Several years ago Anne-Marie Slaughter, a tenured professor at Princeton, wrote an article called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Catchy title. Her basic premise was that the work-family balance that so many women strive to have is next to impossible to achieve. The article was very hard for me to read because, while it was thoughtful and articulate, it didn’t go far enough and there were several things she got wrong. Plus, it was personal.
I know a lot about this issue because I have lived it. I left a job I dearly loved because of my employer’s refusal to allow me any kind of work-family balance at all. At three months postpartum, I was informed that people who prioritized family didn’t make tenure in my department. Looking around at my colleagues and the lack of parents with small children, I realized that this statement was true. As I struggled mightily to make it work, I was notified that I was expected to be at work from 7 am to 7 pm. When I explained that such hours would mean I never saw my young son, I was told that was the price I had to pay. That price was too high (and a ridiculous one to boot), so I quit.
I was one of the lucky ones. I was fortunate enough that I had the means and opportunity to find work that was more accommodating to the needs of my family. Yet the issue didn’t end for me there. Even 10 years later, I still feel the need to explain to people that I was good at my job, that the news of my leaving was greeted by a literal avalanche of emails, cards and phone calls from past and present students as well as colleagues, all lamenting my exit. I also have to tell people that while the move was necessary for me, it was unnecessary in the overall scheme of things. The price they wanted me to pay was inflated and should never have been asked. Yet it keeps getting asked all the time and in many different professions.
The issue is systemic.
One of the biggest problems with how this issue is framed is that it is an individual issue. For example, Mary Matalin who (when stepping down from her job in government to spend more time with her daughters) said, “Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.” The implication here is that if women could just figure out how to control their schedules, everything will be fine. Really? This seems very disingenuous and hurtful.
After I made my decision to leave academia, I still participated in groups and conferences on this topic. I thought that I could offer a first-hand experience that could be helpful in changing the overall system of academia in particular. However, after constantly having to defend myself for not having done enough or for not doing things in the correct way, I gave up. I no longer wanted to hear from people who hadn’t gone through what I did that I hadn’t sought enough help (or the right help), hadn’t tried other strategies or that I should have just given in to what they wanted so I could be a mentor to others going through the same thing. I think it was the last one that really sent me over the edge. While I recognized the reason for blaming individuals (because if you can make it their fault, it won’t happen to you because you’ll do everything right), it still made it tough to bear, especially when it wasn’t their life that had to change.
Putting both blame and pressure on individual women to transform society will change nothing. The fact of the matter is that the American culture of work has disintegrated to the point that employers believe all-work all the time is actually a good business model. It isn’t. Research on the topic repeatedly demonstrates that productivity is associated with rest, health and happiness (not increased hours) while creativity actually requires down time. Thus, if we’re ever to make work-family balance a reality, the structure of the work week is where we need to start. Europe gets this; America does not.
This is not a woman’s issue.
One of the problems with issues like this is that they are still perceived as a woman’s problem. Even the phrasing “Having it all” is divisive as it seems to imply wanting more than you ought to have versus wanting what should be everyone’s. Work-family balance is a societal issue involving not just workers but also families yet we continue to talk about it just in regards to women. When this happens, women (usually feminists) are blamed for the state of events and individual women are supposed to solve the problem. But they can’t because it’s not within their power to do so.
There are reasons why people insist upon it being a women’s issue. Social psychological research points out that blaming the oppressed group for their mistreatment is a common tactic designed to maintain the status quo. If the powers-that-be can convince a lot of people that the women bring this problem on themselves by being too ambitious, too selfish, too entitled, etc., then nothing gets done, families still suffer and the people with the true power to change things (like employers and politicians) don’t have to lift a finger.
Class issues matter.
Much of the discussion on work-family balance centers around middle- to upper-class women, the ones with careers and salaries. This lack of inclusion is extremely troublesome because it doesn’t encompass the experiences of the vast majority of parent workers. For example, using “wanting to be home” with the kids as a talking point is problematic because that isn’t actually an option for the majority of mothers and fathers.
Many parents work several jobs or maybe even just one job with incredibly long hours in order to survive. When they get home, they have to attend to tasks like making dinner, doing laundry, and going to the grocery store. If they are lucky, they might get to check homework or spend a few minutes with the kids. Their work hours eat into their family hours on a regular basis and if anyone gets sick, they must take time off of work without pay and perhaps run the risk of getting fired. Finding affordable childcare can be a nightmare, forcing some families to leave young children at home without adequate supervision. And that is just the tip of the iceberg because this topic also must include pregnancy, the lack of paid parental leave, and the necessity of breastfeeding. It is only when you start talking about class issues that you see how systemic the problem truly is.
Individual solutions won’t work.
While I’m glad that Slaughter at least attempted to put forth ideas for how to solve the problem, her solutions were mostly individual ones, like choosing a supportive spouse (really?!) spacing out the timing of children correctly, working from home, and women “stair-stepping” their careers to peak later in life. She also talked about “revaluing family values” as just a change in perspective (not policy) and enlisting the help of men. Slaughter found it promising that men are now asking about family-work balance, but looked at another way, it is discouraging. Progress would mean that we’re moving toward a time in which every parent has balance versus a period in which neither parent does. We want a rising tide that raises all boats instead of an anchor that drags everyone down.
Balance is possible!
There is a wonderful movie made in 1980 called 9 to 5 that espoused some great strategies. The movie starred Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton and is a lot of fun but, beyond that, they showed how some family-work balance ideas could actually work. Among other things, they implemented job sharing, flex-time, part-time positions and an onsite daycare center in their company. They created these policies with an eye to how they could maximize employee satisfaction so that they would be productive while at work. While it is depressing that good solutions espoused over 30 years ago still haven’t been put into more widespread practice, we have to start somewhere.
Another good solution is to make school schedules match work schedules. This one seems like a no-brainer yet it’s rarely brought up, perhaps because that might mean making the switch in the workplace to fewer hours in general. Although people tend to shy away from this solution, it can work. Our friends in Europe have a 30 hour workweek and their productivity hasn’t gone down. They also do well with more paid vacation time, sick leave, family leave and a generally more laidback attitude toward work than we have. While family-work balance isn’t completely a non-issue there, it’s lot less of one.
There are good, workable solutions out there, we just have to insist that they be applied to our workplace. Toward that end, I think that the best way to do this would be for collective action. There are numerous groups already working on these issues, like Momsrising, Center for WorkLifeLaw, Family and Work Institute, Take Back Your Time, Labor Project for Working Families, National Partnership for Women and Families and the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. If we can partner with those groups and do activism around this issue, perhaps things will start to change. If nothing else, it could turn the national conversation in a more productive direction.