It’s not a ‘women’s issue’

Ann-Marie Slaughter is on the cover of the Atlantic with an important essay about work and family. along with a stupid picture of a baby in a briefcase (which some art director stuck her with) and a stupid title/headline (which she did not write).   She starts out with a personal anecdote, which I regret as an overused  rhetorical trick, but ends up talking about the important stuff, which is bigger than her family’s work/child-rearing conflicts and bigger than the cultural habits and expectations that are especially tough on women. I’m not going to summarize it; you need to read it all.

The piece has stirred up a rousing discussion on a listserv I frequent along with thoughtful and on-target commentary, for example (and only for example; I have not trolled the web to get everything) here and here.  But I did look at the first Google page of hits and found ten articles by women, which makes twelve, and two fairly flip paragraphs by one man.  One would think the conflict between work and family is a problem women have, sort of like race being something black people have, or  work mainly in women’s inboxes .  Slaughter actually gets this right, but even among my liberal listserv colleagues, the women have had a lot more to say than the men, including the few men who weighed in (on the listserv, but not as far as I can tell in public) to take ownership of the issue.  This state of affairs is wrongheaded on the facts (men and their kids also pay heavy dues trying to be good at work and at home) but more fundamentally wrong because we’re all in this together. Men have daughters and wives and depend on the value created (or not) by women at work, not to mention retiring on the taxes to be paid by all of today’s children.

The stupidity of the title is its implication that ‘everything’ is a reasonable thing to aspire to.  Of course you can’t have everything, because there are 24 hours – not 25 or 240 -  in each day of your three score and ten, and because if you’re a world-class shot putter you will not be a winning jockey for fundamental and intractable properties of muscle energy per unit of mass. A lot of the power of the article is its irrefutable certification that the family-job problem is not solved by money or caused by poverty or stupidity or ignorance: the Moravcsik-Slaughter household has all the IQ points, social capital, advantages of birth and status, and money they could possibly use. They have as much of everything as can be hoped for; the problem is  that they can’t apportion their shopping basket optimally because of constraints that actually don’t have to bind us.

What Slaughter is about is that we could all have a lot more of two big important things if we organized life better, and her lessons are emphatically not that the way to go about that is women-centric.  It’s complicated, because there is indeed misogyny all over the place and a lot of the bad habits and rules are especially hostile to women, so it would be wrong for men to just hijack the issue. The feminism issue here is twofold: indeed, women in particular deserve a better deal, but also, and partly for that reason, women have some useful stuff to teach everyone if we will just pay attention.

My main takeaway from the article is the enormous social cost of the macho workplace, created and managed by insecure men to assure their status by hazing routines and a sort of potlatch of self-abuse, and the positional arms race culture.  How much more value (net of fringes etc. and pay) is actually created by one Stakhanovite working seventy-hour weeks and a wreck for thirty of them, than two people with a life and hobbies working thirty-five each?   How many crises asking for work on Sunday are really crises?  When it snows in DC, “non-essential” workers are asked to stay home.  Raise hands, all those who are happy to signal their dispensability by sledding with the kids.  Slaughter has a lot of good ideas in the way of changes in specific rules (like a nudge that extends the tenure clock for anyone who has a child rather than allowing people to have the extension if they ask for it).  Is really good day care, the kind the French and Italians lay on and try to recruit all kids into, for employers? for women who want to work?  for kids?  or, as they think, for all of society including men and women alumni of the École Maternelles? The pervasive expectation that it’s good to be an attentive and engaged dad, but obviously parenting is mainly mom’s to assure, makes stuff like this come down on women more, or seem to, but a great deal of the myth built into top-level, competitive, workplace life (yeah, and blue-collar just-trying-to-make-the-rent life) is equal-opportunity, and sex-independent costly, jive.

I’m not a spokesperson for men, not proud to be a man (I didn’t choose to), but still, I’m ashamed that the people standing up and saying what is true about this stuff are still almost all women.  It’s going to be a lot of work, and maybe cost us some net stuff and house square feetage, to fix this, and it’s both stupid and unfair to expect half the team to do all the lifting.



Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

25 thoughts on “It’s not a ‘women’s issue’”

  1. What I see in my workplaces is that the Stakhanovite always beats the 40 hour person. If you make people leave the office at five, somebody is going to sneak the drafts home and come in with something really swell in the morning. And, worse, if you have two 35 hour people and one 70 hour person doing the same job, the 70 hour person will beat the work sharers because s/he doesn’t have coordination costs, and s/he remembers the conversation in the hallway (worse yet, at the urinal) with the big boss all of the time, not just half the time. So all things being equal in terms of talent, Condoleezza will beat Anne-Marie, or even Anne-Marie and someone with whom she is sharing the job.

