Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Anne-Marie Slaughter on the tradeoff between work and caregiving

Posted 02 Oct 2015 / 0

WNYC The Brian Lehrer Show “Where Women Go from Here

Several years ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote the seminal article on the conflict between work and parenting. Published in The Atlantic and entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All“, Slaughter’s article used her own professional experience to explore the challenge faced by many women in the developed world: the demand to have a career and the desire to be an effective parent are often at odds. Slaughter’s article addressed the work-family conflicts faced by women, but as this nice interview with Brian Lehrer points out, she is also thinking more broadly about the challenges faced by both men and women.

I like her idea of “lead parenting”, as many parents now hybridize their contributions to professional and family pursuits. For many the question is not family or job? It is more like how much to allocate to family and to job? What many people need is to be able to find a balance between work and family, and unfortunately we live in a culture that has evolved to make it difficult to maintain a middle-class lifestyle without two breadwinners. Women have entered the workplace, but this has not led to a greater inclusion of men in care-giving: it has left the entire family with a smaller time budget for care. As Slaughter points out, in many ways our culture values care-giving less than we did when women were expected to primarily parent.

I always cringe when evolution gets invoked to support a culturally-retrograde position, and so when the caller “Chris” suggested that our evolutionary origins predispose men to breadwinning I was a bit uncomfortable. Putting aside the fact that anthropologists have discovered that women in subsistence societies win more “bread”, the caller seemed to be a pretty hard-core evolutionary psychologist at heart. After all, if our ancestors lived by asking women to provide the majority of caregiving, how could we now ask men to be more involved in this activity? The answer of course is “culture”. Although women and men certainly have different average parenting styles, both have evolved to parent and culture mediates a lot of how that predisposition manifests itself. Witness the many men in developed countries who now take care of children while their female spouses work: these guys seem predisposed enough to pick up the new culture of parenting.

But the culture I find most important in Slaughter’s analysis is the larger social culture in which we now live. That culture has not evolved to be sustainable: it places people into nearly-impossible tradeoffs between work and family. I worry that our failure to provide parents with adequate support is threatening the future of our society, and it certainly is not creating a healthy climate for parents.

Why haven’t we created a culture in which work is in balance with family? Well, one theory I would be happy to entertain is that the culture is evolving to suppress reproduction. Much of what we do at work is basically propagate the cultural ideas at the core of whatever industry in which you work. If you work for a beverage manufacturer you spend your day making sure that the idea of drinking sweetened drinks is propagated. If you work for a car manufacturer you spend your day making sure that the idea of using cars for transportation is propagated. And if you own a local oil delivery service you spend your day making sure that the idea of heating our homes with fossil fuels is propagated. Most of us don’t head off to work thinking ah, time to propagate the ideas of my industry, but that is what we effectively do.

Given that most of us work in service of some major industry or institution, is it so crazy to think that keeping us childless is in the interest of our employer? I do not mean to suggest that board members sit around the table at PepsiCo and plot out how to keep their employees from having children so that they can maximize the cultural proliferation of the company, and I certainly do not mean to suggest that PepsiCo has some emergent corporate intelligence and intention. But neither the intentional actions of individuals involved in a cultural complex like PepsiCo nor the abstract corporate entity itself need to be actively plotting to place employees in work-family binds: as with everything that evolves, it does not have to be designed to work, it just has to work. And it seems like demanding so much from your workers that they must consider postponing or even foregoing parenthood is a great formula for creating a successful business. Successful businesses become more prevalent, and so do their cultural ideals.

If you are familiar with the different ways that cultural evolution can be described, you will notice that I am suggesting that our current ideas about work and family (at least in developed countries) are parasitic. That is to say that being so devoted to your career that you can’t take care of offspring is maladaptive from a biological standpoint. I think that is what is implied in the kind of analysis that Slaughter provides.

A Major Post, Belief, Breeders, Propagators, & Creators, Cultural Evolution, Gene-Culture Coevolution, Parenting, Public Policy, Radio & Podcasts, Sex and Reproduction, Sociology

Leave a Reply