Anne-Marie Slaughter on female workplace equality: it’s about men, too

why women still can't have it all 2

If we want to change the equation for women in the workplace, then we need to include men too. That’s the message Anne-Marie Slaughter had for the mostly-female crowd at SXSW on Saturday in Austin: Gender equality is up to men, too.

Slaughter made serious waves last summer — a “tsunami,” she actually called it — when she wrote for The Atlantic that “women still can’t have it all.” The article has generated 2 million pageviews so far, and made Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former director of policy under Hillary Clinton at the State Department, somewhat of a touchpoint in the discussion about women’s equality right now.

“The future of work and family, and male/female equality, it depends on you,” she told the few guys under age 30 in the audience.

Slaughter wasn’t saying that women should have to ask men for equal rights, but rather that we should view gender equality in terms of equal partnerships. Slaughter focused on the idea of the dual caregiver and breadwinner roles, and the understanding that men and women will need to juggle and balance those two roles between them to have an equal relationship, at times shifting who takes on more of each. And if men aren’t willing to engage in that juggle, Slaughter says, the balance won’t work.

“If guys are willing to get together with women and insist on the ability to be breadwinners and caregivers together, then I think we can really get there,” she said. The argument is far less controversial than her Atlantic headline, but probably one that’s more likely to resonate with people (especially for those with aging parents instead of small children, she points out.) Slaughter came across as funny, self-deprecating, and deeply passionate about women’s relationships with their families and careers while being interviewed by Jezebel editor Jessica Coen on Saturday.

Slaughter’s argument is familiar to the technology community right now, with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” set to release next week (a book Slaughter already weighed in on), and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer drawing attention (fairly or not) to her every move after becoming the first pregnant Fortune 500 CEO. A number of us here at GigaOM are reading Sandberg’s book, and will be talking about our impressions of the already controversial take next week.

In “Lean In,” Sandberg talks about the way our society is still uncomfortable with the idea of women out-earning their husbands, and said people would come up to her and ask if Dave Goldberg, her husband and SurveyMonkey CEO, was okay with her success. Sandberg said everyone needs to be more understanding of non-traditional gender roles and stay at home dads, a situation that Slaughter, who worked in D.C. while her husband was the primary caregiver, knew all too well. And Slaughter calls for that to change:

“I’ve also heard women say, ‘I want a guy who’s equal,’ but then they also say they want a guy who’s a dominant breadwinner. And that’s not going to work. We have to find a way to really value the guy who’s the equal partner, and say, ‘Sometimes we’re going to out-earn him.'”

Slaughter repeatedly came back to the need for workplace flexibility and careers that support women who also care about their kids and families. So naturally, the question of Mayer’s decision to end remote work at Yahoo came up. Slaughter said she’s torn: on one hand, she said the PR tactics of the announcement were terrible, and the dichotomy of Mayer’s personal nursery and ending home work for employees was a disaster. But she also sees why Mayer did it.

“That is her first job, right? She’s a CEO and has to turn that company around,” Slaughter said. “But I don’t think there’s any question that she believes in flexible work. I don’t think there’s anyone in Silicon Valley who doesn’t believe in flexible work. The optics were terrible, and the blunt force way she did it was terrible, but I’m going to reserve judgment.”

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