    What to do? For one thing, maybe a budding Stakhanova/Stakhanov should look around and marry someone who is cultured and loving and teaches elementary school, rather than looking for her/his opposite-sex twin. For another, if we all refrain from sneering in cocktail parties about the person from our class who is a SAHM or SAHD, that’s good. There’s not really a lot we can do to restrain childless people from outworking the rest of us. “…maybe cost us some net stuff and house square feetage..” YES, if we adjust our notions of the good life downward a bit from what can be bought on two top-five-percent salaries, that will help too.

    1. “teaches elementary school, rather than looking for her/his opposite-sex twin”.
      Not sure what you meant with this, but most teaching jobs are pretty Stakhanovish.

    2. Dave says ” If you make people leave the office at five, somebody is going to sneak the drafts home and come in with something really swell in the morning. ”

      This is worth pondering. You can lock the factory door at 5pm but you can’t keep knowledge workers from working outside of the workplace. Further, within industries where there is competition with similar industries in other nations, there is a further problem of not being able to stop people in other countries from outhustling you and putting you out of business if you decide to limit your own employees to a 35 hour week.

    3. The issue here is really that many people confuse industry with productivity. The 70 hour person may not have coordination costs, but the human body and brain are simply not wired to work effectively for 70 hours a week. There may be the rare savant type who actually can, but for the vast majority of people, working 70 hours a week will only mean an increased rate of errors and accidents and taking a toll on that person’s health (which is really scary once you think about how common extreme overtime is for doctors and nurses in some hospitals).

      And we don’t even have to go to the extreme of 70 hour workweeks. According to the research I know, it’s pretty much impossible for anybody to work at full productivity for even eight hours straight, five days a week. Which is why most productivity-enhancing measures in the workplace do not try to add more hours to the workday, but by organizing and focusing the existing time better — often by introducing breaks (such as a short midday nap to refresh the brain and body).

  2. All things being equal, the Stakhanovite does win. But for many jobs, not all things are equal: the quality of work is more important than the quantity, or the schmooze-time.

    I have two problems with Dave’s policy prescription. No, make it three. First, it is the old trick of preferring a private solution to a public one simply because it is private. Second, dollars being almighty in this country, Stakhanov(a) will always have the upper hand in the marital relationship. Third, Stakhanovas are more rare than Stakhanovs, so Dave’s solution will not be at all gender-neutral in practice.

    1. The important questions raised by Dave’s observation are two. First, do organizations in which the Stakhanovites always win always win? do they win by much? Second, can a high-performance organization be managed so its people have a life and also do good work… so the S’s don’t generally win? My students mostly think they win by flattering me in class discussions, but I have them grade each other on this, and soon there’s a lot less of that and more listening and paying attention to each other.

      1. Michael, google “Best Buy” and “ROWE” (results-only work environment). It’s worth noting that Best Buy’s recent troubles are not related to the introduction of ROWE (which has been pretty successful in other places, too).

    2. Ebenezer: says “But for many jobs, not all things are equal: the quality of work is more important than the quantity..”

      The implication assumption of your argument is that higher quantity of hours can only influence quantity of work but not quality of work. But with more time, most of us could enhance both. If I had more hours to work, I could create more of my widget (whatever that is in my industry), but I could also spend more time on each widget, raising quality.

      1. The implicit assumption in your takedown is that any increase in quality that comes from quantity is greater than the dispersion of quality at constant hours. Sometimes true; sometimes false.

        1. Ebenezer: “takedown”

          Are we locked in mortal combat? This is a civil discussion (I hope) and not an angry shouting match with an undertone of violence (I hope). But if it feels to you like I am attacking you or threatening you or disrespecting you, I sincerely am not.

      2. My grandfather died after gall bladder surgery in a community hospital near his home. Shouldna happened, he was in generally good health. This was by a guy who did gall bladders rarely. If he had driven thirty miles to UC Davis and gotten it done by a surgeon who did hundreds a year, wouldna happened. If I have surgery, I want it done by someone who spends countless hours doing that surgery. There is a word for the person who goes to a part-time surgeon: “organ donor”.

        There’s a point of diminishing returns here, we’ve all heard about hideous errors by the medical resident on her his 24th hour on duty. But for “policy advisor to the Secretary of State” and for “surgeon” and for many other top-level jobs, the point of diminishing returns is well past the point where you can be at a lot of your kids’ Little League games.

