Moms and Dads Both Need to Work—Here's Why It’s Still So Tough for Them to Succeed

Author Anne-Marie Slaughter says we can’t achieve true gender equality unless men and women are empowered to care for the people in their lives.

Anne-Marie Slaughter. (Photo: Courtesy Shriver Media)

Oct 13, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Thanks to unaffordable rents and child care costing as much as in-state college tuition in 33 states and Washington, D.C., moms and dads across the U.S. are struggling to provide for their families. But when a child is sick or an aging parent needs assistance, women—thanks to traditional gender roles—are most often the ones who take on care responsibilities. As a result, they’re put on the “mommy track,” and their careers often suffer.

But arguments between working and stay-at-home mothers—and conversations about making the workplace more “mom-friendly”—are outdated, according to Princeton professor and author Anne-Marie Slaughter.

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“This is not a women’s issue. Making room for care is not a women’s issue. It is a work issue. It is a middle-class issue,” Slaughter, the author of the new book Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, told a crowd of 100 women on Friday at Shriver Media headquarters in Los Angeles. “It is an issue of a workplace that is still stuck in Leave It to Beaver land, right? Where June Cleaver is supposedly home.”

Care Is a Work Issue

Slaughter, who worked for the U.S. State Department under Hillary Clinton, was taking part in Maria Shriver’s “Architects of Change” conversation series. The two discussed the struggle for men and women when it comes to work and family.

Along with being an award-winning journalist, Shriver is a mother of four. She shared that sometimes when she’s in public—at a party or a school event—she is asked, “Why aren’t you working more?” And it’s often other women posing the question.

“We’re talking about changing minds and changing attitudes,” Slaughter replied. “If you tell people at a cocktail party that you’re at home with your kids, somebody looks over your shoulder and tries to find someone else to talk to. We’ve all been there.”

“After I left the State Department I went back to a tenured position at Princeton. But when I told people that I had left because of my kids, I could see them looking at me and thinking, ‘Well, she must not be really a player,’ ” said Slaughter. “I got really mad that people treated me that way, and it made me understand, I wrote this in the article, that I had treated other women that way.”

Care Isn’t Valued

Slaughter’s anger was channeled into an article she wrote for The Atlantic in 2012. More than 3 million people read the provocatively titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and it inspired her to write Unfinished Business.

Although CEOs such as Virgin Group’s Richard Branson and companies such as Netflix have been applauded for expanding paid maternity and paternity leave, that’s not the case at most workplaces.

The United States is the only nation in the developed world that doesn’t require companies to offer paid family leave, and just 12 percent of private sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employer. The Family and Medical Leave Act mandates that full-time employees at companies with more than 50 workers can take up to 12 weeks of leave, but a business doesn’t legally have to compensate folks who take time off.

At the same time, a full “60 percent of American women are in the workforce,” more than “70 percent of mothers are in the workforce, 40 percent of women are the primary breadwinners, and a large number of those are single moms,” said Slaughter.

“So a workforce—a workplace—that assumes somebody’s home when all those things happen to your parent, to your spouse, to your child, that is a workforce that is stuck in the middle of the 20th century. And that’s the way we tackle it. We say this is a work problem.”

It’s not just women who are clamoring for change: “Fifty percent of men say it is somewhat or very difficult to balance work and family…[and] 56 percent of women—that’s not a huge difference,” said Slaughter.

Meanwhile, the nation’s children suffer when their stressed-out parents are working long hours. Shriver said that, according to research for the annual Shriver Report, the average person doing elder care earns about $9 per hour.

“To be a 21st-century boss, that means paying a living wage to someone who may be helping you with your children—a living wage to someone who may be helping you with a parent,” said Shriver. Otherwise, employees simply can’t afford to pay for high-quality day care or preschool, and the consequences for our society—and our democracy—are dire.

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“We now know that for the first five years of a child’s life, you are shaping that child’s brain,” said Slaughter. “You are not just teaching it something; you are giving that child the ability to learn for the rest of his or her life. I don’t really know if there is more important work. I call that a national security issue. And the Pentagon calls it a national security issue too. The Pentagon has on-site day care, pays early education teachers the same as they pay high school teachers.”

Care Is a National Security Issue

The transition to a society that values care doesn’t just happen in how we staff and fund preschools.

Shriver said it’s essential to talk “to your daughters and to your sons about what does a relationship look like?” And Slaughter explained how changing the way we talk to boys is part of the solution. Writing Unfinished Business made her reflect on how she was raising her two teenage sons, and she noticed she was encouraging traditional masculine roles.

“I’m not talking to my sons about how they fit work and family together. I’m not talking to my sons about how they’re going to support their wife with care as well as with cash,” Slaughter said she realized.

“Now I think I have gone too far in the other direction in my family. I think my sons think they are going to marry a woman who earns a really good living,” she said with a laugh.

Slaughter believes gay and lesbian relationships can serve as a role model for balancing work and family because there is no default with same-sex couples. “They’ve got to figure out who is going to be more of the breadwinner and who is going to be more of the caregiver,” she said.

Changing the Conversation About Care

Shriver brought the democratic process into the conversation. “How do you vote on a 21st century of care?” she asked.

Slaughter replied that both Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio have put issues related to care on the table in their presidential campaigns. She also suggested getting involved with activist organizations such as MomsRising and Make It Work to stay on top of what the candidates are saying. However, she cautioned against politicians framing care solely as a women’s equality issue.

“Women will not be equal until men are equal,” explained Slaughter. “Equality for men means opening up roles for them so they can have what we want, which is a career that’s great, but also having a family and playing a central role in that family.”

Care Is About Equality for Men and Women

Shriver emphasized that women who step out of the workforce to care for their families are the CEOs of their homes.

“People used to come up to me all the time and say, you know, ‘Hi, I’m just a mother,’ ” said Shriver. “I’m like, ‘Get rid of the “just.” See that as a skill.’ ”

Mothers Are CEOs