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Wolf writes: "We are just recovering, in the United States, from the entirely predictable kerfuffle over a plaint published by Anne-Marie Slaughter called 'Why Women Still Can't Have it All.'"

Portrait, author and activist Naomi Wolf, 10/19/11. (photo: Guardian UK)
Portrait, author and activist Naomi Wolf, 10/19/11. (photo: Guardian UK)

Why Women Still Can't Ask the Right Questions

By Naomi Wolf, New Europe

04 July 12


e are just recovering, in the United States, from the entirely predictable kerfuffle over a plaint published by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and a professor at Princeton University, called “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” The response was predictable because Slaughter’s article is one that is published in the US by a revolving cast of powerful (most often white) women every three years or so.

The article, whoever has written it, always bemoans the “myth” of a work-life balance for women who work outside the home, presents the glass ceiling and work-family exhaustion as a personal revelation, and blames “feminism” for holding out this elusive “having-it-all ideal.” And it always manages to evade the major policy elephants in the room – which is especially ironic in this case, as Slaughter was worn out by crafting policy.

The problems with such arguments are many. For starters, the work-family balance is no longer a women’s issue. All over the developed world, millions of working men with small children also regret the hours that they spend away from them, and go home to bear the brunt of shared domestic tasks. This was a “women’s issue” 15 years ago, perhaps, but now it is an ambient tension of modern life for a generation of women and men who are committed to gender equality.

Such arguments also ignore the fact that affluent working women and their partners overwhelmingly offload the work-family imbalance onto lower-income women – overwhelmingly women of color. One can address how to be an ethical, sustainable employer of such caregivers; nannies in New York and other cities are now organizing to secure a system of market-pegged wages, vacation time, and sick days. Or, as so often happens in a racist society, one can paint the women who care for the elite’s children out of the picture altogether.

Moreover, an inflexible and family-unfriendly corporate environment is no longer the only choice for working women. Many, particularly in the US, have left that world to start their own businesses.

Most importantly, Americans have a remarkable tendency to reduce problems that others addressed through public policy to a matter of private “choice” and even personal psychology. But the real question is not whether “women can have it all.” Rather, it is how a sophisticated foreign-policy professional can write as if countries like Canada and the Netherlands simply did not exist.

In Canada, couples with a baby may sequence six-month leaves of absence at up to 90% pay. In the Netherlands – the best scenario I have seen yet – families can take a day off each week, and the government subsidizes full-time daycare. This solution was not framed as a “women’s issue,” but as a family benefit. And Dutch women have simply moved on, focusing on other interesting goals in their personal and family lives.

In America, by contrast, the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests lobby hard to keep politicians from ever proposing such solutions. They know that billions of dollars are made from hiring women at lower income levels than men, and then ensuring that a work-family conflict derails women’s careers before they become too expensive to compensate fairly.

Of course, Europe is not gender-equality Nirvana. In particular, the corporate workplace will never be completely family-friendly until women are part of senior management decisions, and Europe’s top corporate-governance positions remain overwhelmingly male. Indeed, women hold only 14% of positions on European corporate boards.

The European Union is now considering legislation to compel corporate boards to maintain a certain proportion of women – up to 60%. This proposed mandate was born of frustration. Last year, European Commission Vice President Viviane Reding issued a call to voluntary action. Reding invited corporations to sign up for gender balance goals of 40% female board membership. The Forte foundation in America has now followed suit with its own list of “board-ready women.” But Reding’s appeal in Europe was considered a failure: only 24 companies took it up.

Do we need quotas to ensure that women can continue to climb the corporate ladder fairly as they balance work and family?

“Personally, I don’t like quotas,” Reding said recently. “But I like what the quotas do.” Quotas get action: they “open the way to equality and they break through the glass ceiling,” according to Reding, a result seen in France and other countries with legally binding provisions on placing women in top business positions.

I understand Reding’s reticence – and her frustration. I don’t like quotas either; they run counter to my belief in meritocracy. But, when one considers the obstacles to achieving the meritocratic ideal, it does look as if a fairer world must be temporarily mandated.

