Rethinking Caregiving: A Q&A with Anne-Marie Slaughter

Anne-Marie Slaughter shares her vision for attaining true equality in the U.S. workplace.

By Interview by David Ward Mar 1, 2016

March 2016 HR Magazine cover 3QA.jpg Anne-Marie Slaughter triggered a national debate in 2012 when she wrote the essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” for The Atlantic. That followed her departure as an advisor to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to teach at Princeton University so she could spend more time with her children. The piece, which generated an extensive online conversation, called for changes in the U.S. workplace to enable women and men to fulfill their professional goals while still having time for family caregiving.

Slaughter is now president and CEO of New America, a public-policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., and she recently followed up her Atlantic essay with Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family (Random House, 2015). The book presents a vision of what true gender equality at work would look like—and the steps individuals, companies and government entities can take to get there.

What’s wrong with the American workplace?

It simply does not make room for care. Getting to the top of any business certainly requires long hours at work. But there’s no opportunity to follow that intense effort with slower intervals when you can spend more time caring for others. In many companies, you have one shot. If you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling off the track.

Is this strictly a U.S. problem? How did we get here?

It is more of a U.S. phenomenon, especially compared to Europe. We’re here in part because our companies and schools are still stuck in the 1950s. They operate under the assumption that workers and caregivers are not the same people and that someone is home all day to provide care.

The other big reason is that we’ve put a lot of focus on the huge monetary rewards for those at the very top. This started in the 1980s and has created a culture where people who can work 24/7 and beat out their co-workers will grab a much bigger piece of the pie. As a result, we’ve seen the emergence of what I call “time macho.” That’s where people think, “I’m a better worker than you because I put in longer hours,” even though all the data show that exhausted, burned-out employees are actually less productive.

How should our work culture be overhauled?

Organizations need to change—and that begins with proving there are better business models showing that companies that actually allow their employees to make room for care do better in the marketplace because they have more-productive workers and lower turnover.

Is the fact that so few businesses have a work/care balance the reason there are so few female executives?

It’s a big reason, but there’s more to it. There’s also the cultural constraint. When you have a workplace in which caregiving is primarily thought about in the context of women—and that doesn’t make room for care—that’s like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

Of course, there are women who reach the top—whether it’s because they have partners at home who are lead parents or full co-parents; they don’t have children; or they have good luck, tremendous organizational skills or superhuman energy. But many others get knocked out along the way. And that’s simply not fair. We don’t require ambitious, talented men who aim for the top to carry that extra burden of care.

Amazon, Netflix and other major companies have announced more-generous parental leave policies. Does this represent a shift toward more family-friendly workplaces?

Yes. A lot of that is because companies are responding to the desires of Millennial employees who want both careers and a family life. These organizations realize that they’re in a war for top talent and that many of the young people they want to hire care as much about time as they do about money.

But it’s important to keep in mind that family-friendly policies won’t make a difference unless senior management takes advantage of them as well. That’s why I applaud Mark Zuckerberg for taking two months of paternity leave from his role as CEO at Facebook. If company leadership doesn’t take time off, the policies are just paper.

How should government help businesses make room for caregiving?

There’s no one answer to that question, but family leave can be paid for by social insurance. New Jersey has such a program, and it really ends up costing pennies on the dollar. All workers pay into it, so everyone can have family leave when they need it.

Pay for caregivers could also be boosted. The stakes are high. The quality of care received by young children through the age of 5 actually affects their brain development. It determines not only what they know when they enter school, but their capacity to learn and grow for the rest of their lives.

At the same time, there’s an increasing number of older people who will eventually require care, so there will be a growing market for high-quality care that the private sector can fill. But we’ll also start to see care for elders become a government concern. That’s because, unlike children, older people are well-organized and have the clout to affect the policy debate.

What role should fathers play to help change workplace culture?

There will not be equality at work as long as family caregiving is viewed as a woman’s job. Any leave or flexibility programs a company offers for mothers should also apply to fathers. It’s better for the kids, and it creates a family safety net when fathers are just as involved as mothers.

What would true equality in the workplace look like? Are you hopeful we can get there?

I’m very optimistic. True equality would include, for example, the expectation that all managers have plans to cover for employees on the assumption that all workers, not just women, are likely to need some time out for family or other issues. Can the affected worker do some work from home? Will it be necessary to hire temporary help? That kind of planning will result in a deeper resiliency for the company.

Some single people feel left out of this debate. Is a healthy balance important for them too?

I define care as investing in others, but it also includes undertaking a creative endeavor such as writing or music and focusing on different sides of yourself. All of that applies to singles, who may also want to work in their communities or on a meaningful cause. For employees who are too young for kids and don’t have parents who need care, it might simply mean having time to do things to improve their well-being and mental health. Care can include self-care.

Does the issue of toxic workplace culture disproportionately affect lower-income employees?

It does. Lower-income women who don’t work at companies with paid family leave and parental leave lose pay and even their jobs when they have to take care of family members in ways that conflict with their work schedules. The poorest people in our society are disproportionately single mothers who have no choice but to be full-time breadwinners and caregivers at once. We expect them to be employed, for many good reasons, but do not create the conditions in which they can work successfully. We instead condemn them to lives of continual crises, horrific stress and limited-to-nonexistent opportunity. Making room for care will end up helping women at the bottom more than those at the top. But it will also help enough women to stay and rise on leadership tracks to make parity at the top a far more realistic prospect.

David Ward is a freelance journalist based in North Carolina.


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