and professional sacrifices to stay home full-time with children, such a system is undermining the ability of women to succeed professionally.

To these comments by Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Jackson, Dr. Slaughter added an intriguing twist:

“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.”

Dr. Slaughter’s words really resonate with me.  Maybe it is generational and this will not always be the case, but in my experience, professional women in general are less likely than professional men to miss out on their kids’ soccer games, be in tuned with how their kids are doing in school and take care of their kids when they are sick.  Like Dr. Slaughter, I’m hesitant to note this publicly because of the gendered stereotypes such observations might produce.  Indeed, it particularly feeds into assumptions in the workplace that women are less dedicated to their jobs and less dependable. 

In my observation, professional women are dedicated and dependable at work.  They work extremely hard.  But when push comes to shove, I’ve observed that it is working moms who are more likely to push back or draw lines to protect family time than working men. 

As I have noticed, what typically happens is that professional women work very hard to meet their job responsibilities, but they may make sacrifices in more negotiable areas of the workplace.  They might not linger at the water cooler or go out to lunch all the time with co-workers.  It is not that working moms aren’t sociable, but they need to get that report done or return client phone calls by the afternoon so that they can leave on time to help their kids with math homework. 

Technically, such women do what the job requires; they meet the responsibilities on their plate.  But cutting corners in such non-essential parts of the workplace does come back to hurt them at times.  They miss out on the networking and other benefits of the face time culture still prevalent in many workplaces.  The decision makers in their offices don’t have the same kind of friendly rapport with such women as these decision makers do with the men who seem to feel less time pressure at work.

In her article, Dr. Slaughter quotes Mary Matalin’s book Midlife Crisis at 30: I finally asked myself, ‘Who needs me more?’ And that’s when I realized, it’s somebody else’s turn to do this job. I’m indispensable to my kids, but I’m not close to indispensable to the White House.”  In essence, as Dr. Slaughter explains, Ms. Matalin felt it would be selfish to put her professional responsibilities ahead of her kids.  I agree with Dr. Slaughter that is not an uncommon sentiment for working women. 

But Dr. Slaughter notes that for men there is often a different perspective: To many men, however, the choice to spend more time with their children, instead of working long hours on issues that affect many lives, seems selfish. Male leaders are routinely praised for having sacrificed their personal life on the altar of public or corporate service. That sacrifice, of course, typically involves their family.”  I appreciated Dr. Slaughter’s response to this situation:  “It is not clear to me that this ethical framework makes sense for society. Why should we want leaders who fall short on personal responsibilities? Perhaps leaders who invested time in their own families would be more keenly aware of the toll their public choices—on issues from war to welfare—take on private lives.”  (I think I uttered an audible “Amen!” when I read those lines.) 

Nonetheless, Dr. Slaughter noted that is not the prevailing cultural attitude:  “Workers who put their careers first are typically rewarded; workers who choose their families are overlooked, disbelieved, or accused of unprofessionalism.”  That is such an accurate description.  Because I’m sandwiched between the older generation who seems to have sacrificed their families too much for their careers and the Gen Y folks who reject such role models, for years I’ve had younger women approaching me for guidance on work-life balance.  However, I have often heard such younger women worry aloud at not “being professional” if they took maternity leave or worked part-time for a while after becoming a parent.  It is a very warped culture when we believe taking care of ourselves or our families is “unprofessional.”  But it is the same attitude that keeps folks from staying home when they are sick.  Face time is still the unwritten rule in most workplaces.  And if you are not in the office long hours, you are viewed as a slacker.

Ecclesiastes 3:9-14
 What do we gain by all of our hard work? I have seen what difficult things God demands of us. God makes everything happen at the right time. Yet none of us can ever fully understand all he has done, and he puts questions in our minds about the past and the future. I know the best thing we can do is to always enjoy life,  because God’s gift to us is the happiness we get from our food and drink and from the work we do. Everything God has done will last forever; nothing he does can ever be changed. God has done all this, so that we will worship him.

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