Unfinished Business

unfinished-businessUnfinished Business is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book-length follow-up to her viral article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.  You probably remember that Slaughter left her high-level State Department policy job to return to her tenured position as a Dean at Princeton when her teenaged son needed her to be home more than weekends.  I thought the article was refreshingly honest, but the book seemed long and lacking in fresh ideas.

Slaughter did identify some important points such as the role our internalized assumptions play in our decisions about work and family, and the need to have a primary parent figure at home to support a big career. In contrast to many work-life balance narratives, Slaughter points out that Americans like to feel in control , so it appeals to us to believe that our careers and family planning are within our control. But life often intervenes and things don’t line up the way we planned.  We may not want the same things at 35 that we did at 25.  Slaughter’s suggestion is, therefore, to plot a course for the greatest measure of flexibility so you’ll have more options when things fall apart, as they likely will.

But what does that look like in practice?  How do you advise your college-aged daughter about career paths? The book is a little vague on this point.  And the policy prescriptions are kind of vague too, which surprised me since Slaughter is a policy person.  She suggests that most workplaces can and should be more flexible. OK, but what is the incentive for the employer to do things that way, especially when it’s a major culture shift?  How could corporations be incentivized to pay more than lip service to life balance without taking major financial risks in an already tight economic situation? And what do we mean by flexibility? My version? Yours? Who decides what a healthy balance is? For some people balance means making it home for a bedtime story every night.  For others it’s being available to help with homework.  My flexibility includes 20-30 hours a week to homeschool and a couple of hours of reading aloud to my kids most days. How can a corporation build in an equitable framework that suits all of these disparate definitions of balance?

Slaughter also suggests that we should not undervalue care as a way to spend time.  That’s a great idea as far as it goes.  But if our society decided to value care (childcare, elder care, etc) equally with competition (banking, law, manufacturing, etc) how on earth would we pay for that and make it equitable?  The reason we don’t pay a lot for daycare workers is that we give those jobs to a wider range of people, versus a brain surgeon who had to go to nearly a decade of schooling and intense training to do her job.  Professionalized care does exist–people with means already hire nannies with relevant degrees and experience–but lots of people are priced out.  If a woman is earning an average salary, which is something like $38,000 per year, how much can she afford to pay for childcare before it just stops making sense for her to work at all?

So what is the primary good we are shooting for here?  Is it for women to be in the workforce instead of at home? In that case we could potentially subsidize care for all but the wealthiest families.  Or is our goal to allow those who WANT to be caregivers in some capacity at some point in time to be compensated for that work? In that case I guess we could extend government paychecks to stay-at-home parents so that their work is valued in the economy.  Would either of those options build the economy enough to justify the expenditure?

These are the questions I’m left with after reading the book–they aren’t addressed in the text.

Unfinished Business is does effectively establish a problem–the title refers to the fact that feminism, or something else, has more work to do–and offers a few potential solutions, but I think overall I’d recommend that you read Slaughter’s article and then read Overwhelmed for ideas about how other countries tackle this issue or I Know How She Does It for thoughts on solutions you could apply to your own situation apart from wholesale policy changes.

 

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