The European: In your famous op-ed for “The Atlantic,” you argue that a woman either has to be “superhuman, rich or self-employed.” Which one are you?
Slaughter: Most women with a family, who have made it to the top of their careers, have been at least one of those things. I would say that I have elements of all three. I am certainly wealthy by the standards of most Americans, and I have an unusual amount of energy. But above all, I’ve been more or less self-employed. As a professor or dean, I have always set my own schedule and that has been indispensable for me. If you set your own schedule, you can have kids, work, and whatever you want, but when you’re on somebody else’s schedule, that’s much harder.
The European: Most women can’t have it all. Is that a political problem, a social problem, or both?
Slaughter: It’s both. If a man announces that he will have a child, nobody looks at the guy and asks: “How are you going to manage?” But everybody looks to the woman and asks that same question. If you really want to get equality, where men and women can have careers and families, then you have to make a lot of changes and those changes are political, economic, and social. You need changes on all three levels.
The European: What could those changes consist of?
Slaughter: Politically, the US needs some version of what Europe has. We have no guaranteed paid maternity leave. You have to use sick days and vacation days. To accumulate enough days to have a child is kind of crazy. We need paid leave, we need much better daycare, and we need flexible work hours. In terms of workplace improvements, on-site daycare would be enormously helpful. But, above all things, we need real flexibility and a longer career track. It must get easier to work part-time and then ramp back up to full time or to get back into the workforce after years of care giving.
The European: And on the social level?
Slaughter: Socially, we really need to change the way care giving is seen. Of course I speak for the US and not for Europe, but it is a fact that we do not care about care. If you are a single mother, you get very little support to take care of your children. If you are a highly paid professional woman, you are disadvantaged if you have to make trade-offs at work so that you can also be a caregiver. If you are a man who takes time off for his kids, you are not seen as a full team player or one of the guys. Unless we change the culture so that someone who gives care, be it a man or a woman, is seen as a valuable and important person, who is doing what we want citizens to do, no amount of policy change is really going to work.
The European: The European: Do you think that your article moved things in the right direction?
Slaughter: Yes I do. I am currently writing a book that I hope will increase that impact. I had many people in firms telling me that they discussed my article at board meetings, reviewed their policies and took concrete measures. The fact that it’s been such a big debate and that it continues to grow means that people are now starting to ask things they were afraid to ask before. Also, CEOs come to realize that they should review their policies. So, in that sense, it unquestionably had an impact but it would have even more impact if we could reframe this issue, and if people like Sheryl Sandberg and others could all pull together. I think we are ready for the next wave of the women’s movement or, as I like to think of it, the movement for male-female equality.
The European: What do you expect from female leaders like Angela Merkel or Christine Lagarde? Do you want them to participate actively in the debate, not as politicians but as women?
Slaughter: First-time women never make an issue of it. Margaret Thatcher never talked about it, just like Indira Gandhi or Golda Meir never did. The first women in power have to act like men. Angela Merkel has been an inspiration for women all around the world. Considering how difficult it was to become the first female chancellor of Germany, I do not expect her to talk about women’s issues. I think as women become more accepted, they become much more free to be who they would otherwise be. Hillary Clinton was the third Secretary of State; she was also the first woman to make women’s issues a core part of her agenda as Secretary. If she had been the first woman in that position, I doubt she would have done that. I don’t think it’s fair to ask female pioneers to be both the first woman in a position and a champion for women’s rights. They are champions just by the fact that they have made it.
The European: So women have to adapt to this man’s world in order to succeed?
Slaughter: The first ones. It is well known that you need to establish a critical mass before people are comfortable being themselves. If I am the only woman in a room full of foreign policy guys, I’m not going to push a woman’s agenda; I am just going to be a foreign policy expert. If, however, there are six to seven additional women in that room, the dynamic changes. This is not only true for women but for every group that is not the dominant group. The first people, who succeed, make it by conforming to the people around them.
The European: In Germany, there has been a lot of debate about family values, demographic questions, and gender inequality, which – on a meta-level – all comes down to the same questions: what is the role of women?, what is the role of men?, and how does that fit together?
Slaughter: That’s a very interesting point, because the debate is quite different from the one in the US. I can say that, by American standards, Germany has a very male-dominated and macho-like culture. That’s the impression I get. I think you need a lot of deeper cultural changes. It must be recognized that it is not merely OK, but actually a good thing for a man to be fully engaged in family issues. It can’t be only women because if it’s only women, they will decide to simply not have kids. I’m not sure it will work to encourage women to have kids just by making it easier for them to stay at home. You need to focus on a broader change that involves men as well as women. In Germany and some other European cultures, there’s still a long way to go in terms of attitudes towards gender equality. On the other hand, Germany has much better social policies for parents.
The European: One of the hottest topics in the run up to the federal elections in Germany is the so-called “Betreuungsgeld” – a childcare subsidy. Critics say, that this will cement the traditional model of women doing the household. What do you think?
