In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter published an essay in The Atlantic titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which became one of the most-read pieces in the magazine’s history and reignited the debate about work-life balance in the United States. In the piece, she explained why she left her position as the first female director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department to return to a career that would enable her to spend more time with her family, a choice she never expected to make. As she wrote then, “[T]he decision to step down from a position of power — to value family over professional advancement, even for a time — is directly at odds with the prevailing social pressures on career professionals in the United States.”
Now, in a new book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, Slaughter expands on what individuals, organizations and companies, and the government can do to support greater equality for women and men with regard to work and family. Slaughter recently appeared on the Knowledge at Wharton show on SiriusXM channel 111 to talk about her book and how her views have changed since she published The Atlantic piece.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: In some respects, this new book is a play off of the article you did for The Atlantic a couple years ago.
Slaughter: It certainly was triggered by the article in The Atlantic, but I say that I couldn’t have written this book three years ago because when I wrote The Atlantic article, I really thought very differently than I do now. The book reflects a lot of very hard thinking and re-thinking — and a lot of solutions, in terms of how we go forward.
Knowledge at Wharton: What was that first trigger for you to change that thought process?
“A number of men who wrote me and said, “You think we have it all. But this is not the balance between care and our jobs that we would have chosen. We are required to be the breadwinners, but actually, we would rather have more time with our families.”
Slaughter: Most important was people writing to me, particularly men, which I never expected. A number of men who wrote me and said, “You think we have it all. But this is not the balance between care and our jobs that we would have chosen. We are required to be the breadwinners, but actually, we would rather have more time with our families. When we try to work flexibly or work part-time or do anything else that really allows us to be what we call ‘lead parent,’ we get stigmatized even more than women do.”
Knowledge at Wharton: It is interesting because it is a shift that we’ve started to see over the last five to 10 years — more women in the workforce and more men deciding that they would like to have more time at home with their kids.
Slaughter: Absolutely. Men have always wanted that. For instance, I discovered that my father had decided in his early 40s to slow down at work. Otherwise, he said, “I’m never going to know my children.” But the millennial men are being very vocal about wanting to be equal parents.
Knowledge at Wharton: A very important word in this discussion is “flexibility” and having that flexibility — both for men and women — to be able to have both a good work career and also to be able to have that special time with your family.
Slaughter: Absolutely. In principle, there is no reason why a couple [with] kids can’t both work flexibly — both work from home a day or two a week or both work three-quarters time or even just come in late and leave earlier than normal business hours. The problem is the workplace is not adapting to the 21st-century workforce. If you take those flexibility policies, you’re often stigmatized. A woman or a man is faced with, “I could do this, but then I’m going to be knocked off the bonus track, the promotion track, the leadership track.”
“If you take those flexibility policies, you’re often stigmatized. A woman or a man is faced with, ‘I could do this, but then I’m going to be knocked off the bonus track, the promotion track, the leadership track.’”
Knowledge at Wharton: Is this part of the reason why it seems like we’re seeing the two sides — the company and the employee — butting heads a little bit more often these days?
Slaughter: I think so. The employees ultimately are going to have more say because CEOs continually say that the biggest issue they face is attracting and retaining talent. I don’t think CEOs understand that family — making room for care — is not a woman’s issue. It really is a work issue. Unless they accommodate, they are losing lots and lots of female talent, but they are also increasingly going to lose male talent.
Knowledge at Wharton: You write in the book very fervently about your experience working in Washington, DC, and working under Secretary Hillary Clinton. I got the sense that this was a dream job for you for a while. But then, in many respects, it didn’t give you the satisfaction that you really thought you were going to have in the end.
Slaughter: The job was fabulous. It’s just that the job couldn’t be done and allow me to be the parent I wanted to be and needed to be. There was no way for Secretary Clinton to make it possible…. As I say in the book, I hit a tipping point. I had to make a choice. Before that, I’d always managed to avoid making a choice and to make it work with work and family. I realized I love this job. I’m thrilled doing this job. But my child needs me and he’s got to come first.
