Reading Nook: Anne-Marie Slaughter's Unfinished Business

When I first read about Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, I was deep in my struggle to find that magic formula to achieve work-life balance nirvana. I read one review for Slaughter’s book, grabbed my cell phone, and Amazon Primed my way into ownership. Two days later, Slaughter was chipping away at my long-held beliefs and opening my eyes to powerful new ways to address our country’s over-work epidemic.  

For two years, Slaughter worked as the first female director of policy planning, reporting directly to Hillary Clinton. When she found herself facing a potential promotion, she realized she was deeply conflicted and questioning the feminist narrative she had written for her life. Ultimately she quit her dream job and returned home to her family and her professorship. She published an article in The Atlantic exploring her experience and the falsehoods of work-life balance in an article titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and ignited controversy across the U.S.

Slaughter’s book, Unfinished Business, is divided into three parts. The first part, “Moving Beyond Our Mantras,” identifies the half-truths we tell ourselves about women and men in the workplace. Her goal is to expose these half-truths and the role they play in holding us back from creating an efficient, productive, powerhouse workforce. What many of these half-truths have in common is their rooting of women in the domestic sphere, preventing women from ever being able to succeed fully in the professional space. Slaughter does not shy away from directly addressing some of our long-held societal norms, like the role of the mother in child raising. She writes, “’Children need their mothers’ is true. But ‘children need their mothers more than they need other loving adults in their lives’ is false.”

In the second part of Unfinished Business, Slaughter writes of a need for Americans to change the way we view and value caregiving vs. competition. In the U.S., caregiving is dramatically undervalued, breeding a culture of overwork that stigmatizes the need to take time for family-care, let alone self-care. Slaughter argues, “…the message that a woman’s traditional work of caregiving – anchoring the family by tending to material needs and nourishing minds and souls – is somehow less important than a man’s traditional work of earning an income to support that family and advance his own career is false and harmful. It is the result of a historical bias, an outdated prejudice, a cognitive distortion that is skewing our society and hurting us all.”

A constant theme in Slaughter’s book is the importance of the language we use and how we talk about issues of balance and roles in the professional and domestic spaces. In both the second and third parts of her book, she looks at how the way we talk about men at home and women balancing work and home, is marginalizing issues of employee wellness by relegating them to a “women’s issue.” I am actively employing her suggestions in my own home, which means I am letting go of any conversations about how my husband can’t clean the house or grocery shop as well as I do. The longer I hold onto the idea of Kevin being an inadequate home caregiver, the longer I hold myself as the sole competent ruler of our domain. And I don’t want to be the only one who does dishes at the end of a long work day.

So what do we do? How do we talk about a culture of overwork as an issue that troubles men and women equally? How do we revolutionize corporate culture to value rest, flexibility, and nontraditional paths to the top? Don’t worry, Slaughter has a plan for that too. She spells out thoughtful and practical ways that each one of us can help carry these major cultural shifts to their full potential.

I can’t recommend her book enough to anyone who is curious about how we can find better ways to work hard and succeed, in addition to living and loving.