How Important Is Gender Parity at the Top?

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Is it enough for men and women to have the same opportunities, and to be satisfied by the tradeoffs they make? Or do we need as many women uber-elites as men?

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There's a question that Anne-Marie Slaughter's widely read essay Why Women Still Can't Have It All raises but never fully confronts. The most provocative way to put it would be, "How much does gender diversity matter in the nation's most senior jobs?" It's a fraught question to even pose.

But if Slaughter is right, we'll require a reasonably precise answer.

In her telling, "men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job."

Say that's accurate (in my generation I don't know if it will prove so or not).

Now imagine that we implement some of the reforms she calls for to make work more family friendly for men and women. The default time for regularly scheduled business meetings is set during school hours. Business trips are occasionally replaced with teleconferencing. Employees are permitted to work from home one or two days per week. And working parents are valued as highly as people who run marathons or climb mountains or spear swordfish in their spare time.

I am favorably disposed to normative shifts in those directions.

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But what if, even after many of these shifts happen, many more men than women still choose to pursue the jobs that require the biggest sacrifice of time away from family because they value family time less? What if these highest powered jobs and the tradeoffs they require remain more unappealing to women than to men? Say for the sake of simplicity that in this future society, the overall life preferences of men and women are accommodated equitably. Men and women have the same options before them, reveal different preferences at the margins, and are equally happy with the tradeoffs that they've made.

In this hypothetical society, there is even gender parity in high-power jobs like tenured professor at Princeton... but not in the highest power jobs, like Deputy Secretary of State, CEO of Goldman Sachs, or army general (though women who never have kids are as likely to attain those jobs as a childless man).

Is that future society a just one, requiring no further reform?

Or is it important to have not just equality of opportunity in America's most work-life unbalanced positions, but equality of outcome? To put it as I did at the beginning of the post, "How much does gender diversity matter in the nation's most senior jobs?" One perspective is that it doesn't matter at all, or at least not enough to address with reforms that would impose other costs.

In that telling, equality of opportunity is the ideal to achieve.

Another perspective is that it's vital to have women in the highest level positions as often as men, as an end in itself, or at least apart from questions about their equality of opportunity or preferences, because the female perspective is vital, or because it makes our institutions better functioning in various other ways, or because it better socializes young people, who may have different preferences than their mothers if they could conceive of all their options*. If you're someone who takes this latter perspective, the question becomes how much it matters. What sort of reforms would be justified on a cost-benefit analysis, and which would fail the cost benefit test?

I don't know that we'll ever confront these issues in exactly the way I've put them. But in Slaughter's plausible telling, "The proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case."

If she is right about the way that the average woman feels about work-life tradeoffs, but wrong that women can "have it all" if only certain reforms are made, she requires an answer to the questions of when, why, and how much we ought to care about attaining gender parity at the top.

I'd be curious to hear her thoughts and yours.


*Another possibility is that gender diversity matters at the top in some industries - government and media, say - but not all industries. But which ones?
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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