Thursday, December 31, 2015

Anne-Marie Slaughter's Impressive Unfinished Business

One of the best books I read in 2015 was Anne-Marie Slaughter's book Unfinished BusinessIt's the best of the popular social science genre: it has a unifying theme, is well researched, and engagingly written. It makes some important new points without being snarkily contrarian, and includes a lot of empirical research without becoming dull.

The basis for the book was Slaughter's article in The Atlantic that "Women Still Can't Have it All." It's a terrific piece and it struck me as spot on when I read it. But the article quickly became the most popular in the magazine's history, and Slaughter was flooded with responses. Many were positive, but of course a number were negative. Men, gays, and women of less fortunate means all complained that she failed to represent them in her piece.

If I were Slaughter, I'm sure I would have brushed off such comments as outside the scope of my story. Amazingly, she responds to a great number of these criticisms and combines them into the broader work that is Unfinished Business.

The key thesis of her book  is that we need to value care more as a society. We value it greatly on a personal level- who doesn't love and appreciate the people who raised them- but question people someone when they drop out of the workforce to become a caregiver. Slaughter makes a strong case for family friendly policies, and has at her service a number of studies to bolster her claims.

She is agnostic about whether greater parental leave policies should come from the private sector, local government, or be provided at the federal level. I think there is a much stronger case for federal protections; as she mentions, the U.S. is one of the few countries not to offered guaranteed maternal leave. Aside from the obvious impact on women, this puts our companies at a disadvantage if they offer family friendly policies. The result is inadequate care and less competitive businesses; women, children, and our national economy our all hurt by the lack of leave.

I really liked the focus she puts on men. This isn't completely original of course; as early as 1970 Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was lecturing Americans about the Emancipation of Men, stating "men should have a larger share in various aspects of family life, for example, better contact with the children." Attitudes like this matter: Sweden has paid paternity leave, and not surprisingly a higher percentage of women in the work force as a result.

Slaughter correctly points out that not only men, but women, need to resocialize. Men need to be better care givers, and be more willing to lean back and help their wives their children. They need to be secure enough to have their wives earn more or be more of a high-flyer.

But women also need to change their expectations of men. Slaughter points out that wives often leave their husbands detailed lists about what to do when they are gone for several hours; the notion that men can't handle two kids for a few hours, quite frankly, is demeaning. If women want men to take up more of the care work at home, then they need to give men the freedom to do it their way.

I would quibble with some points; for instance, Slaughter says part of the problem is that we do not elect enough female legislators. Unsaid, is that evidence shows that women are as likely to win election as men if they run, the problem is that fewer women dip their feet in the water in the first place. This could be a result of sexism- women candidates may take more abuse than their male counterparts and old boys networks may affect who decides to run in the first place- but it would be better for Slaughter to be clear on this point.

Overall, Unfinished Business is an excellent rethinking of questions that just about all of us have pondered on at some point in our lives. Highly recommended.

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