What ‘Leaning In’ Leaves Out: Anne-Marie Slaughter’s ‘Unfinished Business’
Her essay on quitting a top Obama post to care for her son killed the ideal of ‘having it all.’ In her new book, Anne-Marie Slaughter says no one can balance a thing in our work culture.
When former State Department official and Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote her essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” for The Atlantic in 2012, it caused a firestorm, becoming one of the most widely read articles in magazine’s history.
Slaughter had just left her position as policy director at State because her 14-year old son was getting into trouble back home in New Jersey. She was working long hours, commuting to and from Washington, but eventually quit because she needed to be at home. Her experience made her question the idea that women can have it all, which led to the article and, now, a book.
Unfinished Business revisits many of the same dilemmas, while also addressing the criticisms she received for her Atlantic article. She admits that she wrote it for a highly educated and successful demographic of women—who are privileged and have choices, including the luxury not working. With the book, she attempts to give voice to the working-class and social groups that she had not considered before. And this is the where her book takes off, allowing Slaughter to show how the American workplace fails to support all women—regardless of class, race, or eduction.
She stands by her critique of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s mantra, pointing out that women can “lean in” with all their might and still encounter barriers and setbacks in their career. The advice that if you’re smart enough and learn to assert yourself is, ironically, telling women to adapt themselves to a male-dominated work environment, Slaughter insists.
She recalls a speech she gave at Harvard Business School and how the young women attending were more interested in tips for work-life balance advice rather than actual career advice. The incident prompted her to discuss the future of female professionals with other high-powered contemporaries, who lamented how the younger generation of women were disappointing because they seemed less ambitious.
That a younger generation of women who were just as smart, talented, and driven would be disenchanted with the ideal of a career-driven woman who works long hours only to retreat home to an empty apartment to eat takeout seemed shocking to Slaughter’s colleagues. For Slaughter, it was a wakeup call.
Slaughter’s decision to revisit the question of whether women can have it all has found value in a whole host of activities and accomplishments including family, work, personal fulfillment, faithfulness to friends, and so on. She sees how caregiving is devalued, when it is caregiving that is responsible for nurturing the future citizens of a nation. She says there is a systematic imbalance between the value placed on “two complementary human drives: competition, the impulse to pursue our self-interest in a world in which others are pursuing theirs; and care, the impulse to put others first.”
And it is this rampant discrimination against caregiving in the American workplace that not only hurts women—privileged or not—but everyone, from gay parents to working-class moms to stay-at home dads. Caregiving is owed its due, argues Slaughter, and she outlines some policy prescriptions that could re-orient American workers and employers toward creating and equal and supportive environment.
She claims that if women want to achieve equality in the workplace, then men will need to be equal in the home. For employers, she says the “results-oriented” work environments will have to change, and eventually become family-friendly.
Slaughter’s not naive in believing that all companies will make these changes, and that the playing field will suddenly level overnight. Political change is required in order for a sustainable “infrastructure of care” to develop in the U.S.
While her criticisms of workplace policies and attitudes may not be new, they carry a different weight pushing beyond the usual dichotomy of career versus motherhood because of her willingness to admit that having it all is damaging not only to herself but to those around her. She confesses that the hardest words for her to write were, “I want to go home.” That sentence, which led to an article and now a book will helpfully inspire both men and women to demand change.