For women, happiness isn’t the issue. Equality is

Women listen to lawmakers speak about equal pay during a “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds” bus tour stop in Ohio in 2014. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Women listen to lawmakers speak about equal pay during a “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds” bus tour stop in Ohio in 2014. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

It’s possible to point out that women still have a much harder time than men fitting work and family together without saying that women are “secretly miserable” or that they shouldn’t value career and financial independence. I, for one, could not imagine life without my career, full stop. I believe that both women and men would ideally like a blend of fulfilling work and close relations with people they love, however they construct a family.

As I argue in my new book, the desire to advance our personal goals and live up to our potential is one side of human nature, but the desire to connect to and invest in others is the other, equal side. Human history, neurobiology, psychology and anthropology all bear this out. The real revolution will be to find a way for all of us, women and men, rich and poor, to live lives that allow us to compete and care in whatever measure we choose. We are still a long way from that world.

In their paper “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers may rule out work-family conflict as a source of women’s growing unhappiness, but I’m not sure they are asking the right questions. Why should we assume that if work-family conflict is the problem, we should see a decline in female happiness among “women in their peak child-rearing years or women with young children in the home”?

Moreover, it’s hard to take a snapshot of happiness. When you have a job you like and a family you love and you’re managing to juggle it, it’s often exhilarating! On the other hand, when your child is sick or you are continually exhausted from multi-tasking, you can often feel, as my husband has written about his experience as a lead parent, that you are “doing a bad job as both a parent and a professional”. It’s complicated.

Let’s not let data deny the obvious.  If work-family conflict for women isn’t a problem, then why is there an entire industry trying to solve it? Why would Sheryl Sandberg write “Lean In” in the first place if she didn’t see women in the workforce taking a slower track or switching to more flexible jobs in anticipation of having children? Why do  41 percent of mothers say having a family has made career advancement harder, as opposed to 20 percent of fathers?

We have revolutionized women’s roles in my lifetime. But real equality between women and men remains elusive: We are stuck with only  20 percent of top jobs held by women and more than 30 percent of women living in poverty or on its brink – a combination I refer to as an “unlovely symmetry”. The vast majority of those women at the bottom are  single mothers, people who must be breadwinners and caregivers both with little social or economic support.

We value women today chiefly to the extent that they are engaged in men’s traditional work – earning a living and advancing in their jobs or careers. We do not value women’s traditional work of care, even though that work is just as essential to human flourishing as the production of income. That leaves an enormous full-time job to be done around the edges of another full-time job. Wealthy women can buy their way out of that problem by hiring much poorer women. But poor women are stuck. And men are missing out on precisely what so many working women want: the joys of a job and of a family you actually see and care for.

Happiness is not the issue. Equality is the issue. We need real parity in roles and values, a world in which we ask young men just as often as we ask young women how they are going to fit their work and their families together – whether it’s caring for children or at some point their own parents, or a sick or disabled spouse or sibling.

We need an economy in which all workplaces assume that all workers — men just as much as women — will have care giving responsibilities at some point in their working lives and thus adopt an entire range of policies, from deeply flexible hours and career intervals to extended coverage plans when a worker must be out, to make room for that care.

We need a government that recognizes that raising children, particularly in their formative first five years of life and in the teenage years in which they most often make bad life-changing choices, is the most important investment a society can make – even more than investment in bridges and ports and broadband – and supports both unpaid and paid care accordingly.

And we need a culture in which an attractive man is as competent at home as an attractive woman is competent in the office. We need a vision of masculinity that imagines men not just “helping” at home but pulling an equal load and being equally responsible for figuring out what needs to be done.

This is not simply a women’s issue, and it’s certainly not a myth. It’s a social and economic issue, for all of us.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president and chief executive of  New America, a former Princeton professor and director of policy planning for the State Department. Her most recent book is Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.

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