Anne-Marie Slaughter: getting the gender balance right

Merryn Somerset Webb interviews writer, lawyer and political analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter about gender roles, migration, and how Britain could turn into Singapore.


If you missed any of Merryn's past interviews, you can see them all here.

Hi I'm Merryn Somerset Webb, editor-in-chief of MoneyWeek magazine. I am here today with Anne-Marie Slaughter who is currently the president and CEO of The New America Foundation. MoneyWeek listeners will have heard Anne Marie talking before I did an interview with her back in 2013. She's got an amazing CV behind her, she has taught at Harvard University, she has taught at the University of Chicago and she was until 2011 the director of policy planning for the US State Department and she was the first woman to have that job.

Now we are going to talk a little bit about Anne Marie's new book. But I want to say before we do that that she is not just a writer on women's issues, family issues, work issues, she is also a lawyer and a political analyst, and we are going to move a little more into that area after that. Now the new book Anne Marie is called Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family and it came out of an article that you wrote three or four years back in The Atlantic magazine about women not really being able to have it all however hard we try right?

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Anne-Marie: Yes.

Merryn: And this book is a lot more about men somehow, there is a lot about the men's movement and a new phrase I mean which I love, the "Halo Dad Syndrome".

Anne-Marie: So the book grew out of the responses that I got to the article, and then my thinking very hard about where we had to go from here, and rethinking some of the things I said in the article. They are really two big ideas, one is that we need to value traditional women's work, not just advance women to the extent that they are like men, but recognise that the work of care the women have always done is equal to the work of earning a living, and so we cannot advance women to real equality with men unless we recognise and make room for care in the workplace and national policy and, frankly, in planning your lives.

But the second piece of that is if you're going to do that, then you have to value care when men do it just as much as when women do it, and indeed men have to be engaged as much in the work of the home as women are now engaged in the work of the office. And that doesn't mean men helping out, that means men actually taking charge and being fully competent in the home just as we now think women are fully competent in the office.

Merryn: Yeah, I mean this is one of the long term problems with working women and women getting to higher levels inside careers. Very often when you hear about an amazing woman who has done extraordinary things with her career, and people say how does she do it? You look at home and find that she has a stay at home husband.

Anne Marie: Yes, what I call a "lead parent husband", but absolutely it is one of these things that rarely gets talked about. I go to a lot of women's conferences and nobody stands up and says to younger women if you want to be CEO you need a lead parent husband just like all those male CEOs have lead parent wives. You are not going to be running a household and a company at the same time.

Merryn: The truth is that over history really good careers have been made by two people not by one person.

Anne Marie: Yes.

Merryn: And now when we see women going out into the workplace somehow they're expected not to just have a new role but the old role as well and that's virtually impossible.

Anne Marie: Yeah exactly. But the "halo dad" phenomenon is just that right now men help and when men do things that are completely normal for women like picking up a child at 3:00 in the afternoon or taking a child to a doctor's appointment or organising a music lesson, they are considered the world's most wonderful fathers. That's actually just the normal business of parenting and should be equally distributed between women and men.

Merryn: But that's a matter for the workplace to a degree. I mean men get this praise for going up to pick up a child at 3:00 or taking them to a doctor's appointment or whatever it is, because it's really so much harder for them to leave an office at 3:00 to do that, because of the cultural norms surrounding the way we deal with care.

Many men want to be much more engaged in their families, but when they try to break out of their assigned gender roles they encounter just as much hostility from other men and indeed from some women as women used to

Anne Marie: Yes, I think that's exactly right and one of the things that I argue is that many men in fact want to be much more engaged in their families, that they are socialised into a very narrow breadwinner provider role, but when they try to break out of their assigned gender roles they encounter just as much hostility from other men and indeed from some women as women used to when the first women decided "no, I don't just want to be a mom and a wife I want to be a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer". So it's up to men and women to really expand what our concept of men's roles are.

Merryn: Now this change is happening, right? I mean I'm talking to you from my home office, for example; for various childcare reasons I couldn't get to London today to see you, and I'm hoping no one in my office has any difficulties with this, for example. So my work is quite flexible and an awful lot of men are pushing for more and more flexible working and technology is allowing that to happen. So in the way the change that you quite rightly demand is on the way anyway.

