Anne-Marie Slaughter has attracted a lot of attention recently for her claim that women ‘still can’t have it all’. That is, that it is impossible for women to balance a family and a successful career without making significant sacrifices in one, the other, or both facets of their lives. Slaughter’s argument is an interesting one, and a fresh personal contribution to an old question. However, I think it is at least as interesting to ask why Slaughter’s argument was aimed at women, and indeed why this issue continues to be seen as one which overwhelmingly concerns women.
To oversimplify horribly, in the Bad Old Days, there was basically a division of labour whereby men did ‘men’s work’ (had an outside career, and provided for their families), while women did ‘women’s work’ (ran households and reared children). Now the problem is that women are trying to do both men’s and women’s work, and failing to juggle the two. The question I am interested in is why the dilemma is focused on women, but not men. In other words, why does there appear to be so much less angst about men trying to maintain their traditional roles while taking on those that used to belong to women?
There are two big reasons to ask whether and why similar career-family dilemmas arise for men. The first is that if this is such a major concern for women, one which causes such distress and heartache, it is likely to be equally consequential for men. The second, as Slaughter rightly observes, is that any effort to improve the status quo is likely to be greatly strengthened if it can ‘enlist’ men who face the selfsame problems.
As I see it, there are three main possibilities as to how Slaughter’s argument relates to men. I do not want to argue for any one of these, but just to discuss their implications.
The first possibility is that men face an exactly symmetrical dilemma to women. They too, want to have it all, to be active parents and successful careerists, but struggle to balance the two. Indeed, the pressure on men might manifest itself in slightly different ways – instead of being expected to have both a career and manage a family, men might feel pressurised to play down the importance of their family life. This might explain why there is so little tension on the surface, since the problem is suppressed.. This is the view of Stephanie Coontz, who insists, “It’s tough formen and women”
The second possibility is that men do not want it ‘all’. They may be perfectly content for women to be free to enter men’s world, but have no interest – or at least much less interest – in the conventional tasks of women. This view is implied by Slaughter when she says that “From years of conversations and observations, however, I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help”. That is to say, men, for whatever reason, feel no compulsion to take on certain responsibilities previously carried out by women, and so do not have to juggle as much as women do.
Most interesting, though, is the possibility that the dilemma does not arise for men because men do not know what they are missing. That is, they do not want to take on women’s work, but this is not because of some natural or mutually convenient difference between the two genders. Rather, men suffer from a kind of false consciousness, mistaking their true interests. Perhaps men think that running a household is tedious or unfulfilling, when in actual fact many men would have happier, more flourishing, more rounded lives if they took on some of the responsibilities that women do.
This is particularly intriguing because it raises the possibility that men might actually be worse off than women (I have to emphasise: in this, and only this, dimension). Perhaps the dilemma of balancing family and career arises only for those who experience and understand two important human goods, and that the choices are easy only for those too stunted to realise what is at stake. In that case, just to get men to the position where they appreciate that there are tough choices to be made might represent progress, and bring men back level with the women who have ploughed ahead.