Anne-Marie Slaughter on why we need to celebrate and support stay-at-home dads, the one question men and women should ask their employers, and why she hates the term “work-life balance.”

By Samantha Zabell
Updated October 22, 2015
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Unfinished Business
Credit: Amazon

Anne-Marie Slaughter is familiar with the tug between family and work. After two years as the director of policy planning at the State Department, working under Secretary Hillary Clinton, Slaughter opted to move back home, rather than continue the commute between her family in New Jersey and her office in D.C. She rejoined the academic team at Princeton University, where her husband, Andy, was also a professor.

Many colleagues were surprised by her decision to “choose family” over her career. Some were disappointed, others sympathized, but no one seemed to immediately understand her decision. This experience culminated in her explosive article for The Atlantic in 2012 titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” about the delicate balance between work and family, especially while pursuing a top job. The piece sparked an enormous debate across the Internet—both from women who felt Slaughter had finally articulated what they had been feeling, and others who felt the term “having it all” put too much onus on women to be successful without addressing larger issues of gender and workplace inequality. There was even a sizable response from men, who argued that Slaughter’s piece didn’t account for the fact that they wanted to be home with their families, but didn’t have the opportunity. Whether it was being lauded or criticized, it certainly got people talking about the obstacles women still face when it comes to having a successful career and a family.

Since the article, Slaughter has joined think tank New America as President and CEO, but still spends time speaking across the country about the need for workplace equality. To continue the discussion, she has written Unfinished Business, a new book on women, men, work, and family.

It seems like your book will naturally be grouped with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, yet you mention in Unfinished Business that there are a few key differences between you and Sandberg.

I’m more of a visionary. I’m an academic, that’s what I do. As I say in the book, I think Lean In is one piece of a larger puzzle…she does want to change [the workplace], and she says the way to do that is to get women to the top. I don’t think that’s enough. I think we need bigger change than that. And I also still think that the Lean In focus leaves out too many people, because there are just too many people who have not been able to make it work through no fault of their own.

The discussion of how men fit into the fight for gender equality in the workplace is very important to your book. In fact, many men wrote to you in response to your article in The Atlantic, saying they wanted to spend more time at home, but didn’t feel like they could. How did their letters help shape the book?

Those men writing me really did open my eyes to what seems very obvious: you can’t change women’s roles without changing men’s roles. It seems very obvious but it hasn’t been an easy thing for us to articulate, I believe in part because women haven’t thought that men wanted to change their roles. So to have men write me and say “I don’t like this either!” was very important.

When you joined Real Simple editor Kristin van Ogtrop at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit earlier this month, you said stay-at-home dads were “pioneers.” What did you mean by that?

In 2012, for the first time, the U.S. Military Spouse of the Year was a man. His name is Jeremy Hilton. His wife is in the military, and someone’s got to be home with the kids. He came and heard one of my talks and emailed me…at the end [of his letter] he wrote, “I think I’m just secure enough in my own manhood to do this.” And that’s the way I see it. My husband is very secure…he really isn’t troubled by what people think because he thinks he’s doing the right thing.

The first women who got out there and wanted to be lawyers and doctors and professors were pilloried for betraying their sex. They were called every name in the book. And most of those names had to do with how they weren’t feminine. We look back at them now and we say, “Those women opened the doors for the rest of us!” But that’s not how it was then. The men today that have the guts to break with gender roles are really the same. They’re very confident, they think they’re doing the right thing for their families, but they also think they’re getting something very important. Any time you see a man who’s willing to go his own way you should celebrate it.

When you were working at the State Department and commuting back and forth to D.C., you only saw your family on weekends. In an NPR interview, you said that on Friday nights when you came home, you sometimes felt like an “outsider” with your own family. What was that like?

I couldn’t be resentful; they were doing all of this so I could do this work I loved but it was hard. But you can’t say to your husband: “Gee, I want to take this big job, and I want to pursue my dream, and by the way, I still want to be the primary parent and I want them to look to me instead of you.” He was there for all the unpleasant stuff and he gets the pleasant stuff too.

This is the second half of the revolution. Very few of us want only to caretake or only have a career. That’s the tension: we understand how wonderful [care] can be, but if we really want equality, then men have to be able to have all of that too. That means giving up control, which is hard, and you have to understand that you might not be as close to your children as your spouse.

The phrase “work-life balance” is discussed (and sought-after) almost as much as “having it all.” How do you feel about that phrase, and what can women do to (realistically) achieve something like it?

Balance is a luxury; equality is a necessity. When we talk about “balance,” we are completely shutting out the millions of women who are just making it work—they’re not thinking about some ideal balance. So I don’t like the term.

You want to have time to do important work that advances you in your career. It doesn’t have to be as fast as somebody else—that’s not important. But a sense of an upward trajectory towards some kind of mastery and promotion is important. And you want to have time to not only care for those you love but also enjoy the time with them. Time with your kids can be absolutely fabulous and it’s always meaningful.

In your book, you mention many conversations that should be happening at home, between couples. What is one question every woman should ask her partner before they are married?

The question has to be: “Are you willing to make tradeoffs in your career so that I can advance in mine?” That is the question that often does not get asked. The flipside has to be “And will you let me be fully equal or primary at home?” I think men should ask that. They should say, “If I want to raise the kids differently…are you going to accept me as a fully equal parent?” If we really want to talk about equality you must be able to imagine that you’re going to make those tradeoffs in both directions.

On the flipside, what is one question all women should ask current or future employers?

Both men and women should be asking, “How many senior people in your firm took time out, went part time, worked flexibly, or whatever [your] policies are?” The question has to not be, “Do you have these policies,” but “How many people in leadership positions took advantage of these policies?” Is this a firm that understands that I both need and want to make room for care, but still want to advance to the top, even if I’m advancing at a slower pace?

And finally, what is one small, manageable thing all women can do right now to keep the conversation about women, men, and the workplace going?

If they have a lead parent in their family, either a stay-at-home mom or stay-at-home dad…the one thing you can do is to celebrate that person. In your own head, think to yourself that the work that Mom did, or Dad did, was every bit as important as bringing home the bacon. That is the one thing that would make the difference—to undo that socialization that said the homemaker’s job is not as important as “earning” a living. It is.

See below for Slaughter’s conversation with Real Simple editor Kristin van Ogtrop.