The False Dichotomy of Work and Care

Most workplaces reward aggressive behavior, but nobody thrives without a support team—whether it be family or assistants—somewhere in the wings.

Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

When I joined a corporation after years of working in academia, I witnessed an abrupt shift in the language and temperament of leadership. One way I tried to learn the organization’s culture was by keeping a notebook.

Following the example of my mentors, pioneers of anthropology in the tech field, I took pages of field observations in meetings and everyday interactions. An array of acronyms, pleasantries, and refrains that were repeated with obvious common sense to those participating were to me another world, a different idiom. It was still English, but it was full of codes that I needed help to break. I pored over company dictionaries and org charts in my limited spare time, figuring out the formula that was clearly necessary to survive the basic scenarios of communication in the company.

I was reminded of this when talking to my hairdresser, a Portland punk who runs her own salon. Having recently been subjected to a tech executive letting off steam in the salon, she now worries about the culture I’m forced to reckon with on a daily basis. We laughed in shared mock-horror as I explained the meaning of phrases such as “one throat to choke,” which is used to identify the person responsible for the outcome of a project. It’s a classic example of an aggressive metaphor cloaked in convenience.

Words of combat and violence are customary in corporate life. We have “war rooms” for products that are in “execution” phase. An admirably unrealistic goal for the year is “an aggressive target.” If you disagree with someone, you “push back.” To demonstrate the will to lead, you “lean in.” Promotion paths endorse and reward behavior that shows belligerence and grit in the face of obstacles. In congenial moments, we praise “teamwork,” even though the privileges of rank accrue to those who speak effectively on others’ behalf. In career workshops, I am regularly informed that accomplishments can only be expressed in personal terms. Learning to be assertive means taking credit for the work of your team. Describing collective achievements with the word “we” shows an inability to assess your individual contribution, and thus, the quality of judgment required to occupy seniority. These leadership styles normalize individual acts of brilliance based on an army—so to speak—of invisible support.

(As a graduate student in the early 2000s, I could have hardly imagined a decade spent studying feminist theory on the intricacies of speaking positions would prepare me so well for these dynamics. The micro-politics of discourse playing out in corporate conference rooms today echo many of the most persuasive critiques of second-wave feminism: Do I speak for others in using the word “I”? How representative is my experience? Whose voices are silenced as I seek recognition for my work? Do I even have the right to use the word “I”?)

Given all of this, it comes as little surprise that companies don’t value care work, as Anne Marie Slaughter argues in her new book. As she puts it, figuring out how to value care—the care of one’s children, one’s parents, and also one’s self—is the “unfinished business” of the women’s movement.

In the U.S., domestic work has a complex history. Unlike Britain, where “wages for housework” campaigns enjoyed visibility, in America the middle class struggled with the social status of housework given the racialization of “help.” The cult of domesticity and the Home Economics movement were attempts to resolve the “servant question”—a debate about whether it was appropriate to have subordinates in a free society, and, if so, how they should be treated.

Home Economics also operated as a means to seduce middle class women to stay in the home and resist the urge to join factories or shops to earn a living. Devotion to the household combined turn of the century progressivism, patriotism, and the new fascination with science and hygiene. At this point, there was no effort to train or entice men to join the work of home. Care work had no obvious link to men’s responsibilities. It was invisible, taken for granted, and not a concern to the employer once the “family wage” had been calculated.

The care-work conundrum of today is based on this initial separation of paid and unpaid work. It’s common to hear calls for more flexible workplaces to accommodate outside roles. It is less common to hear accounts of the management styles that successfully commanded home enterprises for decades. Early prophets of domestic science—Catherine Beecher, Ellen Richards, and Christine Frederick among them—pioneered the feminine arts of management. These skills included juggling the competing demands of children and husbands, managing constant interruptions, exercising diplomacy, and pleasing others. These qualities continue to define the nature of many women’s paid and unpaid work lives. Too often, they are the very skills that simultaneously prevent recognition while allowing others’ ambition to flourish.

American culture routinely celebrates the heroic acts of individuals whose charismatic leadership is thought to inspire others. These stories typically neglect the work of care and support that takes place behind the scenes, below the line, and in the wings of polished performances. Admitting a culture of mutual dependence is the first step in reforming aggressive workplace cultures.

To my hairdresser, it is entirely unsurprising that women may not want to work in an environment where it is cursory to talk about choking people. With little kids and two dogs to look after, she finds her business is best run part-time, which gives her a few days to recover from the emotion work of listening to others. She is under no illusion that work is care, and vice versa.