Saturday, November 22, 2014

Why Women Still Can’t Ask the Right Questions

NEW YORK – We 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.

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    1. CommentedEthical _

      Women aren't yet asking the right questions. Because if women are to "have it all" men will have to work harder to give it to them.

    2. CommentedMiles Robhoto

      Today's feminism is playing the victim card like any other minority, no matter how well off that minority is now.
      It pays off to portray oneself as a victim, because there will always be the occasional bleeding heart to lend an ear and cast a vote in favour of the minority. It's better than nothing.
      And it pays even more to play the "two victims" card like the author of this article: women, and women of colour are the victims of the "evil white man", the usual suspect.

      What the players of the victim card don't realise, though, is that they are fueling resentment towards themselves.
      Asking for recognition and respect is one thing. Milking it to the last drop is dangerous, just like sitting down at a casino table and not knowing when to leave it while you still have your shirt on and some chips in your hand.

    3. CommentedSteven Leighton

      I seem to remember when I moved to the US from the UK I was surprised to find the American woman´s idea of being a feminist was to be a man.
      In mainland and northern Europe (not so in the UK and catholic Europe)) being a feminist meant special attention had to be paid to the ability of women to reproduce and to the tradition of women caring for children. Special emphasis was placed on men being able to and even wanting to care for children.
      So it is American(but not only American) women and MEN who need to ask the right questions and one of those is: What is "it all"? And another one might be: How can we all "Have it all"?

    4. CommentedGary Marshall

      What a pile of dung!

      Men still work far longer hours than women, which is why they earn more. Women are generally guilt ridden after having children about working. Which is why they choose to work less and less. Men have no such guilt or at least never let it bother them as much.

      Women are just walking law suits, so one is best to hire men who rarely sue for anything.

      Governments bend over backwards with all these costly policies to move women into the workforce so they can pay for all these new and costly government services. And governments will even look after your children.

      Just a bunch of the thoughts of Wolf assembled without proof or even specious stats in defense. So typical of the feminist set. No wonder women don't win Nobels. Imagination is not truth, Naomi!


        CommentedGary Marshall

        Hello Moctar,

        When I said that I may say anything I like, I meant that I may say anything I like in response to an argument based upon assertions, many of them contemptible or inane.

        I did not mean that if Wolf, who is now at an advanced age and should certainly beyond childish absolutes and immature declarations, presented coherent and defensible arguments, that I am free to offer any response, no matter how absurd.

        When Wolf does 'mature' and offer a sound and logical argument, she shall certainly expect and receive one in rebuttal.


        CommentedMoctar Aboubacar

        Thank you for an informative answer to a couple of my questions.
        However I have a slight doubt about the essence of what you’re telling me: “I can say anything I like to shake the claims of the proponent.” You essentially say that I should be asking Ms. Wolf for her statistics, but not you for yours.
        Certainly you are right to ask her to back up what she says. If she simply provides provocative statements without a shred of proof, then it is as you say, one is simply spouting out whatever biased and discriminatory nonsense that goes through one’s head, regardless of whether it’s true or not. Someone ought to call her out on that, and point out the ridiculousness of any such argument. I commend your efforts toward that.
        However you yourself are not free of the burden of proof and cannot as you maintain, simply “say anything” you like. While it is up to the ‘prosecution’ (running with your nifty metaphor) to sustain their claims, the ‘defense’, in making their own claims must support them. Thus does no one simply take the defense attorney’s word for it that his client is insane; they have him checked.
        Similarly, we have to have ‘checked’ or verified your claims about women working fewer hours than men, suing their employers more than men (a little more specific, if possible, than “look at all those class action lawsuits”), etc.
        But once you provide those proofs I think you will have well established that what you are saying is important and worthy of debate.

        CommentedGary Marshall

        Hello Moctar,

        Well, each of my points addressed a comment by Naomi Wolf.

        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.

        This comment showing that women earn less than men really translates to women work less than men. I was simply trying to clear up the confusion and outright deception that Wolf can't refrain from injecting into every statement she makes. Never trust anything a feminist says because it is invariably a lie or deliberate distortion.

        Now you seem to be very inquisitive about stats and such. Why not ask Wolf where she got hers. She wrote the story and must have all the data to back up her ridiculous statements, right? Seems the target of your curiosity is badly chosen.

        In case you did not know, I'm the defense. I can say anything I like to shake the claims of the proponent. Its up to the prosecution to prove their case or bizarre theory. Asking me to provide proof of the contrary position is like asking a defence lawyer to defend his client by supplying the true culprit of the crime.

        So you run along and ask Wolf for proof of this outlandish conspiracy by business interests throughout the US and beyond to deprive women of their true income.

        Now, women do not get ahead in private corporations because as they approach levels of managerial advancement in their late 20's and early 30's, they decide generally to have children and devote the rest of their lives to them.

        So the principles of merit often conflict with the principles of reluctance for many women. Look at Walmart where women comprise 72% of the company's workers and only 32% of managerial staff.

        If you seek statistics on women suing their employers, look at all those class action lawsuits filed in the US for all sorts of discrimination based upon sex. Now tell me how many men filed similar suits or any kind of class action suits against their employer.

        But Wolf does not like to offer such stats and proofs for her commentary. If she had to, she would have little to say about anything.

        Best of luck.


        CommentedMoctar Aboubacar

        Un petit rappel à l'ordre:

        It would greatly add to the discussion to include proof (or even specious statistics) to support these claims. While what you are saying is certainly outside the scope of Ms. Wolf's piece in its assumptions, it would lend credence to your ideas and permit a more substantive back-and-forth.

        I for one would greatly appreciate some sort of objective proof of, or even elaborated argumentation on the following points:

        1. In what country do men work longer hours than women? How long is this "far longer" number of hours on average? How is this distributed in different sectors?

        2. How is the guilt that women experience after having children measured, and by whom? What is the difference between 'having' guilt and being "guilt-ridden"? How is this same guilt measured in men? You also say that "Men have no such guilt or at least never let it bother them as much" which suggests that dealing with guilt or repressing it is a question of will. It would be great if you shared the demonstrations for that as well.

        3. What mechanism has shown the relationship between this guilt and the choice to work "less and less"? Does women working "less and less" mean that as time advances, fewer women enter the workforce? Is this in absolute or relative terms? Where might I find the relevant statistics for that?

        4. What are the statistics of men versus women when it comes to filing lawsuits against employers? How does one objectively determine that a higher incidence of filing lawsuits against employers in a population backs a normative claim on hiring one sex over the other?

        This seems like a good amount to start with. Again, a response including answers to these questions and any links to proof/statistics to strengthen your claims is much appreciated.

    5. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      Beautifully lucid. The great unspoken truth is that the greatest inequality is not between the sexes but between those who can choose to have others do the less rewarding functions of parenthood simply because of economics and those who cannot.