Tech & Work

Anne-Marie Slaughter offers an alternate reality check on the future of women, tech, and the workplace

TechRepublic talked to Anne-Marie Slaughter about being honest with women and men about making it, the risks of overlooking women who left the workplace, and taking the longer view on careers.

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Image: Random House

When The Atlantic published Why Women Still Can't Have it All by Anne-Marie Slaughter in the summer of 2012, it quickly became one of the most-read articles in the history of the publication. Slaughter, the first women to serve as director of policy planning at the US State Department, had chosen to return to teach at Princeton after completing her 2-year term.

It was a fraught decision.

Extending her term, Slaughter understood, would mean continuing to commute to Washington every week for work and only catching weekends with her teenage children—it simply wasn't the right decision for her. The realization caused Slaughter to reexamine many of her deeply held beliefs about women, the workplace, and expectations for working parents.

The article provoked a huge, powerful response. While many women related to the difficulties Slaughter faced in managing a high-powered career and family life, Slaughter was also the target of criticism—much of it from her peers. Seen as a role model for women, some saw Slaughter's decision as a slap in the face for the women's movement, her choice to "drop out" loaded with worrisome implications. Some simply thought Slaughter herself couldn't make it work, and that she shouldn't extend her own experience to all women on the rise at work.

These reactions became the spark for Slaughter's recently released book Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family. TechRepublic spoke to Slaughter, president and CEO of New America, a nonprofit think-tank on policy and civic engagement, about her case for flexible work environments, the importance of a lead parent, and how the tech industry can pave the way forward in the movement towards equality.

What do you mean by the "tipping point"—the point where things aren't really sustainable in managing, career, and family?

I had always managed to make it work. I'd assumed that you could always do that, and then I hit a tipping point—a place where there was simply no way to keep working at the job I wanted to keep working at and take care of my son. Many women wrote to me and described their own tipping point. They were all different. Many were having a child who had special needs. Some had children who just needed more hands-on, intensive parenting than they'd expected. And some women got a divorce—something many of us go through, but we didn't expect to. Or had to move away from their families, moving near extended family who needed care.

You can make it work, but you can't anticipate the factors that will tip you over. When you tip over, how can you do what you need to for your family without losing all the experience and education and skills that you have for the workforce? How can we create a system where it is perfectly possible to say, "Right now, my family needs me," or "Right now, I want to spend more time with my family"? If we don't let people come back in, we're just wasting talent.

Many contrast your arguments with Sheryl Sandberg's "lean in" model. But you said you might have written a book like hers ten years ago, when you were her age. How have your views on women in the workplace shifted?

I have seen the results of "lean in" firsthand and I really admire and respect it. I think it's right for some parts of your life. But in my early 40s, I was a dean at the Woodrow Wilson School. My kids were young. They were portable in a way that they're not when they're teenagers. They were biddable, or at least relatively so, and I worked in a job where I was the boss. I could pretty much set my own schedule, and I lived close to my work. That meant I could maintain a balance—a really happy one. I knew these factors were important, but I didn't realize how important they were until I was working three-and-a-half hours away on somebody else's schedule and, as I said, hit a tipping point.

When kids are young, you think, "If I can make this work now, I can always make it work," because they're very time-intensive. But when they're older they need a different kind of time. And also, frankly, when they're making choices that are much, much more important. Millions of women hit tipping points.

Women are underrepresented at the CEO level. What do they need to know if they want to get there?

I don't think that we're being honest enough with young women about how the women who've made it have made it. There are certainly some who have managed through extraordinary organization to have a high-powered husband, as well, and to also run the household. That is beyond me—and I'm a pretty energetic person. I was at the Most Powerful Women Summit a couple years ago and asked women in the audience who were all at CEO or near CEO level, to raise their hands if they had a lead parent husband. About 60% did.

We need to be telling people who really want to make it to the top, "You're going to need what your male competitors need." Otherwise, you are competing with both hands tied behind your back. You're doing two jobs and they're doing one. There is no man out there who thinks he's going to make CEO and have a family and be the primary caregiver. It's sort of laughable to think anyone could. You're going to be traveling, moving. So if younger women look at the CEO of their company and say, "That's what I want to do," they've got to start thinking about a mate who, for some key periods, is going to be the lead at home.

The alternative path is to say, "No, I want to be with my kids." Wanting to live every phase of life to the fullest. This is the phase when children are at home, and you don't want to miss that. The alternative should be that you slow down. In my case, I've deferred possible promotions. I've not allowed myself to be considered for really big jobs. When you're ready, go back in—but you need to know that when you're ready, you can still be considered for leadership positions. That people can take leadership positions between 55 and 65.

What advice do you have for women who left the workforce and are finding it very difficult to get back in?

Employers need to know there is a huge talent pool that is completely under-exploited. Men should look at their own wives and realize they still have Ivy League degrees, they still have early experience, they've actually learned a huge amount as caregivers, and they can come back in. We should shame people for not hiring the talent that is right under their noses. For individual women, some firms are starting return-ships. Both Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have return-ships for bankers. Women who were on promising banking careers and took time out. I think that's a model that can really spread.

For women who've really been out, it's a little scary to just come back in cold. If you can, don't drop out, defer. Stay in, but in a reduced way.

You say we should reframe the conversation from a work-life issue to discrimination against care. Can you explain?

Anybody, whether at the top or the bottom of society, who engages in what is a socially necessary activity of investing time and energy in other people, whether they're children or your parents or the disabled or somebody who's ill, pays a professional price. Many women have told me, "I took time out. That is a black mark on my resume. How do I hide that?" That's discrimination. Because you were managing children, rather than managing a team in the workplace, it doesn't count. Not only does it not count, it's a negative.