After all, four decades of evidence has now shown that corporations in Europe as well as the US are evading the meritocratic hiring and promotion of women to top positions – no matter how much “soft pressure” is put upon them. When women do break through to the summit of corporate power – as, for example, Sheryl Sandberg recently did at Facebook – they garner massive attention precisely because they remain the exception to the rule.

If appropriate public policies were in place to help all women – whether CEOs or their children’s caregivers – and all families, Sandberg would be no more newsworthy than any other highly capable person living in a more just society. And laments like Slaughter’s would not be necessary. your social media marketing partner


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+109 # L. Sabransky 2012-07-04 14:14
Americans' ethnocentrism and lack of education regarding other countries' government and culture comes back to bite us. People here have been programmed to be grateful for the meager amount of sick and vacation days they get. Almost every time I've told someone about countries - that are productive - that afford all workers a living wage, six weeks of vacation and subsidize child care, they are surprised. Some of these are the same people who think "Socialism" is a pejorative. Until we understand that our budget and policies are moral documents and represent our collective values, we will continue to send children to war rather than earnestly care for them.
-54 # Abigail 2012-07-04 14:18
one of the reasons that women fail to earn as much income as men is that they choose fields where,in general, the salaries aren't high, eg nursing, teaching, English or other languages. I was the only woman in my Physics and Engineering classes (making it obvious if I had to cut a class when one of my kids was sick) and only one or two other women were in my math classes. I had no problem finding a job, and I earned as much as my male colleagues.
+60 # Glen 2012-07-04 15:20
That is not always the case Abigail. There are many women working the same jobs as men, making less than the men. Even in convenience stores women make less than any man hired.

To assume that a particular career is going to to require less pay than a man, such are nursing or teaching, is to insult the value of that career, not to mention the education required to achieve such a career.

Salaries are determined by those who set the values, rather than the importance of that job. People teaching and nursing, for instance, provide a service many would eschew, especially men, due to the talents and education being of lesser value. Humanitarian careers are no longer valued.

It is all relative, but those who determine value are driven by politics and other issues that have no bearing on the talents of gender. Women have traditionally been relegated to lesser pay.
0 # mstrdig 2012-07-07 08:26
i worked in a male dominated field, i definitely commanded, if it could be called, that a much less compensatory salary.
+34 # readerz 2012-07-04 15:44
Many men are studying nursing, English, etc., but they also suffer from few available jobs or low-paying jobs in those fields. I am glad for your success, but my math says that students minus teachers equals no education; the teachers are necessary. A male friend drives a school bus so that he can afford to teach history in the local college.
+34 # sir docta dove 2012-07-04 15:50
Point taken that certain disciplines and professions are highly gendered one way or another and, as such, are valued as more or less rigorous/worthw hile/important/ deserving of higher monetary compensation. However, this comment blames the women who pursue professions in education, healthcare, the humanities, etc (whether this is because they choose to or because these are avenues that are more open to them) for that problem instead of acknowledging that this is a larger problem within a patriarchal and racist society which punishes women for having those jobs (while simultaneously, as you point out, making it harder for women [and, I'll add, people of color] to enter other professions). Sure, it's certainly important to work (from the small scale of raising individual children to putting institutional and public policies into place) toward making historically "male" (and middle class and white) professions more available to women, but it's as or more important to a) work to undo the gendered (and racialized) assumptions about certain kinds of work and its value (see, for instance, Woolf's point in this article about framing the raising of children as a public policy issue affecting families, workplaces, and societies instead of ghettoizing it as a "women's issue"), and b) work to better collectively understand -- and dismantle -- the structural and psychic systems of gender, racial, class, and national privilege that enable those assumptions about certain forms of labor.
+30 # Texas Aggie 2012-07-04 21:17
A strong fallacy in your comment about women going into low paying jobs is that when women go into jobs in large numbers, that profession rapidly becomes low paying. Examples are family medicine and pediatric medicine, veterinary medicine. These are professions that formerly were predominantly male but now are female, and the salaries have fallen.

