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Anne-Marie Slaughter’s plan to close the ‘gender gap’ will take us right back to where we started from

The influential academic’s blueprint doesn’t address women’s most pressing needs

By on Monday, 27 January 2014

Workers prepare for this year's World Economic Forum in Davos (AP)

Workers prepare for this year's World Economic Forum in Davos (AP)

Every working woman aspiring to a top position would dramatically increase her chances if her husband stayed at home and cared for their children. That is the claim of Anne-Marie Slaughter, who shocked feminists in 2012 with her influential article “Why women still can’t have it all”.

Slaughter rose up the ranks during Obama’s first term, working for Hillary Clinton at the US State Department. After two years she gave up that role, deciding to stay at home caring for her two teenagers. Today she is head of the New America Foundation think tank and professor emeritus of public and international affairs at Princeton.

Slaughter clearly draws on a great deal of personal experience when she writes about the longstanding dilemma of being both a mother and a worker. In a blog at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, entitled “Behind every great woman is a great man”, Slaughter argued that “if societies really want to make room for women in the C-suite or the precincts of presidents and prime ministers, they’re going to have to make much more room for men at home, at least for a chunk of their careers.”

The World Economic Forum first published the Global Gender Gap Report in 2006. The 2013 edition focused on closing the gap among western executives and in boardrooms and parliaments. Totally eliminating the gap would be the perfect fulfilment of the rights and economic power of women.

Slaughter believes that the best way to reduce the disparity between men and women is to encourage the greatest number of women to reach the highest positions of influence. She believes that to make this a reality more men must stay at home. “It is far, far easier to be at the top of a major organisation if you have a primary or full-time caregiver at home,” she wrote.

Slaughter wanted to conduct a poll at Davos to find out how many participants had a life partner who is either at home full time or works outside the house but is the primary caregiver. “If the numbers are, say, 80 per cent or higher,” she wrote, “then future Forum gender equality polls should assume that women will only achieve parity with breadwinning men when men achieve parity with care-giving women.”

Slaughter recognises the importance of the primary caregiver. But her argument is not advanced in order to find a way of balancing being a mother with being a worker – the real problem woman face today. The Princeton professor is, instead, trying to find a way of balancing family and career in order to have the best career possible. That is a very worrying, masculine approach. Perhaps when the world is eventually ruled by women, men will then press for equality – and we will be right back where we started from.