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Updated: October 6, 2013 15:53 IST

Working dads, working moms

  • The Guardian
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Anne-Marie Slaughter.
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Anne-Marie Slaughter.

What it will take for men and women to reach real parity at work and home

Anne-Marie Slaughter strides backstage after her latest TED talk. A little over a year ago, Slaughter was a highly respected but relatively anonymous academic. Her life changed last June, when her article for The Atlantic, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’, became the most read in the magazine’s history. Her TED speech is titled ‘Real Equality’ and considers what it would take for the twin pillars of human life — care-giving and breadwinning — to be given equal value; for men and women to reach proper parity at work and at home.

Slaughter recently quit her job as first female director of policy planning at the US state department after concluding that “juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible”. She had been commuting each week, leaving the house at 4.20 am Monday and arriving back late on Friday. Her 14-year-old son was having problems at school. She decided enough was enough.

The article prompted a firestorm. Many assumed the piece asked for women to give up and get back to the kitchen. Others pointed out that work-family balance is also very difficult for men to achieve. “I didn't anticipate it would go so viral,” says Slaughter, 54, who is working on a book provisionally titled Real Equality.

In the US, issues of work-family balance are pressing. It is one of only four countries in the world that doesn’t have mandatory paid maternity leave, along with Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea. The US is also the only first-world country that doesn’t guarantee workers paid leave. When Slaughter worked in government, she knew women who had saved up all their off days throughout their career to take maternity leave. In her speech, she points to countries such as Norway and Sweden which “provide childcare [and] support for caregivers at home… These societies show that breadwinning and care-giving reinforce one another.”

The structural problems are corporate as well as governmental. Earlier this year, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, advised women to Lean In to their careers — to be ambitious, sit at the top table; the other side, says Slaughter, is that people need to “lean on corporations”, to push them to improve their policies. One measure that could help parents is scheduling all meetings in school hours, and she says that the really innovative corporations “are the results-only workforces ... This can be done at different levels, but the basic idea is here’s your work, here’s your deadline, and then I don’t care where you get it done. So it gets rid of the culture of face-time.”

Both Sandberg and Slaughter are interested in women’s success: while Sandberg has focused on individual paths to achieving this, Slaughter is interested in the governmental, corporate, cultural changes that might help.

Women may still be scarce at the top, but they have made considerable inroads in the workplace over the last half century, while men have arguably made less impact in the home. One useful shift, says Slaughter, would be for “working dads” to be as normal a phrase as “working mums.”

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