Work-Life Balance Is a Mirage. Here's Exactly What Needs to Change

Work-Life Balance Is a Mirage. Here's Exactly What Needs to Change

In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, adapted from her forthcoming book, Anne-Marie Slaughter paints a portrait of a toxic work world that persists in making upward mobility difficult for women in spite of historically unprecedented education levels. Slaughter writes:

America has unlocked the talent of its women in a way that few nations can match; girls are outpacing boys in high schools, universities and graduate schools and are now entering the work force at higher salaries. But the ranks of those women still thin significantly as they rise toward the top, from more than 50 percent at entry level to 10 to 20 percent in senior management. Far too many discover that what was once a manageable and enjoyable work-family balance can no longer be sustained — regardless of ambition, confidence or even a partner who shares tasks equally.

Slaughter makes clear that every family is different. As I’ve written before, so is every woman: It’s important to remember that not every woman’s individual calibration points toward corporate climbing or success as men have defined it.

And yet, we are all fucked over by the ways the working world throttles career-oriented women:

But many women who started out with all the ambition in the world find themselves in a place they never expected to be. They do not choose to leave their jobs; they are shut out by the refusal of their bosses to make it possible for them to fit their family life and their work life together. In her book “Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home,” the sociologist Pamela Stone calls this a “forced choice.” “Denial of requests to work part time, layoffs or relocations,” she writes, will push even the most ambitious woman out of the work force.

She proceeds to list examples of woman after woman refused a part-time or more flexible schedule to accommodate a family when men with children face no such dilemma, often because a woman at home solves the problem for them.

And it’s not just corner-office hustlers. The problem is worse for women who struggle to make ends meet, because the hours and punitive nature of many low-wage service jobs are unpredictable and unforgiving—and therefore disastrous for women with children, sick spouses or parents.

The overworked culture screws us all. And the experience often comes down to the whims and generosity of the employer. I’ve worked for corporations that understood implicitly the demands of life and/or parenting, offering policies that valued getting the work done over stringently policing the “where” and “when.” And I’ve also worked for companies that could not be more hostile when faced with absences or accommodations required by the human beings in their employ—these are the companies that are inordinately focused on process over output to a maddening, infantilizing degree.

Slaughter emphasizes that this is not totally about gender, it’s about a system that’s dehumanizing and broken and retrograde, one that elevates quantity of hours over quality of hours. But such a setup is paved on the backs of women and low-wage workers, who are often women. Our families no longer look like families in 1950s sitcoms (more accurately, 1970s sitcoms romanticizing 1950s life), so why do many of our workplaces?

Here’s a concrete list of exactly what we need in order to achieve meaningful change, according to Slaughter:

  • high-quality and affordable child care and elder care;
  • paid family and medical leave for women and men;
  • a right to request part-time or flexible work;
  • investment in early education comparable to our investment in elementary and secondary education;
  • comprehensive job protection for pregnant workers; higher wages and training for paid caregivers;
  • community support structures to allow elders to live at home longer;
  • reform of elementary and secondary school schedules to meet the needs of a digital rather than an agricultural economy.

In anticipation of the reader’s sense of hopelessness at a list so far-reaching and pie-in-the sky, Slaughter cites the many incarnations of these goals in policy form that have been or are in motion, like affordable care and paid family leave. She notes that if it’s hard to imagine a a larger systemic shift in how we value caregiving, something that has forever been considered “women’s work” and therefore beneath men, consider that just in her lifetime—50 years—we’ve moved past segregation, all-women-as-mothers, and nearly full-scale closeted sexuality.

The final piece of this puzzle is, as it always has been, the willingness of men on the individual and group level to lean in, too. Many men cannot, some will not, and some find that even when they do, the systems in place still make it extremely difficult.

Slaughter’s husband, Andrew Moravcsik, a professor at Princeton, recently wrote for The Atlantic about why he put his wife’s career first. He tells a story of privilege and affluence—Ivy League jobs, good daycare, a housekeeper—but of something also entirely relatable: a dream to co-parent, to share everything, to truly value both spouse’s careers equally. But as career and family demands intensified, they hit the glass ceiling of co-parenting and Moravcsik ended up taking on a more dominant role at home. He wrote:

For one thing, taking turns was easier said than done. One spouse’s job responsibilities do not conveniently contract just as the other spouse’s duties expand. Nor are all careers created equal. From the beginning, Anne-Marie’s jobs at Harvard and Princeton imposed greater demands than mine, because she entered the university-administration track early on; she also accepted more outside leadership roles. And, as we learned, intense jobs tend to beget even more intense jobs—a phenomenon that, in Anne-Marie’s case, led to a deanship at Princeton, followed by one of the highest positions at the State Department, followed by the leadership of a major nonprofit.

But Moravcsik acknowledges that their situation is unusual. Many working women also pick up all the slack at home, freeing men to focus on career while theirs suffers. As historian Stephanie Coontz notes, being equal in your hearts is not the same thing as being equal in your life, and would-be Super Dads still face powerful behind-the-scenes obstacles, whether it’s being penalized for taking leave or simply the social stigma from men and women when a man admits his wife outearns him.

According to Moravcsik:

When Anne-Marie was interviewed by Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival about how work and family are balanced in our household, a woman in the audience asked me—without apparent irony—to stand up so she could make sure “he really still is an alpha male.”

Greater equality at home has plenty of benefits. A happier relationship, for one, including better sex. Children benefit from different and often equally valuable parenting styles. And parents benefit from a more engaged, connected life with their children.

But before we can all reap these rewards, we have to band together to challenge stereotypes that box women in to the role of default parent. And if you’re looking for concrete ways to put your money where your activist mouth is, Slaughter’s list is a great place to start.

Image by Tara Jacoby.

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