Anne Marie: Well perhaps it's more on the way in Britain than it is in the United States, although I've talked to enough people in Britain to think that there are varying views on that. I mean I do think young men really expect to be equal parents and many are willing to be lead parents if that's what it takes to support their wife's career. But at least in the United States what we're seeing is those ideals and those attitudes quickly collide into a very traditional workplace. So a couple has a child and she gets maternity leave although in the United States we have no required maternity leave but if she's in a good workplace she'll get six weeks maternity leave he gets nothing, maybe two days, maybe a week. So then, of course, she's at home with the child for six weeks and she learns how to take care of it and then he works that much harder if she wants to then go part time, and very quickly you have reverted to traditional gender roles because the workplace attitudes have still assumed that taking care of that child is her job, not his.

Merryn: You know how shocking it is for a British audience to hear you say six weeks maternity leave?

Anne Marie: I do.

Merryn: We feel slightly hard done by when our office asks if we're coming back after nine months.

Anne Marie: Yes, I do, and I know American women who have had the luxury in their view of working for British firms. It's simply staggering, there is no maternity leave required in any US state or by the federal government, which means six weeks, there are people who are lucky to get two.

Merryn: And we now have, of course, we're shifting towards having more and more paternity leave, so maybe this is one thing that the UK is actually ahead of America in.

Anne Marie: Yes.

Merryn: But one of the things holding it back, presumably, is it is phenomenally expensive or companies believe it is phenomenally expensive to offer people flexibility, to offer them the right to care at the same time as to work.

100 years ago governments said it would be prohibitively expensive to have workers only work eight hours as opposed to ten or 12 or 14, but ... we mandated an eight hour workday and the economy didn't come to a halt

Anne Marie: Well, yes, and this is one reason where having government mandates really do matter. You know, 100 years ago governments said it would be prohibitively expensive to have workers only work eight hours as opposed to ten or 12 or 14, but we did realise that in fact Henry Ford said productivity falls off pretty dramatically after eight hours, and we mandated an eight hour workday and the economy didn't come to a halt. It's also true that the thing that companies complain about the most is constant loss of talent and lack of talent and if they would allow workers to be whole human beings and recognize no they no longer have a full time caregiver at home they would find they would reduce stress, they would find much greater loyalty and they would simply be able to keep the talent that they recruited and invested in. That's why you see so many very talented women moving firms or leaving work altogether or certainly moving off leadership track when they have a child. That's the firm's problem, not the woman's problem.

Merryn: Yes it is a phenomenal waste. This is a huge issue that we're not going to finish in ten minutes. Shall we move on, if you don't mind, to macro issues which are equally important, I guess, at the moment. When we last met we talked a little bit about the global environment and you were pretty sanguine about the US economy, but beginning to worry about what was going on in Europe. We didn't talk about China much at the time, but since then my sense is that the world has become vastly more unstable. How does it look from your point of view?

Anne Marie: Well, yes, although I think it's a clich, but it is now the new normal. I mean the world is so complex that at any given moment you have some country going down, you have disease breaking out somewhere, you have natural catastrophes and we're not going to return to a state where that is not true. It has actually always been true but we didn't know about it or it didn't affect us.

Merryn: We weren't so interlinked.

Anne Marie: Yes we weren't so interlinked. But I will say the US is doing very well at the moment. Part of that is just the cycle, part of that is the Obama administration's investment in domestic energy so we're less dependent on oil prices. It affects us but not nearly as much as it once did and right now we also look like a relatively safe haven so the dollar is high and the US economy looks fine. Europe is still in crisis but I'm actually much more optimistic about Europe than many people, in part because we're now in the third year of the Greek crisis when the euro was supposed to have been done in and everything was supposed to have come to a crashing halt. Remarkably, not only is Greece muddling through but Syriza, the Greek party and the Spanish parties, all the anti-austerity parties still want the euro and they still want EU membership.

Merryn: But is it not possible that in the end it isn't all going to be money that brings down the EU or the eurozone, but immigration? That it will be the refugee crisis that actually ruins the political cohesion of Europe?

The US is doing very well at the moment. Part of that is just the cycle, part of that is the Obama administration's investment in domestic energy so we're less dependent on oil prices

Anne Marie: I don't believe so. I mean it is a crisis, but it is a crisis that in some ways has called out the very best in Angela Merkel in terms of standing for European values, and as the state that created massive waves of refugees in the 30s, Germany standing up and saying look we will take these refugees, and this is critical, we will now do everything we possibly can to stop the war that is generating them and to strengthen European borders. So the standard narrative of the European Union has been it lurches from crisis to crisis, and each crisis results in strengthening of European institutions. And in this case that has to be a common border and there has to be deals cut between the border states, Greece and Italy and Hungary primarily, and the states that are within the union, and what you're seeing right now is a lot of preliminary bargaining.

Merryn: So even with Schengen suspended you still think in the end it will make Europe stronger? I mean Schengen has been one of the cornerstones of the whole thing.

