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Judy’s Notebook: ‘We Are Overdue to Create a More Humane Work Model’

The new magazine article in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter on how hard it really is for women to manage both a demanding career and a family, and why social policies need to change for things to get better, has generated a wave of reaction. Both critics and sympathizers have weighed in. Slaughter shared her own painful experience toiling in a high-level job at the Hillary Clinton State Department while worrying about her 8th grade son’s adolescent struggles. I can’t imagine there is another mother of a teenager who doesn’t identify with what she wrote, no matter what sort of work we do.

Slaughter, whom I interviewed on the NewsHour Tuesday, willingly gave up an important government job that took her away from her family most of the week in order to move back home and return to teaching at Princeton University. It’s hardly low-pressure work, but it’s the sort that puts her more in control of her schedule. Still, the entire experience propelled her to go public, to call for more flexible work arrangements, for changing our concept of a successful career, and for being more open about the time we take off to be with family. All worthy goals, and ones we should discuss – men and women – across society.

Even her suggestion that we “embrace a national happiness project” aimed at persuading us to take our foot off the accelerator a bit is, while idealistic, one many can aspire to. (Not all: One of our guests who appeared alongside Slaughter last night, writer and public relations executive Naomi Decter, said, “We need to stop thinking that we’re going to engineer some kind of a world where all of our problems are taken care of for us. You make a choice and you hope it’s for the best for your family. Sometimes, it will be. Sometimes, it won’t be. And then you adjust. And men have to do exactly the same thing.”)

And of course the practical steps required to get us from here to that imagined better place are complex, involving policy and politics in the private and the public sectors. Each of us is wired differently, and our ambitions have varying levels of intensity, at different points in our lives. Getting the many-million piece orchestra that is American society to play at a different tempo is a daunting goal. Besides, so much is outside our control: economic opportunity waxes and wanes, job openings come and go, family members – and we ourselves – get sick or have problems that consume our attention.

Still, most agree this conversation has value. Mothers worry about their children, and so do fathers; most of us with family worry about ailing parents or siblings. We are overdue to create a more humane work model. As Ellen Galinsky, head of the Families and Work Institute (full disclosure: I’m on the Institute’s board), wrote the other day in the Huffington Post, new research finds men are showing more work-family conflict today than women.
“Maybe, just maybe,” wrote Galinsky, “others will wake up to see that this is an issue that affects us all not just professors and high-ranking officials…. Work isn’t working for too many organizations, its people and its families. But it could and we have hundreds of examples of where it is. So let’s finally give issues of workplace flexibility the attention they deserve and begin the process to make work ‘work’ for more of us.”

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