The other fallacy is that you are comparing salaries in totally different professions. I can assure you that within the same profession, men almost invariably make more than women. Ask Lily Ledbetter. Ask the people who work for WalMart.
+19 # Majikman 2012-07-04 22:25
Back in the 70's when managed care came into existence, all employees were required to find a primary care doc. who would accept our co's insurance provider. We were given lists to select from. Not knowing any of those doc's I decided that it be a woman simply because she had to be smarter and work harder than a male to earn an MD. She was wonderful but was fired by the medical group she worked for because she gave too much time to her patients, cutting into their bottom line. The group refused to tell me where she went and tried to fob me off on one of their male docs. Well, I tracked her down, only to discover that she joined a practice of 90% women and that a slew of her former patients also did what I did. The best doc I ever had.
+4 # AMLLLLL 2012-07-06 06:59
Abigail, you make the mistake that many conservatives are spewing; it is not different fields, the issue is with the person working right next to you; a male nurse, policeman, secretary, etc. All make more than the woman doing the exact same work, with the same qualifications, in the same locale. I too made the same as my counterparts, but I was in a union.
+1 # bmiluski 2012-07-09 10:30
I think you missed the whole idea/point of equal pay. Women are paid 70 cents on the dollar for exactly the same jobs that men have.
+6 # susienoodle 2012-07-04 14:39
-45 # Noni77 2012-07-04 15:23
And are not these countries Jazbing is referring to the ones about to go belly up economically?
+32 # Holmes 2012-07-04 20:10
And the USA is not going belly up? Why so many on food stamps and no universal health care as in Australia?
+9 # AMLLLLL 2012-07-06 07:08
Another part of this equation is the campaign against unions. If you look at a chart from the end of the war until Reagan, the uptrend of CEO's salaries corresponds to the workers' pay. After 1985 workers' pay has almost flatlined, while CEO pay has continued on the same upward trajectory. Unions, while not perfect, have a value. If you need a watchdog, it's stupid to get rid of it if it bites someone; there is a solution, it's called balance.
+4 # mstrdig 2012-07-07 08:30
outsourcing- the aim, dismantling the union.
+26 # Texas Aggie 2012-07-04 21:19
No, they aren't. Holland and Canada are doing quite well, a lot better than the US is. Canada had a lot tighter regulation of its banks so it didn't get hurt nearly as much as the US did. Holland just has a better society than the US does.
+20 # L. Sabransky 2012-07-04 21:49
No, they're not - their citizens are happier than ours and I'm pretty sure they're not any more belly up than the U.S. is. Or are are you under the illusion that we are still superior?
0 # mstrdig 2012-07-07 08:29
perhaps due to global malfeasance, initiated by the collapse of the wall street mortgage crises, the and hedge fund/derivative debacle (gee, who do we blame?) .
+29 # readerz 2012-07-04 15:39
The economy is hard on everybody; look at the article about student loan debt which affects adult career choices.

I am always surprised when articles about a "glass ceiling" are the only response. This is a women's problem at the bottom of the corporate ladder as much as at the top, and also for supporting daycare and teachers. This article touches on that.

Overall, people need to rethink and rewrite our banking laws, women's rights, victims' rights, and the apportionment of states' Senators and Electors in the Electoral College. There will never be a non-conservativ e "majority" until the actual majority of Americans has an equal voice.

There are far fewer studies of diseases and conditions that affect women most of the time. But many women's groups and individual "experts" don't want to talk about that either, because it might make women look "weak" or "whiny."

At the very least, all Americans should try to keep women from becoming even more discriminated against than we were.

