The New York office of New America, a nonpartisan think tank, is bright, white and almost serene. On the day we visited, only a few employees occupied the open space. Many of New America’s young staff work according to their own schedules and in their own spaces, exemplifying the definition of true flexibility at work. The serenity fades and a kinetic energy fills the office when Anne-Marie Slaughter, President & CEO of New America, bursts in with smiles, handshakes and a keen interest in conversation. Instantly, you can see how this former law professor upended the discussion about women and work and having it all. 

We had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Slaughter about a variety of topics, including those addressed in her new book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. In it, she writes about the importance of providing both men and women with the freedom to work as either breadwinners or caregivers. She also emphasizes the value of caregiving and the central role it can play in achieving true equality of the sexes. Last, she offers helpful advice about the importance of learning to let go and sharing responsibility at home, which, as she acknowledges, is often easier said than done.

Adrienne Penta: Talk about the value of caregiving and how we prioritize it. What transition do we need to see in gender roles and how we think about gender in order to prioritize caregiving? 

Anne-Marie Slaughter: My central message is that equality can’t just mean equality between men and women in traditional men’s jobs. Equality has to mean equality between men and women in traditional women’s jobs, because the work of earning an income and the work of investing in the next generation and caring for those who care for us are essential to a well-functioning society. They are equally important. It’s not just the right thing to do – it’s the smart and necessary thing to do. We always talk about balancing work and family, but the biggest imbalance is that we prioritize work that brings in income over work that invests in people.

AP: One of my favorite chapters in your book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, focuses on the “halftruths” that women tell themselves. What’s your favorite half-truth that women tell themselves? 

This is going to sound like it puts me in conflict with Sheryl Sandberg, but it doesn’t. I think that the biggest half-truth is thinking, “It’s up to us. If we just want it badly enough, we can do it.” It’s a comforting notion because we love feeling like we have control, but life doesn’t work that way. I’ve been divorced; I’ve had people in my family need help unexpectedly. My kids are wonderful, but they hit a bumpy adolescence. Overall, though, I’ve had pretty smooth sailing. But when you think about situations, for example, where a woman has a child with special needs, experiences a death in her family or gets divorced and can’t support herself, the narrative that, “You can do it if you just want it bad enough,” can make her feel like a failure.

Kathryn George: Do you think flexibility in the work environment helps solve the problem?

We say flexibility will solve it, but what most people mean by that is a little freedom around the edges. That doesn’t solve the problem. What solves it is truly deep flexibility – when you can say, “I am in charge of my own schedule. I am going to my kid’s play this morning, and I’ll work later tonight or on the weekend.” You have to be able to adjust your schedule in a way that most businesses are not close to accommodating. They don’t get it because they basically think in the male paradigm – you come at a certain hour and leave at a certain hour. Sure, you can come a little late one morning or leave a little early, but what happens when your kid gets sick? What happens when the teacher calls and tells you that your child is on a bad path?

KG: It takes confidence to have conversations around flexibility. How do you encourage and help younger women develop and earn that trust with people they work for?

Some of it is what you tell anybody, male or female: go the extra mile; take initiative; demonstrate that you’re somebody who is going to make your boss’s life much easier. Then, frame everything in terms of “I could do a better job for you if … ,” not as “I need special accommodation.” For example, “I think I could do a better job for you if I could work from home one day a week.” It should always be in terms of, “I am a professional, and my job as a professional is to get the work done, but I could do it better, quicker, more effectively if... .”

Although these conversations can be difficult, the topic is tied to how we think about innovation. Everybody wants to be innovative, yet we think of innovation in terms of a new financial product, not a new way of working. However, a new way of working can have just as big of an impact on productivity, profits, loyalty and retention. We’re stuck in an industrial age work model. As we transition to the digital age work model, there are some innovations that can increase good things across the board.

“Everybody wants to be innovative, yet we think of innovation in terms of a new financial product, not a new way of working.”

AP: You talk a lot about the lead parent and the need for women to delegate that role. One of the greatest anecdotes in the book is about your favorite taxi driver who says, “Children need their mothers.” How do we debunk the myth that others can’t provide the same type of care as mothers?

There are several ways. One of the most effective is to say, “What about same-sex couples? Are you really telling me that two men can’t raise a child as well as a woman and a man or two women?” It’s amazing how many young women approach me after my talks and say that they were raised by a stay-at-home dad and tell me what a great job their fathers did. So the second thing I say is, ”Are you telling me that single fathers can’t do it?” If men can “run a tight ship” at work, why don’t we believe they can run a household?

AP: You dedicate a chapter to telling women to let the small stuff go and really let somebody else be the primary caregiver at times. Seriously, how do we do this? You admit that you have struggled with this as I am sure many women do.