For women at the bottom, it's far more severe. If their child is sick, or there's something at school, they can lose their jobs, be docked pay, not get a promotion. It's discrimination against a necessary human activity that disproportionately impacts women.

Netflix, Microsoft, and Adobe recently expanded paid parental leave. Will these programs work?

Potential employees should first ask, "How many senior executives have taken the leave?" If the answer is "None," then it's a paper policy. If nobody is setting an example, the message is, "Sure you can take this, but you will be stigmatized."

We are hypocrites. We say that parenting is the most important job in the world and that's what means most to us. We say all the right stuff. We just don't live it. Anne-Marie Slaughter

I do find the policies encouraging, because they are responding to a millennial demand for paternity leave as well as maternity leave. But if people are going to do it, then senior executives, men as well as women, have got to be prepared to do it themselves. They need to change the culture to say, "If you really don't want to take paid leave to bond with your child, there's maybe something wrong with your values." I talked to a Finnish CEO who said the use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave for men means that Finnish companies look at guys who don't take it and wonder if there's something wrong with their character.

We are hypocrites. We say that parenting is the most important job in the world and that's what means most to us. We say all the right stuff. We just don't live it.

What about lower-skill jobs? Do these rules apply to different socioeconomic groups? Can they be extended to the Starbucks barista or people in the service industry?

Caregivers at all levels suffer from discrimination against caregiving. For lower-income workers, the government has to mandate paid leave and some minimum maternity and paternity leave, and then figure out how to support quality childcare and elder care. Lower-income workers don't have the power.

Sometimes, good companies get undercut by bad companies. Big companies with a lot of minimum-wage workers. If the government doesn't level the playing field, it really can't affect individual companies' bottom lines. I think over time, you make up for that because you have less turnover, but that can take time, and depends on your business. We need to be building an infrastructure of care, if we're really going to help all women. It's not going to be by individual negotiation with lawsuits, which is definitely for higher-income women.

I do think the on-demand economy is a huge part of the answer. When I talk to Uber drivers, they are often women who say, "This is great because I can do it when my kids are in school," or "This is great because I can schedule my own hours." But it's only great if they have portable benefits.

I don't understand why Silicon Valley doesn't understand that the answer to a lot of the critique of the on-demand economy is that this is where government actually can step in and provide ways for employers and employees to contribute to portable benefits. It would give people that flexibility without losing hope of actually advancing.

What other workplace solutions do you propose?

OpenWork is one solution, particularly for the tech world. We've had open source, we had open data, we have open job, and OpenWork is an invitation to re-imagine the workplace given the ways we can now work with technology and the changed workforce. It's also open in the sense of an open conversation between employers and employees about how to work better. That is important. It can't just be, "How do we accommodate working mothers?" We've been doing that for 30 years. That's a women's issue, and in the end they do things, and women still feel the pressure, and they don't work to their full potential. This framework says, "We're suffering from a poverty of imagination about how people can work and work effectively."

I also love tours of duty, because it really gets at my idea of planning your career in intervals. Where you have intervals where you go hard and intervals where you slow down a bit. Tours of duty, which Reid Hoffman and his co-authors wrote about in The Start-up of You, and got from the military, is you can do a stint where you're working really hard, you're getting promoted and adding skills, and then you can do a stint where you are keeping your skills, but working at a slower pace.

Are there drawbacks of the custom-fit workplace? What if managers say, "Well we can't give flexibility," or "We can't fit people's needs"?

When you talk to your boss, instead of framing it as, "I want flexibility," you say, "I can do a better job for you if..." You say, "If I were not completely stressed out trying to get the kids to school and get to the first meeting at the same time, I could get the kids to school, answer all my emails, get half a report done, and then come into work."

You say, "I could do a better job," and "Let's try it." Not, "Give me this benefit or this perk." That's re-imagining how people work by focusing on getting the best work done, being the most productive in a way that works for the company as well as for me.

Sounds like a bit of a "lean in" moment.

It's a "lean in" moment in the sense you are saying, "I can do a better job for you if..." but the result is you're changing the workplace as well as advancing yourself in a good way. I don't think Sheryl Sandberg would have any problem with that.

What about ROWE (results-only workplace)?

It's very hard to track how much people are working, so some have abandoned this model. But I think the basic principle of focusing on results is just good management. The people who focus on facetime over results are bad managers. They're just not managing their people to get the work done, they're managing their people in a way that maximizes the wrong factors. I do really like the kind of results focus. Some people absolutely rave about it, and it may particularly work in smaller organizations, so I think it's something to look at.

What would you say to people interested in entering into tech jobs, or managers of tech jobs?

Tech work is creative work. Everything we know about creativity says you need downtime, and you need kind of a change of scenery as often as possible. Google says you need play, which is why they have all those ways to play— they get it. But it's not just play, it's actually getting out of the workplace and climbing a mountain or taking a walk or going to a movie. We've even got it down to the neuroscience. It's empirically researched and physiologically explained. Successful tech workers should not accept the 24/7 model. They really will be less effective.

Also, they should be on the forefront of reinventing the workplace. If the digital sector can't do it, nobody can do it. We went from cottage industry to the industrial age with factories and offices, centralized work, and now we're going back to decentralized work. Look at what they're doing in the fab lab at MIT, not just 3D printing, but with digital fabrication. You've got a vision of basically renewed cottage industry, but it's everybody making everything everywhere. It's really revolutionary. I would say to the tech people—you guys have to revolutionize not just our lives, but also our work.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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