For this week’s episode of Freakonomics, host Stephen Dubner interviewed Anne-Marie Slaughter, current president of the New America Foundation think tank and author of the new book Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.
Slaughter made national headlines with her controversial essay in The Atlantic called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which arose from her decision to step down as the first female Director of Policy Planning at the State Department to spend more time raising her two sons in 2009. Her book, Unfinished Business, is an extension of her Atlantic piece.
At the State Department, Slaughter was responsible for advising Secretary Clinton on critical foreign policy issues such as the civil war and humanitarian crisis in Syria, a topic on which she is still outspoken. But to the public, she is most known for stepping down from a position of power than for rising up to one (though she is still very much on a high profile, high achieving career path). A quick Google search for “Anne-Marie Slaughter” turns up her Wikipedia page, her Princeton University faculty bio, and ten more links to articles related to the Atlantic piece and her assertion that in our current society, women face immense pressures and barriers that prevent them from fully attaining both a fulfilling work and home life.
In Washington, leaving a post to “spend more time with my family” is seen as a euphemism for firing. Interestingly, when Slaughter re-phrased her decision as a professional instead of personal one—i.e.: to return to Princeton to avoid losing tenure—she found that people seemed more understanding and accepting. Perhaps a reason for these different reactions has something to do with the importance we place on separating the personal and professional spheres of our lives. It’s seen as unprofessional to bring your personal issues to work, and for the most part, the personal and professional are separated by both time and physical space. But personal and professional are more than simply separated—they are also prioritized differently. And in our hierarchy of values, professional often trumps personal.
This choice is different for men and women. To be sure, there are female breadwinners and male caretakers, and couples who manage to strike a balance between the two. But men’s worth in society still primarily depends on their breadwinning ability. Many men will say they believe in male-female equality, but will they also agree to give up a promotion, stay at home to raise kids, or move to meet the career needs of their spouse? When it comes down to it, the choice between devoting time to raising kids and pursuing professional ambitions is still the woman’s to make.
The interview itself was thought provoking, informative, and a pleasure to listen to—both Slaughter and Dubner are very intelligent, articulate, and eloquent speakers—but they re-hashed a lot of the content from Slaughter’s Atlantic article, and it was not clear to me by the end what additional insights are included in the book version. I suspect that others who have read Slaughter’s article may have felt wanting for more.
As the situation currently stands, the movement for male-female gender equality in the workplace still has a long way to go. And this says nothing for non-cisgendered individuals, people of color, people with disabilities, and other important distinctions. But simply counting the number of female CEOs and saying we’ve improved is not enough. We’ve focused on women in leadership positions, but not on the women who are perhaps hit hardest by workplace inequality: low-income women and single mothers. The emphasis on female CEOs and politicians also assume that women have to change and become more like men in their attitude toward their careers, and less on changing men’s roles in society as a whole. As Slaughter aptly put it, “If we’re gonna get to real equality between men and women, we have to focus less on women, and more on elevating the value of care and expanding the choices and role for men” (29:40).
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