Anne-Marie Slaughter, care, and men

October 31st, 2013

"Care is socialized out of men. We don't value men as caregivers. We value them for the amount of money they make." - Anne-Marie Slaughter

I just got back from a panel on women and work held at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. It starred three big names in this arena, the biggest, in the US at least, being Anne-Marie Slaughter of Why Women Still Can't Have It All fame, accompanied by Alison Wolf, who appeared in my penultimate show, author of The XX Factor: How Working Women Have Created a Far Less Equal World, and Debora Spar, president of Barnard College and author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. If you come here at all you'll either have heard the podcast featuring Alison or read about her, so I'm not going to repeat her points here, although I do recommend her book - it's a fascinating read. I haven't read Debora Spar's yet but I'm keen to interview her.

L to R, Merit Janow of Columbia University, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Alison Wolf, Debora Spar

It was Anne-Marie Slaughter whose ideas I found most compelling today. She talked about how the response to that piece in The Atlantic in 2012 took her completely by surprise. "I did not choose to devote my life to this issue," she said. But as a result she was flung into the world of gender politics, and has come out the other side with a completely different view than the one she went in with. (One audience member called her "the chief gender strategist", to which Slaughter responded half-jokingly, "I'm going back to foreign policy." "It would probably be easier," said the woman.) Anyway, she's come away from her "130 talks" to various types of women's group with the firm belief that American society doesn't value care. 

"I now see this [whole issue of trying to balance work and family] as a problem of not valuing care. We as feminsits were taught to de-value that." She said her generation of highly educated women would never have given up a top job, like her old one in the State Department, just because they had kids who had to live in a different town. No way. (Slaughter eventually did just that, as she famously described in the article.) She now spends a huge amount of time thinking and writing about our caregiving culture in the US, and particularly how men play into it. She talked about the pretty pathetic family policies that exist here, and the fact that maternity leave is barely existent here, let alone paternity leave. Yet in Norway, where men get two months' leave, Norwegian company heads are starting to look on men who don't opt to take their leave as the kinds of people they may not even want at the company. There is pressure to take that leave. Here, as The Wall Street Journal described fairly recently, it's quite the opposite. Take it from someone who moved here in her twenties: American culture values work above all else while giving much lip service to family. Or, as I sometimes think of it, the US still thinks of family as the thing from the 1950s, run entirely by the woman while the man went out to work. It hasn't yet come to terms with the fact that's not the way things are any more.

Slaughter talked about how great her husband is with their two boys and how close they are to him. She's written elsewhere about this too. And she made an excellent point that can sometimes get forgotten in all the focus on women's progress, or lack of it. 

"If I had daughters I would be raising them with more choices than my sons," she said, i.e. in today's culture women are told they can be anything, stay-at-home mom, professional woman without kids, professional woman with kids. "I'm basically raising my sons to be breadwinners. In terms of social norms it used to be girls who couldn't have choices, but now it's boys who are only socialized that way."

Men are always approaching her saying, basically, "this conversation is all about women, but we [men] feel we can't see our families", because, essentially, their role in society is to work, work, work. Caring? To many, including plenty of women, men who do it are slightly suspect - not quite man enough. Jennifer Siebel Newsome, who made Miss Representation, is making a film about attitudes to masculinity and the pressure to be macho. It's called The Mask You Live In

Both it and Anne-Marie Slaughter's book on America's work and family dynamic come out next year.