Lean In? How About Lean Back
The struggle many women who want to have children go through while trying to keep their careers on track fuels a robust industry of books, paid speeches, and symposiums. College-educated women, the frustrated consumers of these products, lurch from guru to guru, wondering why each new best-seller or TED Talk changes little. The most recent contributor is Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose book Unfinished Business may upend Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as the reigning work-life balance manual.
By building on arguments Sandberg made before her, and diverging from them considerably, Slaughter, chief executive officer of the think tank New America and a former dean at Princeton, offers a realistic assessment of the persistent gender inequality that ails our late capitalist economy. After years of being told they can do anything they want while men still behave as if it’s the 1950s, women are ready to hear the truth: Nothing is going to change for professional women in the realm of work, life, and family demands until men get on board.
To achieve this, Slaughter writes, the question of how to manage a career and a family, long cast as a “women’s issue,” should be reframed as a “caring issue.” Everyone, male or female, parent or not, may at some point have caretaking obligations for another person. The assumption that there isn’t likely to be a “wife” at home to deal with it, Slaughter says, should be built into the system. If it were, you would have fewer promising women (and men) dropping out of the workforce after having children. And then you might see more female Fortune 500 CEOs, surgeons, and law firm partners.
Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and the closest thing the contemporary women’s movement has to a patron saint, has been a force for good. Through her star power, she pushed an important issue onto the front pages. But she largely talks about women’s own behavior. She emphasizes the importance of self-confidence and of choosing a partner who can balance the load. She suggests that women can move things along by being more ambitious and making dozens of small changes. It’s a bit like saying climate change can be solved, or even influenced, by people swapping their lightbulbs. As long as men are still making most of the policy and management decisions, then universal maternity leave and affordable child care will remain remote fantasies.
In Unfinished Business, Slaughter addresses these shortcomings straightaway. “Sheryl Sandberg and I agree on many things,” she writes in the first chapter. “Sandberg focuses on how young women can climb into the C-suite in a traditional male world of corporate hierarchies. I see that system itself as antiquated.” She goes on, “When law firms and corporations hemorrhage talented women who reject lockstep career paths and question promotion systems that elevate quantity of hours worked over the quality of the work itself, the problem is not with the women.”
After Princeton, Slaughter was hired by Hillary Clinton to be the first female director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State. She famously quit that job when she realized her children needed her at home. This book grew out of a sensational story she wrote for the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Those who were “having it all,” she argued, were either “superhuman, rich or self-employed.” Unfinished Business is an attempt to dispel the myths she sees driving the “superwoman” trope.
As for accomplishing those revolutionary shifts, she glosses over how difficult it’s going to be. It will take a wholesale rethinking of American culture, policy, and the workplace. At times throughout the book, Slaughter’s academia-inflected optimism can feel misplaced. But she does offer one piece of concrete advice: Vote more women into office. If her former boss becomes president, we’ll have an opportunity to see for sure whether Slaughter’s theory is correct.