Slaughter: It makes me very nervous. I don’t understand the value of paying women to stay at home when, as far as I’m concerned, what you want are women in the workforce who can help change the norms of the workforce so that both parents, men and women, can be at home and in the workforce as well. Paying a woman to stay at home reinforces the stereotype that a woman’s place is at home.
The European: Supporters say that a woman should be able to decide whether she wants to raise her kids by herself or take them to a daycare.
Slaughter: Yes, but what about the men? That’s the crucial question. They should figure in that question as well.
The European: Men are traditionally seen as the breadwinners of the family …
Slaughter: That needs to change. As long as the man is considered to be the breadwinner and to have the higher wage, the woman’s career will always come second. If you really want a woman to have the same career as a man, then you must acknowledge that men and women are parents and that both of them have the responsibility to raise the child. Just like both can be breadwinners and they can both be caregivers. I clearly oppose anything that reinforces stereotypes. I can’t understand why you would pay a woman to stay at home when that makes it so much harder for her to get back into the workforce later on. The data shows that the longer you were out, the harder it becomes to get back in. Therefore, it’s counterproductive.
The European: How can we change these traditional patterns?
Slaughter: That’s the core question. Care giving is perceived as a female task. The first half of the woman’s movement was about female equality: giving women the opportunity to do what men can do. What we haven’t done is to make it valued for men, to do what women have traditionally done. Until we do that, women are going to feel like they have the double burden of organizing both work and family. As a consequence, women either won’t have kids or won’t enter the world of employment. The good thing is that when you do have an equal and balanced relationship, it hugely benefits the kids.
The European: Why?
Slaughter: Because the children really get different things from both parents. My husband, for example, has a different way of solving problems than I do. It’s just a much more balanced and equal engagement with things like homework, school, and the actual act of raising children. You can pay people to look after your children, but you cannot substitute for the engagement that parents have with their children. You influence and form them. You’re almost like a teacher to them, and it’s good if both parents act that way. Interestingly enough, it used to be that way. For the most part of human history, both parents were involved in raising the kids. Only in the last 100 to 150 years, when work shifted outside our homes to office spaces, the man went to work and the woman stayed home.
The European: You argued that there are biological differences between men and women, when it comes to raising a family.
Slaughter: I said in the article that it struck me that more women feel that they should stay at home than men do. I don’t think that women love their children more than men do. There are unquestionably some biological differences with respect to early attachment between mother and child. But so much of the way we feel is socialization. The idea that women should stay at home makes them feel very guilty if they don’t. Once you free yourself of that guilt, you come to realize that there are many ways of doing what’s best for your child. A lot of what I was writing about is about these sociological trends, and there’s still a long way to go. In my book I will revise my discussion of biology and sociology.
The European: Since the release of “The End of Men” by Hanna Rosin, the model of the male breadwinner is widely discussed. Do you see any real change?
Slaughter: She is writing about a specific, middle-class segment of the American population. The growing industries in our economy are education and healthcare and those are two areas with a very strong female workforce representation. It’s true that girls are doing better than guys in school; it’s true even at the college level. However, if you look at the high-ranking positions in our economy, you realize that we’re a long way from the end of men. I certainly don’t want the end of men; I don’t think women should succeed at the expense of men. That’s not going to work. You don’t want the end of men, you want a situation in which men and women can flourish.
The European: Marissa Mayer, newly appointed CEO of Yahoo, outlined her priorities as follows: God, family, and then Yahoo. Nevertheless, she recently abolished the idea of the home office, an idea that you proposed in order to combine family and work life.
Slaughter: I actually support her move to some extent. I don’t think it’s about her view on flexible work in general. She needs to save her company; otherwise no one will have any job. That’s her first priority. If she succeeds in turning the ship around, she will undoubtedly allow people to work from home again. She handled the policy announcement quite badly, but I think it is a temporary thing. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions and think that this example is true for the US in general. Most of the data on flexible work proves that people are more productive, happier, and more loyal if they can work from home.
The European: What is your verdict on Marissa Mayer?
Slaughter: Overall, I think she’s very positive. She’s a CEO at 37, which is a great thing. But she is clearly underestimating the challenges of raising children that most women have to face. When you are a CEO and can afford daycare or a nanny, it’s a different discussion. I admire her, and I think she’s a role model but I think that particularly women leaders have to recognize the difficulties of childcare for the average mother.
The European: Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has, just like you, called for the introduction of equality quotas in the US. Is there any chance that such steps will be taken anytime soon?
Slaughter: Quotas in the US? No way! We’re pretty allergic to quotas. I might support quotas in the political arena. In a democracy, every part of the population must be represented and women are a vital part of our population. Of course, a man can also represent women but it should be more balanced. In the business arena, this is more difficult. Sandberg wants more women at the top and I fully support that. Once you have more women at the top, things will start to change. Women will employ more women and they will change the biases. The problem is not lack of ambition, it’s the circumstance of life that doesn’t make it work, and that’s something we need to change.
The European: Is the US ready for a female president like Hillary Clinton?
Slaughter: Yes, absolutely. If Hillary will run, she’ll win. Most Americans admire her. We are definitely ready.
Did you like the conversation? Read one with Susie Orbach: “Bodies are a big business”