I was just denied coverage (by my insurance company and prescription insurance company) for two different drugs for rheumatoid arthritis that affects mostly... women. Shouldn't that be part of this story?
+6 # fredboy 2012-07-04 15:55
Women are remarkably resourceful, resilient, and creative. Many I know in their 30s and 40s shoved aside the age-old myths and anchors of home ownership -- they did the math and resisted the lure of the money pit and equity nosedive -- and instead work, save, carefully invest and monitor their growing funds daily, all while championing positive lives and futures for themselves and those they love. They are independent of the bullshit expectations and economic bear traps of the past. They are, in so many ways, free.
+28 # Donna Fritz 2012-07-04 16:14
I'm having trouble getting all worked up over there not being enough female corporate CEOs. When women reach that level in corporate hierarchies, they're every bit as cutthroat and immoral as their male counterparts.
+3 # cynnibunny 2012-07-05 11:39
Wolf takes on a difficult issue, one that is definitely in her court. But from my perspective, the social expectations of women in power have a long way to go. It comes as no surprise in these days of color-blind racism and polite discrimination, that women in power, like men, have left the social change arena and taken on that 'personal psychology' of individual choice. We have left the hard work of changing policy to someone else, or some other generation.

Each individual woman, like each individual man, sees herself as the exception and handicap their social expectations to the will of some imagined (and immovable) mass. When they succeed in making it to the top (so their personal psychology tells them) that achievement will be made all the more triumphant knowing that it was achieved 'without quotas'.

Meritocracy is a myth, Ms. Wolf. And the longer that intelligent people believe in that myth, the longer will stay 'the traditional quotas' that now exist to keep women and minorities and the lower classes away from power and away from opportunity.

People - women and men - have got to shout out about these inequalities, but if they think that a day in the sun awaits them, they'll happily play along.
+4 # JLTalley 2012-07-05 14:12
Maybe it's time we realized that it isn't gender that determines someone's morality. We created corporations with a legal responsibility to pursue profit, nothing but profit, and only profit. We made it imperative for corporations to avoid any balance or social sensitivity in their actions. In short, we institutionaliz ed greed; anyone who makes it to the top of that system will -- of necessity -- be "cutthroat and immoral". Until we change the charter for corporations (such as B-Type corporations) we will distracted by the gender issue.
+48 # LisaH 2012-07-04 16:17
I think one of the biggest flaws with this whole debate is the continued acceptance that the "pinnacle" of success is measured in financial terms, not in happiness, quality of life, job satisfaction, etc. Did anyone stop to think that maybe the reason there are more men in top positions in corporate America is because there are just plain more men who are soul-less automatons who buy into the idea that more money equals more successful.

FYI, I am a cum laude graduate of Wellesley College, so there is a lot of peer pressure to "live up to" the reputation of a school that has produced powerful, successful women like Madeline Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Diane Sawyer. And the smartest thing I ever did was to take a job THAT I LOVE, where I feel like I make a difference for the planet every day, and make a fair wage, but nothing big. More money just means you can buy more stuff - and stuff is just, well, stuff.
+12 # Glen 2012-07-04 17:21
Have you looked beyond the "powerful successful women" that you cite as a pressure point to success? You might find the corruption and male dominated system influence on these women. Not to be proud of.

The pinnacle of success is measured in both financial as well as male standards, which are reflected in early education forward. Parents, corporations, schools, etc., unabashedly promote male standards.

I'm glad you are satisfied with your job. It is a real pleasure to achieve that.
+1 # ABen 2012-07-05 10:02
Well said LisaH!
+8 # sj-ias 2012-07-04 16:28
Slaughter's article makes an important point, even though it wasn't stated very crisply. What really counts in the workplace is not just that women are taken seriously; what has to happen is that the workplace has to take family seriously, and respect family obligations on the part of all employees. Do that, and the distortions that now hurt women will diminish considerably. Wolf doesn't give Slaughter adequate credit for this insight.
+8 # fredboy 2012-07-04 17:05
LisaH gets it. The key to life is happiness, not "measuring up." Secure men and women are free.
+4 # Glen 2012-07-05 13:19
That has always been my mantra, fredboy, but now days, happiness will not buy gas, groceries, pay the rent or house payments, required insurance, taxes, and so on. Men and women are both stressed over having low paying jobs that barely keep them and their families going, even if the job is halfway satisfying. Thousands have NO jobs.

