Anne-Marie Slaughter’s landmark 2012 article: “Why women still can’t have it all” was the most read article ever published by the Atlantic magazine. It kick started important conversations about working and caring that are still going strong five years later. When Slaughter wrote the article, she was working as the first female director of foreign policy in Washington and she was reporting directly to the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. She was also the mother of two teenage boys and was finding it increasingly difficult to strike a balance between these two important roles in her life. In the article, she expressed frustration about the expectation that women could “have it all” and described this as an airbrushing of reality, that triggers guilt in women if they are not progressing up the career ladder as fast as their male peers whilst effortlessly managing their caring responsibilities. Slaughter argued that it is possible for both women and men to have it all, but not with the way most workplaces are currently structured.
There is certainly plenty of room for improvement in the way most workplaces approach employee’s caring responsibilities. However, there is a growing amount of literature demonstrating a high correlation between workplaces that do allow both women and men to adjust their careers to incorporate caregiving and employee engagement, job satisfaction, retention and health. Long ago, the grandfather of psychiatry, Sigmund Freud described love and work as “the cornerstones of humanity” and innovative workplaces appreciate the importance of both these priorities in people’s lives. Women and men gain pleasure from both caring and working (in a voluntary or paid capacity) and there does not need to be a gender division in these critical drives in our lives.
If we are to maximize the enjoyment of the twin drives of loving and working, then expectations that women are always “the carers” need to be challenged and men need to be able to take on caring responsibilities without being stigmatised. It remains unknown how many men would like to embrace their caregiving responsibilities more, as most workplaces are still constrained by stale and restrictive gender stereotypes. Understandably, men may feel it is too risky to step up their caring responsibilities and move away from a “time macho” culture, where spending more and more time at work is applauded and encouraged.
As workplaces transition into new ways of thinking, ideas that were once scandalous and unthinkable to one generation become unremarkable to the next. In previous decades, there was a broadly held assumption that work was the domain of men and domesticity was best left to women. It was generally believed that women did not want to work; that they all loved being at home with children and that this was enough for them. Interestingly, once women were given the option of working, many embraced it with open arms and, over time, it has become the norm for women to be in the paid workforce.
Caring responsibilities will always be part of being human but, unfortunately, when women or men step away from their paid work to focus more on the unpaid work of caring for children, parents, sick or elderly friends or family, they often feel judged and receive the message that what they do is less valuable or important than the paid work. Leaving paid work “to spend time with your family” is often seen as a euphemism for being fired and can be considered a form of career suicide.
In a 2015 follow up to the overwhelming public response to her article, Anne-Marie Slaughter went a step further and published the book “Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work and Family.” Slaughter had been planning to focus her attentions on writing about US foreign policy, but there were such persistent demands for her to write further on the topic of how women and men manage caring and career that she eventually gave in. The book strikes an optimistic note about a cultural transformation in which there is recognition of the simple truth that both women and men need to be able to find ways to meaningfully participate in both their caring and work responsibilities. She asserts that the reason the women’s revolution has stalled is because there hasn’t been a men’s one.
Assumptions and conventions can and do change and pioneering workplaces are dismantling old social norms by recognising the importance of caring responsibilities in people’s lives, regardless of their gender. These innovative workplaces consider balancing working and caring as a “people issue” rather than a “women’s issue” and acknowledge that sooner or later, men and women all have caring responsibilities in their lives, whether it is for children or family or friends dealing with illness, disability or age related challenges. Put simply, circumstances dictate that there will be times in all people’s lives when work comes first and times when caring comes first. When caring and work are no longer framed as either or options, life can really come together for everyone.
Rachel Tyson is a registered Psychologist and Full Member of the Australian Psychological Society. Rachel has extensive experience working in a clinical setting with private patients; and also runs a successful Women In Leadership Executive Coaching Program. To make an appointment at Incorporate Psychology with Rachel Tyson, contact us today on (07) 3852 2441 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crabb, Annabel (2014). The Wife Drought – Why women need wives and men need lives. Ebury Press.
Freedman, Mia (2017). Work Strife Balance. Pan Macmillon.
Huffington, Arianna (2014). Thrive. Penguin Random House UK.
Slaughter, Anne-Marie. (2015). Unfinished Business – Women, Men, Work Family. Penguin Random House Australia.
Slaughter, Anne-Marie (2012). Why women still can’t have it all. The Atlantic.