        1. Dave, you’ve argued persuasively that surgeries (for example) should be concentrated among a few surgeons rather than spread around. But just because thirty surgeons each doing one gall bladder a week will do worse than one doing thirty it doesn’t follow that three surgeons doing 40 hrs a week each will do the total on average worse than two doing 60 hrs; for that to be true, the two’s performance in the marginal 20 hrs of work each, accounting for fatigue etc. would have to be better than the third guy’s awake, aware, and happy. Gall bladder surgery is not international top-level performance of Tristan; the quality step-down from the best guy to the next and the next is much more gradual.

          I’m not so sure about where that point of diminishing returns is for different jobs. One effect of concentrating high-level national security work among a few people in a boiler room is Vietnam and Iraq: it systematically constrains opportunity for divergent ideas, new ways of thinking, and explicit debate. Thinking hard about a complex problem is not the same as talking about it with one or two other people, and not unambiguously better even if the two others are not quite as smart and informed as you are. The ego flatteries of feeling unique and indispensable,and the comfort of not being contradicted, greatly biases our perceptions about this tradeoff.

  3. If health insurance and a good future for one’s kids were a consequence of being an American, as it is for the French and Swiss, th,ere wouldn’t be nearly as many voluntary stakhanovites.

    A lot of the struggle to “get ahead” is to be able to afford total risk self-insurance, because as a society we have not chosen the social insurance that would be a lot cheaper and achievable than everyone needing to be a millionaire in order to self-insure.

    1. Noble sentiments, which I applaud, but I suspect that Massachusetts, which for the better part of a decade has achieved a decent level of health care for everyone (and an excellent level of health care security, as those who’ve not gotten their required coverage are still protected by Shall Issue rules and Community Rating) – achieved through Romneycare, not that the titular gentleman would care to discuss it, has the same levels of workaholism as characterize other parts of the US, especially the urban parts.To be sure, the better part of a decade is not terribly long, Massachusetts is still part of the wider American culture, and an American building their career in Massachusetts might often expect to continue that in the same company elsewhere in the country, so maybe Massachusetts cant be used to disprove your model. Still, while I agree with your concerns and appreciate your argument, it may be overly deterministic.

      1. There are a lot of risks other than health costs that Massachusetts residents have to self-insure for … Whether their kids got to decnt schools, retirement, disability, etc. In Switzerland these things are pretty much socially insured. No Swiss or French has to pile up a million dollars (or as close to it as they can get) to ensure a decent life for themselves or their family.

        1. Switzerland still happens to be one of the more expensive places to live in Europe. And it is a fairly conservative country overall.

          At the same time, consider that tuition fees at ETH Zürich (we’re talking about a university on par with MIT) run to only some $600 per semester.

          The one thing that is really different in Europe is that households have to worry much less about really big expenses in their budgets. Part of that is also the result of living on a much more densely populated continent (so that you are less likely to need a second car in a dual-earner household, for example), but a lot of it is the result of conscious public policy decisions to spread the impact of these big expenses around. That does not necessarily make things cheaper (though some are, such as healthcare), but it makes cashflow management for households a hell of a lot more predictable and easier.

          It is also worth noting that several of these public policy decisions do not just have “socialist” rationales, but are supported by card-carrying conservatives often for completely different reasons. For example, most European countries heavily subsidize tertiary education (not just college, but also vocational training) not only to make it more accessible to low-income students, but also because a well-educated country is internationally more competitive and can expect to have lower crime rates.

  4. A few years ago I tried to point out a little-noticed implication of the famous Stiglitz theorem on efficiency wages leading to equilibrium unemployment:

    The corollary of the efficiency wages theory is that free markets also tend to generate excessive working hours. It will pay firms to induce their good employees to work long days, weeks, and years, by bribery, intimidation and seduction, rather than going out and hiring risky unknowns: longer hours than both sides would freely negotiate with perfect information.

    O’Hare’s lemma is that efficiency wages discriminate against women and burden children.

  5. Thank you for the thoughtful discussion in the post and in the comments. This topic is very near and dear to my heart, as I am trying to live a non-Stakhanovite life in a workplace that definitely rewards (and expects everyone to be) Stakhanov/as.

    In particular, my spouse and I both limit our working hours and adjust our work schedules to deal with child care. Now that summer vacation is upon us, this is a particularly thorny problem, but even during the school year it complicates our work lives significantly.