If there are children involved, the stress increases tenfold.
+48 # Kumari 2012-07-04 17:07
@Noni77 - your comment is a breathtaking example of American ignorance and tunnel vision. Here's a news flash - in Australia 4 weeks paid vacation is the statutory MINIMUM, there is paid sick leave, mandatory employer contribution (10%) to superannuation, paid maternity leave and the minimum wage exceeds $17/hour (and yes and australian dollar is worth as much as a us dollar, sometimes more). On top of that we have nearly free health care, and taxes are LOWER not higher. Unemployment is between 4 and 5% and the economy is BOOMING, thanks very much. In fact the minimum wage in Australia FAR EXCEEDS median income in the US. So wake up an look around you instead of just reciting the mantras of the far right. Ensuring people have a decent income, decent health care and decent conditions of employment are good for the economy. It's time Americans woke up.
+3 # mgwmgw 2012-07-05 12:23
Quoting Clementine:
@Noni77 - your comment is a breathtaking example of American ignorance and tunnel vision. Here's a news flash - in Australia 4 weeks paid vacation is the statutory MINIMUM, there is paid sick leave, mandatory employer contribution (10%) to superannuation, paid maternity leave and the minimum wage exceeds $17/hour (and yes and australian dollar is worth as much as a us dollar, sometimes more). On top of that we have nearly free health care, and taxes are LOWER not higher. Unemployment is between 4 and 5% and the economy is BOOMING, thanks very much. In fact the minimum wage in Australia FAR EXCEEDS median income in the US. So wake up an look around you instead of just reciting the mantras of the far right. Ensuring people have a decent income, decent health care and decent conditions of employment are good for the economy. It's time Americans woke up.

I am pleased that Australia is doing so well. Noni77, how would you suggest that America get from where we are to that situation?
+6 # Greenery 2012-07-04 18:51
Women in "third-world" countries have had to balance work and family for centuries. It's nothing new. The only question is whether it's market-based work or subsistence-bas ed work.
+2 # midwestgirl 2012-07-07 11:43
It all comes down to a society that bases human value according to one's wealth. Women bosses are often much less understanding or flexible with the work life balance issues of women and men below them than are their male counterparts - a pretty low bar. Yet they behave this way even as they whine about they and their peers own difficulty finding that balance - women they perceive as "deserving" it because they have risen high enough in the hierarchy to "warrant" it. These women, like their male counterparts, embrace a dicrimination really based on econmic "class". They look down upon those who work for them in support staff jobs in the office, as teachers, nurses, or as nannies, maids, etc at home. Once you cease to identify with anyone you perceive as "servicing you" and therefor "below you", you start to find reasons for treating them differently(be it due to race, gender, title, profession, etc). Their needs become less worthy, less important, less "affordable", and certainly less deserving of your tax dollar or policy consideration. The relationship with "these people" becomes adversarial rather than cooperative. But in a service economy, who is not a servant? Is a teacher really worth less than a banker, or the person who cares for your child or your elderly parent worth less than the guy who sells your house? That is just really f**ked up. Yet that is the world created when monetary wealthy is valued above all.
0 # shanghaisage 2012-07-14 04:13
It seems to me as someone not in the US, that America seems to have complicated its life. I worked for seven years in Shanghai, and headed a team that was largely female. It was largely female because they were better - better in interviews when hired, better at work after being hired and never wore any gender difference on their sleeve. And no surprise, they earned better and rose faster. I dont have advise on how America can get there from here, but looking around and learning which of the other countries to emulate would be a starting place. And it can start smaller - an organization looking around to see which other organization to emulate. And no, countries that do better than America in some way (China in my case) arent basket cases or about to go Bellyup as someone earlier in this forum suggested. You have to allow that someone else may be doing better because they have got it right.

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