Work-life balance is not just a women’s issue

Anne Marie Slaughter

I decided to bite my tongue and wait to see the reaction to the recent Atlantic Monthly cover story by Anne Marie Slaughter on women and the work-life balance—I knew as soon as I started reading it that it would set off a firestorm of commentary, and I have not been disappointed.

Slaughter, in case you have not been following this story, is a Princeton University professor and dean, who was drafted into the State Department by Hillary Clinton and worked there for two stressful years.  She wrote the article after returning to the snug harbor of Princeton, where, thanks to the flex time allowed by the higher ranks of academia, she is far better able to manage her professional and family commitments.

Slaughter’s main point in writing seems to be that our society needs to adapt itself better to the needs of working women. She calls for more women to get into leadership positions in business and government, and make workplace and policy changes that will make parenting and working outside the home more manageable.

Lori Gottleib, in a blog post on the Atlantic site, has little patience for Slaughter’s hand-wringing over the travails of long hours outside the home.

“The real problem here isn’t about women and their options,” she says. “The real problem is that technology has made it possible to work 24/7, so that the boundary between work and our personal lives has disappeared. Our cubicles are in our pockets, at the dinner table, next to our beds and even next to our children’s beds as we’re tucking them in. In many households, one income isn’t enough, and both men and women have to work long hours — longer hours than ever before — to make ends meet…. The problem here is that many people work too much — not just women, and not just parents.”

Hallelujah and amen to that, Lori!

For myself, I know the only way I can give myself some true down time is to get myself to a place where there is no wireless and no way to plug in my computer—ie, camping, hiking or at the beach—although even there I’ve caught myself using my iPhone to check messages or text people on the fly.  It’s been years—YEARS—since I’ve been unplugged for more than a day.

I can imagine a scenario where our society benevolently decides to use technology to allow more people to work from home, which will make things easier for parents in some ways, but will result in all of us becoming wired-in cogs in the capitalist machine, never really getting any time to ourselves unless we are able to set our own firm boundaries, something that most of us have trouble doing.

I agree with Professor Slaughter that family-friendly workplace policies are needed. I especially appreciated her anecdote about how when she was Dean at Princeton she always made a point of announcing at faculty meetings that she had to go home to have dinner with her family, to give other women permission to do the same without guilt or embarrassment.

But I share Lori Gottlieb’s sense that for most of us parents, the pressures of making a living are simply getting to be inhuman.

At the Strategies for a New Economy conference I attended a few weeks ago, several sessions dealt with the possibility of transitioning to a shorter work week.  This was the focus of a 2010 report by the New Economics Foundation, which argues for a 21-hour work week.  “There is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered ‘normal’” working hours today,” the authors write. “Time, like work, has become commodified – a recent legacy of industrial capitalism. Yet the logic of industrial time is out of step with today’s conditions, where instant communications and mobile technologies bring new risks and pressures, as well as opportunities. The challenge is to break the power of the old industrial clock without adding new pressures, and to free up time to live sustainable lives.”

The report’s authors suggest that “to meet the challenge, we must change the way we value paid and unpaid work. For example, if the average time devoted to unpaid housework and childcare in Britain in 2005 were valued in terms of the minimum wage, it would be worth the equivalent of 21 per cent of the UK’s gross domestic product.”

Imagine if we could invent a society where housework and childcare actually “counted” for something in real economic terms?

Imagine if parents were actually rewarded for spending quality time with their children, for doing all the time-intensive work it takes to raise healthy, productive, happy kids who will become healthy, productive, happy adults?

What if we spent less money on anti-depressants, stimulants and treadmills, and instead gave ourselves room to breathe, and time to relax?

No society can hope to survive without the good work being done by mothers and fathers, unpaid and unsung, day and after day and year after year.

This should not be just a women’s issue.  If more fathers got involved in the day-to-day nitty-gritty of parenting—unglamorous and tedious as it sometimes can be—there would be twice as much impetus to make the changes Slaughter is calling for.

How about it, Dads?

Leave a comment

4 Comments

  1. Employees are constantly connected with the working environment and have to respond instantly to developments and requests. This is necessary because every second counts in the competitive race between companies.

    If humans are not fast enough, computers do the biding (high-frequency trading).
    Will blog posts and blog comments one day also be written by highly sophisticated computer algorithms?

    Employees have to work longer to increase productivity (diminish the cost of “human resources”).

    Employees who are completely occupied with their work don’t look behind the curtain, don’t protest, have no time to reflect about the system, their own position, and the meaning of it all in a bigger context.

    Mothers who want (and need) to spend time with their children don’t fit in this scheme, therefore male domination is guaranteed.

    Paying more attention to internet sources, social networks, smart phone apps, blogs, etc. means paying less attention to personal (face to face) contacts, nature, contemplation and meditation, creative and playful activities (arts).

    A society where nobody has time to sit back to reflect and scrutinize critically what is going on will inevitably lose its compass and just blindly steam ahead.

    We don’t know what and where our destination is but we will reach it faster.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  June 30, 2012

      So true, Mato! I am constantly, daily, fighting for more time for everything in my life, which must mean that I am trying to do too much, more than is humanly possible for me at least. It does often feel like I’m just “running down the road to ruin” without having the time to take my bearings. So far I am unwilling to give up anything I’m doing. But we’ll see how long I can sustain this pace…thank heaven for summer is all I can say, as an academic….

      Reply
  2. How timely… I was just remarking to myself that what seemed to be a relaxing, fairly uneventful summer stretching before me has felt, in its first few weeks, busier than the school year so far.

    Isn’t it funny how these “issues” get framed as individual problems–“I must prioritize,” “I must find better ways to manage my time,” “I need to figure out how to put my family first”–when in fact they are framed and caused by the way we live collectively? That’s both the good and bad news. We might be able to effect small change in our own lives, but until we come together for bigger social changes, individuals will continue to exhaust themselves in the quest for balance.

    Reply

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