Anne Marie: Yes. If Schengen were to break up, that would be disastrous, but Schengen being suspended is a very different thing. In the first place, all countries should have the ability to shut their borders for emergency measures. There's got to be safety valves in the system or the system will be too stressed to continue. But even suspended means we're going to suspend this until we come up with a better system that does not result in hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming across borders. So I think that's just the backdrop to some very hard bargaining.

Merryn: Now you have a thought on this. I was reading a piece you wrote around Christmas about creating refugee cities.

Anne Marie: Yes and actually I just heard Queen Rania of Jordan talking at the World Economic Forum along very similar lines, which is to say we think of refugee camps as places of squalor and despair and essentially a lot of people waiting around until they can go home and they can wait around for decades and even generations. Instead you can think of a concentration of people as an opportunity to build economic infrastructure, to build investment and Queen Rania was pointing out Jordan would love more foreign investment. You've got a large concentration of people, both Syrians and Jordanians, you could build a special economic zone, you can encourage investment, you can actually think of those refugees as the seeds of economic growth when they go back home and in their host country temporarily. You can think of a place then where you could educate children who would not be well educated otherwise where you can inculcate habits of political participation and effectively yes you are creating a city of refugees for as long as the refugees are there but afterwards is a city in the country that is hosting them.

Merryn: OK and these cities are hosted where?

Anne Marie: Well so I was pointing out that there was an Egyptian billionaire who wanted to buy a Greek island to build infrastructure.

Merryn: They are cheap at the moment.

Anne Marie: They are, and as opposed to some of the camps that makes great sense, but I think more realistic for most people is that the places that they land on the borders of neighbouring countries you make that a site, as I said, of economic growth and investment. Many, the head of Chobani Yogurt was there and he pointed out even when they land on a Greek island, instead of picking them up and seeing this as this huge public problem, many of these refugees have the money to pay for a room, to use a taxi if you accept that this is something that can be generative economically and these are people who want to work there's a different way of seeing them.

Merryn: Interesting. I know that you have to go, Anne Marie, but one last question. My guess is that if you were British you would not be voting for Brexit is that right?

Anne Marie: No. In fact, from where I sit as an American foreign policy expert or a global policy expert, voting for Brexit would turn Britain into Singapore.

Merryn: That doesn't sound all bad.

Britain without the EU is essentially a great global city London and a relatively small island

Anne Marie: Well, OK. The British can decide not that Singapore is bad, Singapore is a great global city and it punches well above its weight in global politics but it doesn't occupy a seat on the Security Council, it is not a great power in the world and Britain as part of the European Union is still a great power because then Britain is still a part of the largest economy in the world, the European Union is larger than the Chinese economy. It is a part of a political entity that is 500,000 people and so that's the third largest nation or entity in the world and Britain has tremendous clout within the EU and indeed Prime Minister Cameron essentially wants to use the threat of Brexit to renegotiate some terms within the EU and shape where the EU is going. But Britain without the EU is essentially a great global city, London, and a relatively small island.

Merryn: Thank you very much. I'm not sure that all of my readers are going to agree with you but we are very pleased to have your view.

Anne Marie: I doubt it. With some nuclear weapons, I grant you that.

Merryn: Yeah with a couple of nuclear weapons exactly and some other cities, maybe not great global cities but some other cities.

Anne Marie: Well the other point to make is it would be a Great Britain without Scotland because I think it is very clear that if Britain were to leave the EU, Scotland will leave the UK and be a member of the EU on its own, so you have to think about it that way.

Merryn: Yeah, I have to say I don't buy that for a second, because think about it, the great bonus of independence was supposed to be the oil riches. We don't have those oil riches any more, and it would be really tough for the Scottish to have a referendum and get out of the UK before the UK got out of the EU, which the timing is very difficult. Voting to leave the UK after the UK has voted to leave Europe is a tough one.

Anne Marie: But why? Because once Britain has left the EU then that's the moment which many

Merryn: Scotland really does have to reapply from scratch.

Anne Marie: That's true but

Merryn: None of the UK's benefits, have to come in on the same terms as all of the other nations that have come into Europe recently and that's a tough call for the Scots I'd say.

Anne Marie: Well that's fair.

Merryn: It's all very well being inside Europe on Britain's terms and being inside Europe on somebody else's terms, a different matter right?

Anne Marie: And the EU doesn't actually want to encourage it because Catalonia would be next, so that's a fair point, that's a fair point.

Merryn: Anyway, I wish we could talk for longer but I know you're in a rush so I'm going to let you go and thank you so much for your time.

Anne Marie: Well I enjoyed it as always.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.