I think you begin by handing over discrete things. If you think about travel, with many couples, one person plans the trips. It’s very inefficient to divide it 50-50. Consider starting with something that most women plan – birthday parties, for example. Your spouse can certainly plan a birthday party and will probably do something different than you would. What’s the worst thing that happens? Your kid has a lousy birthday party, your husband feels terrible, and it never happens again. But chances are, he’ll do a good job, and then he’ll be in charge of that whole domain.

Andy, my husband, is in charge of all lessons, partly because he cares more about that than I do. I’m not the tiger parent; I’m the “hang out and let that go” parent, and he’ll say to me, “It’s easy for you to do that; you’re just punting. You have this whole philosophy about how it’s good for them to hang out because you don’t want to organize anything.” I want to raise creative people, though, and I believe that letting them hang out is better for that.

Meanwhile, the college application process was my responsibility. I was focused on their SATs, recommendations and campus visits. When you go about dividing responsibilities, it’s important to take account of your personalities, and that process was a better fit for me.

AP: Because we don’t talk to our boys about being a caregiver or dad, you believe that we’re limiting their opportunities. How do we change that and create equal opportunities when raising our children?

I didn’t realize this until two-thirds of the way through writing the book. I suddenly looked at my kids and thought, “Wait, I’m raising my sons the way my father was raised.”

I think babysitting is a great place to start. Girls babysit and earn a lot of money doing it. My elder son is a pied piper; he has seven cousins, and they follow him around like ducklings. He’s brilliant with young kids, yet nobody asks him to babysit. You start thinking, “Hang on, why shouldn’t he babysit?” It’s a source of his self-esteem – making younger kids happy – and for kids who are finding their way with their own peers, that’s very important. Cooking, cleaning and laundry are other areas where we can get our boys involved. Let’s face it – cleaning the kitchen is not something any of us are born to do, but it demonstrates self-sufficiency. You have to frame it in terms of competence, not in domestic terms.

It would never occur to us not to teach our daughters math or not to talk to them about how to earn an income because we want them to be self-reliant. For a man, self-reliance is about being able to prepare a meal and do his own laundry.

KG: Does taking on the role of caregiver mean working less?

It depends on how much caregiving a person is doing and what level job she has. Andy and I were able to both work at jobs we loved and be equal parents for a long time. But as my jobs got bigger, I had to recognize that doing them the way they needed to be done involved more and more travel and non-negotiable meetings. At that point, the only way I could continue was to have him take the lead parent role. So although we all know superwomen who seem to do it all, with a great deal of professional help, I think that if a person wants a really big job she or he is going to have to make a trade-off in terms of not being the lead or even the equal parent. I do think there is a job level where your time is not your own. When the board or big donors come, you have to be there. I see that as a matter of professionalism; you should not take a job like that if you are going to say, “I can’t meet with the donor because I need to be with my child.”

AP: You talk about how this generation of feminism competes at men’s work. That’s how we think about success. How do we change the culture to think in more equal terms about caregiving and breadwinning?

The top regret men have when they’re dying is that they wish they had lived the life they wanted to live and not the one society expected, which was as the breadwinner. And the second is that they wish they had spent more time with their families.

Part of what I think we have to communicate is to say, “Look, you want to succeed across the board; you want to achieve your professional goals. But you also want to have a web of relationships, and that can be your biological family, your friends or a constructed family. You’ll live longer and be happier if you do this. It’s part of being a human.”

AP: You say that there is room for corporations and the government to help support caregiving. What is the most important first step toward change?

The two most important policy changes we can make are paid family leave – not maternity, paternity or parental, but paid family leave – and subsidized daycare and eldercare. In terms of paid family leave, I think the U.S. is far behind. I always say the most important thing we can do as a society is to invest in the next generation – particularly the first five years, but really all the way through adolescence. Both paid leave and subsidized daycare and eldercare require a very different political class and political plan. So we have to elect women, and we also have to elect men who are supportive of these policies. There is evidence that if you have 40% women in the room, men will start to be more honest about what they want. They will start saying, “Actually, it would be really important to spend more on social issues.” These are social and economic policies, not women’s policies.

KG: How confident are you that these changes can happen?

I think that we are going to get paid family leave in the next five years. You’re seeing it city by city and state by state. New York has just passed paid family leave. New Jersey, California and Rhode Island were first and offer six weeks paid family leave, but you need more than that. All states need fully paid leave because the families making minimum wage can’t afford to take the leave. Six weeks isn’t enough either, but it would be enough if it were family leave – your spouse takes six, you take six, and then at three months, you and your child are in a different place.

AP: There has been a lot of criticism around women in privileged positions having this conversation. How do these women use their experiences and voices to help women who don’t have choices?

When we focus on care and the problem that we’re not valuing and supporting care, then we are actually looking at all women. I’m all for eliminating the confidence gap, having a seat at the table and “leaning in,” but that’s not going to help women earning minimum wage. What will really help is finding a way so that a woman doesn’t lose her job if her child gets sick. That’s my answer politically and morally; we need to be focusing on care.

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