Knowledge at Wharton: I’ll throw in a little story of my own. I worked in professional baseball for 13 years as a broadcaster and was traveling around. I came back from a road trip [where] I had been on the road for 12 days. I went to see my one-and-a-half‒year-old daughter, and she pulled away from me…. One year later, I was not working in baseball anymore. There are these types of stories. I’m sure you’ve gotten thousands of them over the last couple years [from people who read] the article. They are probably similar in one shape or another.
Slaughter: Absolutely. What you just said is exactly what men wrote. No parent wants to not be able to be with their child enough to invest in them and watch them grow and have them recognize you — and need you and love you. That’s not a gender issue. That’s a parent issue. Or taking care of your own parents. You want to be there for them.
“No parent wants to not be able to be with their child enough to invest in them and watch them grow…. That’s not a gender issue. That’s a parent issue.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think we can get to a point where both men and women actually can have it all?
Slaughter: I really do because a lot of it is just changing our thinking. For instance, if you imagine that it’s not whoever gets to the top fastest who’s automatically the best, but that you’re hiring talent for the long haul…. Many of the rest of us will have periods where we go really hard and then periods where we work differently to be able to make room for the people we love. But we’re still there. In other words, when your daughter is grown, or when she hits a phase where you say, “Okay, now I can travel again,” or “I can work really long hours again,” you’re just that much more experienced. There’s no reason we can’t do that, and frankly, as people’s lives extend and they work longer because it’s harder to retire, the workforce needs to adapt.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also refer quite a bit in the book to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Why is it that that resonates so much with you?
Slaughter: Partly I’m trying to make very clear that, contrary to various media accounts, this was never about me versus Sheryl Sandberg. A great deal of what she says in Lean In is terrific. I applaud the work she’s doing. She’s shown a lot of bravery. I’m saying, “Look, you can absolutely lean in.” But I am also saying that if you lean in too far without a support system, you’ll tip over. I’m saying it doesn’t go far enough — not only for affluent women, which we’ve been talking about, but for the 40 million American women who are either in poverty or on the brink. We need bigger change than that. In other words, that’s what you do within the existing system to make it — you lean in. But I think the system is broken.
Knowledge at Wharton: As you said before, it can be fixed with a change of thought process. But that’s still going to take a little while….
Slaughter: Yes, although we’ve got a lot of help. In fact, some of the studies that Stew Friedman has done at Wharton show this very dramatic change in attitudes among millennials — including millennial MBAs who are a pretty hard-charging bunch. Increasingly, the men are saying, “I want more to life than work. I expect to make room for family, for other things in my life. I’m just not going to define everything in terms of career success.” The millennials are now the biggest generation. Employers have to listen. I do also make a strong case for government action.
There are some areas in which government just has to make the market. It has to say, “Okay, all companies have to provide paid family leave.” Because if it doesn’t, then companies that are trying to do the right thing will be undercut by companies that aren’t. Even though I think it essential to retaining talent, that’s a long-term view, and there will always be short-term managers who will say, “I need somebody to work around the clock right now.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You bring up that it would be a good thing to actually have a men’s movement where some of this is concerned.
Slaughter: Absolutely. I really do think that. Again, this is because men wrote to me. Men have been feeling like they are stuck in a role that society imposed on them, in the way women did. That’s what led to the women’s movement and women saying, “Yes, we love our families, but we want to be in the workplace, too.” Men now need to say, “Yes, we love our work, but we want to be completely engaged fathers and sons and spouses, and we don’t want to just be the breadwinner.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Getting back to what you said a moment ago about millennials, is that because they have a different mindset? They seem to be the generation that has the greatest opportunity to really affect this change going forward.
Slaughter: That’s exactly right. One very simple thing that every guy who is applying for a job could do is to ask about family leave policy. Right now, that’s a woman’s issue. When a woman applies, a firm tells her about their family leave issues. But that just reinforces the problem that it’s a woman’s job — as opposed to the men’s. But if millennial men make clear, “Hey, this is important to me, just as it’s important to my mate,” that sends a different set of signals to employers.
