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If you’ve been on the internet at all in the past week -- at least if you’re a woman between the ages of thirty and fifty -- you have read Princeton professor of politics Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article "Why Women Still Can’t Have it All."

In case you’ve somehow missed it, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story in The Atlantic argues that women are held back from reaching leadership positions in government and business because workplaces still fail to accommodate family responsibilities. Slaughter reached this conclusion after going on leave from her professorship at Princeton University to serve a two-year term as director of foreign policy planning at the State Department. In her new post, she was required, for the first time in her working life, to keep a schedule with full, hectic days at the office and relatively scant vacation time and flextime.

Slaughter discovered the obvious: it’s hard to keep up with your kids and the rest of your life when you’re at the office for long hours on a fairly rigid schedule. She describes the shock of not being able to pop out between Princeton classes or committee meetings to get a haircut but having to schedule hair appointments (along with dry-cleaning pick-ups) on the weekend—facts of life for most women with careers. (Slaughter’s editor at The Atlantic would have done well to cut out her comments about the burden having to get a haircut only on the weekend!)

More seriously, Slaughter describes the obstacles to being fully present in her kids’ quotidian lives by making waffles for breakfast, keeping up family rituals, and attending kids’ baseball games and piano recitals and especially to being there for them when they were having a hard time.

For Slaughter, the solution to these problems is institutional reform (you can see why she was well-suited to serve in Clinton’s State Department): changing office expectations about face time so that employees can still put in a full work week while working remotely part of the time and on non-standard hours; challenging employers and supervisors not to doubt the commitment of those with family responsibilities; enlisting men to be more supportive of women’s careers; and even electing a woman as president to set a national example.

Slaughter’s article has attracted strong positive and negative responses: anger at Slaughter’s alleged rebuke to feminists; calls to take up Slaughter’s proposed reforms; exhortations for women (and men) to acknowledge that “having it all” just isn’t that important.

The challenges to women attaining leadership positions in business and government runs deeper than Slaughter realizes. It’s much more than an institutional issue, it’s a matter of basic economics. As described in economist Gary Becker’s Nobel-prize-winning analysis of family life, the pressures on women to slow-pedal their careers comes from the economic phenomenon of “gains from trade” that very few families afford can forgo.

You’ll remember this idea from Econ 101: two people are stranded on a deserted island. They’ll both do better if one fishes and the other gathers coconuts than if they both spend part of the day fishing and part gathering coconuts. It’s economically rational for both to commit themselves to one activity and then trade with one another.

Likewise, Becker argued, families will fare better if one person -- usually the mother -- focuses on the family. When Becker was first writing on the economics of family life in the early 1970s, this usually meant the mother worked only at home and the father only in the marketplace; it now means that mothers work less in the marketplace so they can be at home more while fathers pursue a more ambitious career path.

Forty years ago and today, the logic is the same: there’s a cost to being a parent who remembers, schedules, and then attends doctor’s check-ups, remembers what day of the week library books are due, figures out what summer camps best fit the family’s schedule and children’s interests, etc., etc. -- and so it’s economically rational for the household if one parent specializes in these activities.

As maddening as many working mothers find it -- and as disappointing as fathers who would like to spend more time with their kids find it -- it’s almost impossible to avoid having mothers specialize more in kids and household affairs than fathers do. It’s simply too costly to forgo the gains from trade from doing so. It’s only households that are wealthy enough to hire a lot of housekeeping help, a nanny, and a lot of other assistance that can forgo the gains from trade that come with one parent slow-pedaling her (or his) career in order to attend to family responsibilities.

Economist Alicia Sasser Modestino, now at the Federal Reserve but formerly also a professor, documented the outcome of pressures on mothers to pursue less-ambitious paths in her study of male and female physicians using data that tracked young physicians’ careers. Female physicians who married and had children ended up working less and earning less -- even though they are highly educated and presumably ambitious and relatively well-to-do. Even female physicians couldn’t avoid -- or didn’t want to avoid -- a more modest career in order to accommodate their family’s needs; I suspect Becker’s gains-from-trade argument can explain much of this phenomenon of highly educated physicians forgoing earnings and career advancement for the sake of their families.

I’m deeply sympathetic to issue the Slaughter describes: the demands of a regular office are very hard on those with responsibilities to children or elderly parents. I once was a faculty member, like Slaughter, and know that the flexibility of a professor’s schedule makes it easier to keep up simultaneously work and family responsibilities -- especially in comparison to offices unsympathetic to family concerns (at one office in my post-professorial life, I ended up using vacation hours rather than flextime to attend our son’s school’s Mother’s Day tea -- that hardly felt like a family-friendly arrangement). So, believe me, I get what Slaughter’s writing about.

But there’s a deeper, more basic economic obstacle to women having high-powered careers than the institutional issues Slaughter focuses on. There’s no feasible degree of institutional reform that’s going to get around the fact that most two-career households don’t feel wealthy enough to forgo the gains from trade that put many mothers on a slower career track. And maybe that’s less of a problem than Slaughter suggests it is: isn’t it worth something for children to have more attention from their mothers.



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