My sister and I took care of our mother during the last months of her life. She developed fast-growing brain tumors and, mercifully, was incapacitated and bedridden for only a few months before she passed away. We quickly became exhausted and unable to physically care for her without professional help as she declined. It was a shock to discover how expensive it is to hire home health support and how little the long-term care insurance, for which she had been paying over decades, would reimburse. None of us had the financial means to pay for much support for very long. She passed quickly, but a family can rapidly become financially drained trying to care for family members. Realistically, women pay the biggest price for both elder care and childcare—as unpaid family caregivers.
In her book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, Anne-Marie Slaughter takes us a step further down the road to understanding why progress continues to be slow for gender equality in the workplace and what needs to change. While three years ago Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, triggered an important national conversation about the challenges women face in the workplace, it was criticized for focusing too narrowly on solutions for privileged women and too little on the different needs of working-class women. Sandberg’s book was also criticized for putting too much of the responsibility on individual women for not “leaning in” enough to progress in their careers. Slaughter takes this conversation to the next level and argues that we must take the blame off of individual women and broaden the conversation to include the issues faced by women at all income levels and in all occupations, as well as acknowledge the restrictions placed on men’s life choices by existing gender stereotypes and workplace and societal structures and policies. Slaughter suggests that we need to change our lens to talk about competition versus care or breadwinning versus caregiving, instead of talking about work-life balance. When we use this lens and this language, we begin to shift the focus from work-life balance being a middle-class women’s issue to a focus that is more inclusive and that leads to broader strategies for change. In fact, Slaughter notes that the problem is not only that there are not enough women at the top of organizations, it is also that there are too many women at the bottom—62 percent of minimum wage jobs are held by women—and some common threads cause the problem at both ends of the income ladder.