Tuesday, September 29, 2015

REVIEW | Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter

Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter
Publication Year: 2015 (September 29th)
Genre: Non-fiction, Work Culture
Series: NA
Awards: None
Format: Advanced Reader Copy from Penguin Random House.  Receiving the book for free does not impact my review.
Narrator: NA

WHY?: Work-Life balance and modern feminism are both topics that interest me.

At first glance, I am an unlikely reader of this book.  I am unmarried and have no children.   However, even with fewer obligations in my personal life, I still struggle with the desire to live a fulfilling, well-rounded life that does not wholly revolve around my job.  If you are a working person with a family at home, Unfinished Business will be a very interesting and perhaps even important read for you but even if you do not have care obligations but are flummoxed by America's very intense work culture you will find the ideas presented in this book worthwhile.
"I began to wonder why success as a woman, or indeed as a man, meant privileging career achievement above all else."
Anne-Marie Slaughter is an ambitious and successful career woman.  Trained as a lawyer and having an expertise in foreign policy, she has taught at Ivy League universities and served as Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University before leaving to become the first woman Director of Policy Planning under Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.  Her position on Clinton's staff required her to move away from her husband and two sons only commuting back on weekends.  After serving for two years, Slaughter decided that she needed to be back in Princeton for her family and while she got a very nice send off, the overall sentiment was that she had somehow failed by "giving up" this prestigious position for reasons of family.  In response, she wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" which created an enormous response.  The questions and challenges she received in response to this article is what prompted this book, which is a more detailed exploration of the current state of feminism and the issues with America's work culture.
"Advice on how to achieve a sane work-life balance has become a cottage industry. Numerous books on the subject have been published...But they are all aimed at workers, overwhelmingly women, who are presumed to have the responsibility of stretching the twenty-four hours in a day to cover and impossible and never-ending list of things to get done.  Why not tackle this issue from another angle? Perhaps the problem is not with women but with work."
Slaughter approaches the issue in a very organized fashion.  She clearly states and explores the problem, with statistics, research and anecdote, and then methodically lays out the causes and proposes possible solutions.  Her writing style is engaging and easy to get into and never gets too repetitive or if she does repeat herself it is in a sufficiently different way that it serves to elucidate rather than annoy.  She makes very clear that she is writing from her own experience, that of a professional, upper middle class woman, and that is where the bulk of the narrative is spent but she does make a point of recognizing and including others in her solutions.  Many of the responses she received in response to her original article forced her to examine the larger problems that exist.
"In the process of writing this book, responding to reflections, questions, and critiques from many different people from many different backgrounds, I have realized time and again just how much my own experiences inevitably shape my assumptions about how others think and feel.  As I have tried to put myself in others' shoes, I have confronted again and again the obvious but too often overlooked of just how much money matters."
And those larger problems?  One of her biggest points is that they are not just women's problems.  The real issue she defines is a conflict between career and care-giving where care-giving is extremely undervalued.  This goes for women and men and is exemplified by the low pay, training and status of professional care-givers. She points out that while women have made some strides towards equality in the workplace, men still face huge biases and stigma for wanting to play an equal or full time part in care-giving of their children and household.  And that stigma is not just from workplace managers; but from spouses.  She points out that many women assume that they know what's best in running the household and caring for the children and don't trust their husbands to care for the children "the right way".  This whole topic was enough for me to want hand this book out to every married-with-children woman I work with, because every single one of them has this bias at home. I'm not criticizing - I would be the same way - but just as men have to be willing to relinquish control of how work is done, women must relinquish some control in the home for true equality to be a reality.  

"...our assumption that wanting "work-life balance"  - or even just wanting a life outside of work - signals a lack of commitment to that work.  That assumption reflects a mindset that promotes men with full-time wives and no life."
"That is the lens that same-sex couples offer the rest of us.  It is no longer possible to assume, even at the subconscious level, that one member of the couple will be better at raising children and running a household and the other will excel at earning income and climbing a career ladder."
"To counter these assumptions and carefully prescribed roles, men need a movement of their own. Most of the pervasive gender inequalities in our society - for both men and women - cannot be fixed unless men have the same range of choices with respect to mixing care-giving and breadwinning that women do."
Slaughter ends the book by suggesting a number of possible solutions from the personal - having frank discussions with your partner early on about the willingness to sacrifice career for care-giving during points of their career - to the professional - convincing businesses to consider the unique talents of a late forty-something coming back into a profession after dialing down to raise a family.  The point is that there must be a fundamental shift in American work culture from the bottom to the top where care-giving is valued and where the complete subsuming of life to work is not necessary.  The system must change.
"We have re-defined feminism as women's right to be owned by the system, to be owned as much as men have been owned."
"Valuing care also offers a compass to a new set of workplace and national policies.  Challenging employers, politicians, and ordinary citizens to explain why, exactly, it is more important and valuable to compete with one another than to care for one another."
This book works so well because Slaughter is clearly not immune to current society's messaging about success and the proper way to do business - she is fighting her own biases.  She confronts them and is constantly checking herself and trying to expand the ideas out and make them relevant for all without letting the book get too overwhelming.  This is not a book that is all about how women have been wronged, it is about how we are all hurting under the weight of a work culture that is still stuck in the past and a society that values work too much at the expense of the personal.  If you have any interest in any of this, I think you will find it an incredibly satisfying, validating or at the very least interesting read.

FINAL VERDICT:  This is a wonderfully succinct and thoughtful book for anybody interested in feminism, work-life balance or America's work culture.  Five out of Five Stars.

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