Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter: A Book Review

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. Slaughter argues that the real problem is that competition, the human drive to pursue our self-interest, is valued over care, the human drive to put others first. Women and men are motivated by both competition and care. The problem is that competition, or “breadwinning,” has been defined as more valuable and as the domain of men. The domain of caregiving has been defined as women’s; discrimination against and devaluing of caregiving provides a common thread linking the experiences of women at the top and at the bottom. Here are some examples of the link provided by Slaughter:

  • A young female lawyer or banker who begins to work flexible hours to be home with her kids for dinner, or who works part time, or who steps out of the workforce for a while to be a full-time caregiver is quickly disqualified from advancing in her career. Joan Williams describes this as hitting the maternal wall. Neither her advancement nor her earning capacity will ever recover.
  • A single mother who has no choice but to be both the sole breadwinner and family caregiver is likely to be in a low-wage job with no sick leave or childcare benefits. Half of single mothers in the United States make less than $25,000 a year, and being a single mother is the single best predictor that a woman will end up in bankruptcy or poverty in old age.
  • In our society, caregivers are among the lowest-paid American workers. Low-income African American and immigrant women are heavily overrepresented in the most poorly paid care jobs.
Slaughter suggests that the solution is not to devalue competition, but to elevate the value of care in some of the following ways:
  • We need to raise the pay and benefits of care jobs to reflect a valuing of caregiving work.
  • We need to let go of old gender stereotypes and expand our language to include same-sex parents and gender identities beyond male and female.
  • We need to expand our language to talk about working parents or working caregivers rather than working mothers.
  • We need family-friendly policies, like flextime, that are more than lip service and that do not penalize the caregivers, women and men, who need and want to use them;
  • We need careers redefined to reflect the demand to customize jobs to meet the requirements of workers in different life phases without penalty.
  • Our government needs to invest in an infrastructure of care that includes subsidized high-quality and affordable childcare and elder care, paid family leave, and other supports for caregiving.
While Slaughter does not provide many specifics about how to enact the many big changes that are needed, this book is worth reading to understand more about the next steps on this journey of change that we are all on.]]>