For a long time, women’s equality has been treated as a “women’s issue,” of interest and importance, naturally, only to women. But from the HeforShe movement—which encourages men and boys to be agents of change in combating inequality—to the feminist musings of celebrities like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, men have become an increasingly vocal part of the conversation. The cynical explanation is that men have realized that they stand to benefit from gender equality: As a recent report by McKinsey & Co showed, advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth. But there are also more personal, less tangible benefits: Just as feminism frees women from the constraints of traditional femininity, it can also free men from the constraints of traditional masculinity. It can make space for men to embrace identities, pursuits, and activities formerly relegated to the other sex. If women aren’t restricted to being mothers and homemakers, then men don’t have to be restricted to being detached, ladder-climbing breadwinners either.
In her recent book, Unfinished Business, Anne-Marie Slaughter calls this the “men’s movement,” and it’s crucial, in her view, to completing the work begun by the women’s movement. Only when men become more involved as caregivers, Slaughter argues, will women stand a chance of full empowerment in the workplace, and American society more broadly. It’s a powerful vision—but how do we make it happen? I talked to Slaughter about the challenges in building a world where men and women are full partners in caregiving.
Elizabeth Winkler: You write that if men are going to see caregiving as a valuable, respectable pursuit, we need to value caregiving more, to think about it not just as the feeding, dressing, and driving of children but as an investment in the next generation. How do we, as a society, re-program the way we think about care? How are people to start valuing an activity that we associate with mostly unpaid or low-paid labor?
Anne-Marie Slaughter: The place to start is to realize what caring for children means for our society as a whole. It is essential for our economic competitiveness, our national security, our equality, and our wellbeing. We know that because we now understand scientifically that for the first five years of a child’s life, and again in early teenage-hood, the brain is growing and developing—not just adding knowledge but actual intellectual and emotional capacity. We know what kind of stimulation matters; we know what happens to children who are well cared for in developmentally appropriate ways versus those who are not. It directly affects their actual capabilities for the rest of their lives. Political, military, economic and civic leaders must take the lead in publicizing the science and the policy implications of the science.
The next phase is to make clear how much of a difference professional care can make to improve the quality of life and the continuing contribution that elders can make—something that inevitably affects us all. As I write in Unfinished Business, quoting development psychologist Megan Gunn, we pay the people who care for our children the same as we pay the people who park our cars, mix our drinks, and walk our dogs. Is that really how much we value the next generation of human capital in this country?
EW: If part of the answer is paying caregivers higher wages, how do you imagine we can re-organize the market to better reward caregiving? What would drive these higher wages?
AMS: The recognition that care is an entire economy composed of both paid and unpaid labor. By valuing it more highly, we move it up the value chain in terms of education and training, certifications, pay, and outcomes. Government and business can help here, either by subsidizing care centers so that care workers are paid more without putting the entire burden of that increase on parents or other family members; alternatively, [the government and businesses] can provide funds directly to citizens and employees to help build this market. But care is one of the market sectors that is difficult to automate and that can change significantly with infusions of knowledge and training. We need entrepreneurs, innovators, and challenges to create the foundations of a new care economy. Finally, we should be emphasizing that care is neither male nor female: it just means investing in others rather than in ourselves.
EW: You also argue that “care” can be a banner to unite women up and down the economic ladder. But upper‑ and middle‑class women tend to be the ones employing low-paid, female caregivers. Isn’t there a conflict of interest here? How can "care" unite when some women have an incentive to look for the most affordable price and others to look for the best wages?
AMS: If we educate parents about the importance of a rich, stimulating environment for their children for the first five years, they will think differently about what they are paying for. We also need the professionalization and unionization of caregivers, as Ai-Jen Poo calls for with her caring-across-generations movement.
EW: You call for a re-definition of masculinity—one that encourages men to participate in caregiving, as the women’s movement has encouraged women to participate in breadwinning. But the roles men hold in the workforce give them tremendous power and influence in the world. What incentives need to be in place for men to give up that power? Does the government have a role to play in encouraging men to lean out?
AMS: When we talk about men “leaning out” we are focusing on what they are not getting at work, rather than what they are getting by being much more involved in their children’s lives. As one man wrote to my husband, he quit his job when he realized that the growth potential of his kids was much higher than that of his company. Investing in your children, watching them grow and flourish, guiding them, coaching them, pushing them—these are all things that men can do just as well as women, even if they do them differently. Just think of all the coaches you know. We also know that daughters who are raised actively by fathers have more confidence.
EW: In terms of bottom-up, cultural transformation, what changes should we make in the way we raise boys? You note that your sons have basically been raised according to the same model of masculinity as your father. What would you do differently?
AMS: That was true until about halfway through writing this book! Although it wasn’t ever true in the sense that Andy, my husband, was always a full co-parent and then a lead parent; he’s always been much more involved in their daily lives than my father was in my brothers and mine. They were also raised with my being the larger breadwinner in the family, and they have always been in a feminist household in terms of a strong commitment to women having the same opportunities as men. The difference is that until recently it never occurred to me to talk to them about how they could support their wives or partners, by providing care as much as cash, about how they can and should expect to be as involved in raising their children as their spouses, although that may well involve career trade-offs. They should not have to be or necessarily expect to be the primary breadwinner. That mindset also frees them up to pursue career paths that will not necessarily support a family, like the arts, as long as they marry someone who earns a stable living and they are willing to take the lead at home.
EW: Women are, in some sense, their own enemy here. They’ve learned to value men as providers and breadwinners, to be attracted to a money-making model of masculinity. What needs to happen for women to embrace men as caregivers instead?
AMS: It has been very interesting that the single largest group of men who have written to both my husband or me about being a lead parent and being proud of it are military men, either soldiers who have returned from a deployment and are now supporting the deployment of military wives or else have returned from a deployment and now feel that it is their wives’ turn to rise in their careers. These men are typically very secure in their masculinity. That’s part of how we change women’s minds, by pointing to men who are equally involved in raising their children or caring for other family members as being strong and secure enough to challenge traditional gender roles. They are pioneers in the same way that the pioneering generation of feminists in the 1970s withstood all sorts of insults to their femininity.