It is difficult to have it all. So we have wigs.

It is difficult to have it all. So we have wigs.

Sometimes Bwog can’t get enough feminism.  And by that, we mean generally speaking insofar as feminism means being a DSpar fangirl and Bwog’s role within the walls of a women’s college.  On occasion, Bwog does find some feminism on the other side of Broadway.  On Monday, Bwog’s resident Columbia feminist Roberta Barnett checked out a Transatlantic dialogue between France and the United States as to how women might balance a career and family. 

With the publication of Lean In and Wonder Women and countless articles regarding how women and society might change to lead more fulfilling lives, a World Leaders Forum event on the topic was certainly overdue.  Co-sponsored by Walls and Bridges, a 10-day series of performances and critical explorations uniting French and American thinkers and artists from social science, philosophy, literature, and the arts, the discussion took place in a mixture of both French and English (fear not–  I have included no French in this piece!).   “The Balancing Act: Women, Work, and Family in the United States and France” was a discussion between French Minister for Women’s Rights Najat Vallaud-Belkacem and President of the New America Foundation (and author of the 2012 article in The Atlantic “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”) Anne-Marie Slaughter.

Given the nature of the dialogue between two countries, both women noted the structural and political differences between the United States and France that allow for different attitudes and policies regarding gender.  Belkacem noted, “In France the State is more interventionist.  It’s not the job of women… or men… it’s the job of institutions to provide the equality.”  She went on to cite French policies of mandatory paid maternity and paternity.  Slaughter went on to point out that in the United States, the government is a lot more limited in what it can do (whether this be because of constitutional differences or simply bi-partisan gridlock, she did not say).  Therefore, her argument centered more around changing values than changing policies.  “I am convinced that we have to start with… work, family, and humans,” she said.

From that point, the discussion moved toward the attitude of society.  “We have fixed a lot of the clear discrimination,” Slaughter said, “But not the structural barriers.”  For example, women are less able to enjoy their theoretical political and workplace equality because they are still assumed to take primary roles as caregivers of children and the elderly.  Belkacem argued that the problems with cultural attitudes may relate very heavily to socialization and early childhood education.  “If we have inequality in the workplace, it’s because at school we did not have gender equity,” she said.

Now comes the question plaguing every major piece in the women’s work-life balance dialogue of the past few years: How do we change society to accommodate women?  Is it even realistically possible?  Dr. Slaughter pointed to the polarization of masculine and feminine and the desire for men and women to fit into either paradigm.  However, unless men staying at home and caring for children can be seen as something other than effeminate, the road to changing men’s and women’s roles will be a long one.  Especially at an institution where the core curriculum provides examples of typified gender roles as the basis of Western Civilization, it is quite easy to see that changing culture is much easier said than done.

Changing policy is easier and more concrete, but how successful is policy in changing a patriarchal political culture?  Similar gender roles to the United States exist in France as well, despite the more progressive policies.  Although there are examples of French men “leaning in,” the practice is not widespread.  Belkacem argued that the disparity between paid maternity leave and paid paternity leave may relate to men taking on less-involved roles in the upbringing of their offspring, and consequently, spending more time developing their careers.  If men and women could have similar time off from work to raise a child, perhaps the expectation for childcare would be different.

Finally, the speakers attempted to address the complicating factor of class.  Unfortunately, there are additional obstacles for women who are not from the upper and middle class backgrounds.  Unlike the women to whom Sheryl Sandberg and Deborah Spar preach, many American and French women cannot afford to supplement their childcare with nannies that free up time for professional development.  Both speakers advocated for a broader access to childcare, noting that the increased earnings of women would pay for the childcare itself.  I personally would challenge that universal daycare is not some sort of cure-all for women’s equality, but rather the tip of a much larger iceberg.  This preview doesn’t even touch on the challenges of non-traditional families and of different ethnic groups.  However, as two white, heterosexual women from middle-class backgrounds, the subject is touchy and a solution is particularly unclear.

In conjunction with the complication of class, the dialogue failed to adequately deal with the complication of age.  Both speakers noted the lack of a better answer, but when asked how a woman might balance politics and family, suggested to embark on a political career many years after having children.  What does this mean for twenty-something collegiate women, then?  Go find a husband ASAP so you can begin your political career sooner?  It is quite unsatisfying to have a former top-level State Department official say that a woman in fact cannot have a good work-life family balance in Washington.  The imperfect solution perhaps underlies a great truth in both nations: no one can “have it all.”

Ariel via ShutterStock