Knowledge at Wharton: [Y]ou have some companies that have that 50-employee barrier where they don’t have to do the same things as companies that are bigger than 50 employees. Maybe if we were able to get rid of that, that would eliminate at least part of this issue.
Slaughter: Absolutely. New Jersey has just created paid family leave — six weeks for anyone — through a payroll tax. They just said, we have to level the playing field for all employers. This is where government does have to act because otherwise it’s unfair competition by companies that are trying to respond to their employees’ needs…. A lot of cities are beginning to impose paid family leave as well. Again, it’s pennies on the dollar for the payroll tax. It’s a remarkably inexpensive to do.
Knowledge at Wharton: It is interesting you used the word “competition.” That’s another word you bring up because being competitive is another reason why we see this resistance….
Slaughter: I’m all for competition. I’m very competitive myself. [But] it’s shortsighted to compete at all costs. I use this image of interval training: Athletes who are the ultimate competitors and who want to be in peak condition, they go hard, then they slow down. Then they go hard, and then they slow down. They do not go hard all the time because they burn themselves out — and because their muscles are strained. There is an analogy in the corporate world; yes, for the short term, you can burn your people out. You can require people to work 24/7, but you are losing talent. Over the long term, you have to spend more to recruit people and constantly re-train them than you would if you understood that people absolutely can compete and can compete hard — but they also need room for care in their lives.
Knowledge at Wharton: In some respects, you lived that philosophy while you were working at Princeton. You talk about making sure that you were out in time to go watch your kids play sports or be home for dinner, the things that are important to the core values of the family these days.
Slaughter: Yes, completely. In my view, I was always more productive if I could … just refresh my mind. I can work non-stop. We know from research … you become less productive. You’re less focused. If you change it up, and you go home and you read to your kids or you have dinner or you just go to a baseball game — whatever it is — then you go back to work fresher. You’re more efficient. You get more done in less time.
Knowledge at Wharton: That time period when you were working down in Washington, DC, was obviously a great experience. If you could, would there be pieces you would change?
Slaughter: I’ve thought a lot about that. My husband and I did talk about moving the whole family to Washington. But that would have been very bad for them because our kids were in great schools and a great community. They were completely anchored. My husband was working in Princeton. If we’d moved, I’d have uprooted everybody.
In the end, I don’t think there was anything I could do. What I tell younger women and men is, “If you’re going to take one of these jobs, know that it’s going to very, very intense. Plan for it. And don’t plan to do it forever.” In the end, I think two years was great. I would have liked to do another two years, but that’s when I said, “Wait a minute. My kid is really only at home for four more years, and I don’t want to miss this period of time.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think that teaching work-life balance should be a requirement at the college level these days?
Slaughter: I do … For one thing, people need to know much more about how children develop and how important it is to give them time and also to talk about how you plan your career, and think about how the workplace can change and how you can think about acquiring a set of skills — even when you’re caregiving. I talk a lot about the skills that care actually hones. I think we’re going to have this balance. Frankly, if we’re going to have equality between men and women, this is an essential piece of the puzzle….
Knowledge at Wharton: Toward the latter part of the book, you wrote about the new vocabulary that we should have for real equality. The one that really jumped out to me was, when you meet somebody, try not to ask what they do within the first five minutes…. I think that’s an incredible piece to put in.
Slaughter: It’s such a reflexive American thing to do. We meet somebody, and that’s the first thing we do. We say, “What do you do?” That’s because it tells us status and a kind of prestige — but only connected to workplace. When you used to live in smaller towns, we saw people in the round. Your boss might have been the baseball coach for Little League. Somebody you worked with might be a passionate environmentalist. In Europe, they think we’re just incredibly boring people because all we do is work and all we do is talk about work.
I often say, “What’s the best book you’ve read lately?” or “What’s the best movie you’ve seen?”