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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.