    Some of the comments above seem to be concerned with trying to set up a workplace system where Stakhanovites won’t be able to get ahead. I doubt that’s really possible. But let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We could certainly alter our society’s family/workplace balance in ways that would at least help make life easier for parents, and for all those non-Stakhanovites who’d like to have a normal life away from their workplace. The question shouldn’t be “Can we eliminate this problem?” it should be “Can we do better than we’re doing now?” and I think the obvious answer to the latter question is yes.

    1. “Some of the comments above seem to be concerned with trying to set up a workplace system where Stakhanovites won’t be able to get ahead. I doubt that’s really possible.”

      I would add, “or desirable.” It does not seem equitable to penalize Stakhanovites (or DINKs) for not sharing the priorities of non-Stakhanovites; if someone wishes to work 70 hours a week and is able to produce even marginally better work as a result, we should let them. Rather, the issue seems to be that non-Stakhanovites are unable to successfully implement their own preferences due to some structural issues that can be ameliorated in relatively low-cost ways.

      (I once had a guest lecturer in school, a former CEO, who made the same point. He noted that he often got 4-5 hours of sleep a night because he left the office at 6 to have dinner with his family each night – but that this worked for him because he was both very clear about what he prioritized and what he gave up, and was comfortable with the trade-offs. He had colleagues who made different decisions, and had different professional outcomes as a result, but were also happy for the same reasons.)

  6. Types of work will vary in what you can do by putting in more hours: flipping burgers you are no better if you struggle to be the best 70 hours a week. Building inspector is sort of intermediate: you have to keep up on the rules and changes in materials, but you do have to go to the building and look at it. Academic or government policy weenie: you can sneak home with a draft and come back in the morning way ahead of your coworker who was changing diapers and tracking play dates. NSA code breaker: you are at your desk with all the secret stuff which permits you to work, or you aren’t.

    James Wimberly’s comment is worth thinking about both in the Stiglitz theoretical arena and in the context of our particular set of laws and practices in USA: if you are paying into your employee’s pension fund on a yearly basis, and you are paying for his her health insurance, those costs don’t go up if you get an extra hour of work. Many of those fixed costs of taking on a new employee are the result of particular institutional arrangements we have chosen, and could fix. Some are not – the building inspector needs to put in maybe ten hours a week on keeping up with the trade and meetings with supervisors, and that makes the thirty hours he spends looking at buildings work. And if s/he spends forty hours looking at buildings, each hour of actual production carries only fifteen minutes of ‘overhead’ instead of twenty. AND if you hired half-time 20 hour inspectors, each hour of inspection would have thirty minutes of overhead. Again, burger flipping (working in a day care, transcribing tapes, etc.) carries less ongoing knowledge overhead and not surprisingly more jobs like that make part time work available than jobs with more.

    1. i agree that there’s more to this than Stiglitz’ information asymmetries. Fixed overheads and job-specific human capital clearly come in to it too, as well as perverse cultural values like machismo.

      My son Jonathan, who worked two years in Korea, is firmly of the opinion that many of the long hours Koreans put in are simply dancing attendance on the boss’ ego, and not useful work.

  7. “Of course you can’t have everything, because there are 24 hours ”

    OK, we agree on this point. Having agreed, what is the problem?
    It seems to me the primary complaint here is PRECISELY that people want everything. They want to “good” parents (meaning devoting lots of time to their children) and they ALSO want to rise as high in the ranks as the (apparently) ultra hard workers.

    If your complaint is that people who appear to be working hard are not actually that productive, or that rising high in the ranks is “all political” or whatever, well, fine, but that has nothing to do with children and motherhood. I’ve nothing against a debate about whether we should change the hours worked in the US — I am against a debate that insists this be framed in child/motherhood terms, and that THAT’s what makes certain choices more or less fair or efficient.

    And, regarding having everything, let me once again point out that this holds just as true at the macro as at the micro level. There are too many damn people on the earth right now, and we don’t get to have everything as long as that number keeps going up. Ms Slaughter is not helping the situation — she has had two kids rather than one or zero.

    People sitting around complaining about how its unfair that the world work according to the laws of nature is not a stance that’s going to get much sympathy from most of the world. Yeah, I also wish gravity didn’t tug down so hard — but that’s the way it is, and all the ranting in the world about “weight is a moral issue” isn’t going to change that.

  8. “the macho workplace, created and managed by insecure men to assure their status by hazing routines and a sort of potlatch of self-abuse, and the positional arms race culture.”

    In fairness, if women stopped rewarding these dudes with sex and/or marriage, there would be less of these problems.

    In other words, many men maximize their sexual attractiveness by engaging in these arms races because many women are attracted to such behavior.

Comments are closed.