Slaughter vs. Sandberg: Both Right

Let's not turn this into a catfight. It's not a catfight. It's a situation where two prominent, influential women are talking -- a lot and influentially -- to two different audiences.
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First, thanks to Anne-Marie Slaughter for peeling the band-aid off an open wound of American womanhood. It's our dirty little secret: Balancing work and family is still impossible for elite American women because of the way we structure work, family, love, marriage, careers, masculinity and dignity.

Yes. It's that bad. Fifteen years ago, when I began to write Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflicts and What To Do About It, I thought that all we needed to do was to reshape work and careers. The key problem for women, I pointed out, is that workplaces still are designed around an ideal worker who starts to work in early adulthood and works, full time and full force, for forty years without a break, taking no time off for childbearing, childrearing or anything else. The result is a clash of social ideals. The ideal worker norm clashes with the norm of parental care: the widespread and uncontroversial sense that children need and deserve time with their parents.

The solution is to reshape workplaces around the values we hold in family life. Careers need to be more flexible, such that career breaks do not spell career doom. Hours expectations need to be more flexible, such that a failure to work "full time" does not derail one's career. Face time needs to end, allowing people to work when and where they need to, so long as the work gets done. Each of these ideas has subsequently been further developed. Here are two good examples.

One little problem. Not much has happened.

Why? The problem goes deeper than I ever anticipated. We know the solutions, but they remain at the margins. A chief reason is that gender pressures on men have not changed. Masculine dignity still is closely intertwined with the ability to be a "go-getter" and a "successful man" -- in other words, an ideal worker. Workplaces haven't changed, and they won't change, until we change gender pressures on men.

Meanwhile, let's not blame the situation on women. Slaughter is damn right that women can't have it all. They won't be able to unless and until we change the structure of work and careers. Slaughter is also right -- so right -- that women need to stop judging each other in the meantime. Ideal worker women (often of my generation) often preach to younger women who want to take longer leaves, career breaks and work part time: "You just don't understand what it means to succeed in this career." And the younger women snap back: "We don't want your pathetic lives. You just turned into men."

I call this Gender Wars, which occur when discrimination against women turns into fights among women. These mommy wars are so bitter because both groups' identities are at stake because of another clash of social ideals: The ideal worker is defined as someone always available for work, and the "good mother" is defined as always available to her children. So ideal-worker women need to prove that, although they weren't always there, their children are fine, fine, fine: "I've never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great," to quote Slaughter. Women who have rejected the ideal-worker norm and settled for a slower career (or no career) need to prove that their compromise was necessary for the good of their families. So you have each group of women judging the other, because neither group of women has been able to live up to inconsistent ideals.

How about banding together to change the ideals and the institutions driven by those ideals? This won't happen so long as we spend our time fighting with each other.

Don't fight with other women who are trying to help women. This is my precept. And it means that we shouldn't turn this into a Slaughter vs. Sandberg pissing match. Take a hint from our anatomy. This kind of thing is beneath us.

Subtly, in Slaughter's article, and more explicitly in the subsequent commentary, Slaughter's argument has been pitted against that of Sheryl Sandberg, who has become something of an icon of having it all. Sandberg, like Slaughter, is trying to help other women. She's just grasped a different part of the elephant. Sandberg is counseling young women not to be captured by what I call the Ideal Worker in Your Head. Young women "lean back," even before they have children, because they know that, after they do have children, they won't be able to, or even want to, be constantly available to their employer. Well, honey, even if you won't be constantly available it doesn't mean you're worthless. You may not even be worth less: After all, what should matter is whether you can do high-quality work, not whether you can do it constantly. Moreover, it just doesn't make sense to lean back before you have children, because the best advice, given the sorry state of the work world, is to work really, really hard before you have children so that you have the skills -- and the bargaining power -- to continue your career on your own terms after you have children.

Let's not turn this into a catfight. It's not a catfight. It's a situation where two prominent, influential women are talking -- a lot and influentially -- to two different audiences about the same problem. Young women, listen to Sheryl Sandberg. Corporations, listen to Anne-Marie Slaughter. And let's bring men into the conversation. Until men feel they have more freedom to buck the ideal-worker norm, ladies, nothing's going to change.

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