The Women Behind the Woman

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s widely circulated article in The Atlantic has unleashed a wave of impassioned discussion about whether women can successfully pursue a professional career and have a family. Slaughter highlights how office culture and policies in the U.S. make it difficult for women to balance the competing demands of work and family, and she suggests a transformation of workplace policies to include flex time, reliance on technology (such as conference calls), a family leave policy and a different set of work standards and expectations.

At a time when 70 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 are in the workforce, she is absolutely right that we have to figure out how working women can successfully juggle their multiple roles. And employers must take some responsibility for that.

But the fact is, even without family-friendly workplace policies, the vast majority of professional women don’t do it alone.

Partners and husbands are carrying some of the burden, maybe more than in the past. Modest gains aside, however, studies show that household chores are still not shared equally between men and women.

Middle-class and professional women do get help, though—mostly from other women.

Perhaps the most important element of understanding the success of professional women is their growing reliance on service workers to perform the much-needed maintenance work that enables households to run and families to survive. The “can women have it all?”  has centered on an elite group of women with an abundance of resources—women like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg. Financial resources give women (and men) the ability to hire someone to do the cleaning, buy the groceries, cook the meals and bathe the children. In this day and age of a growing service economy, we can hire baby doulas to attend to infants in the middle of the night and personal assistants to organize our closets.

Powerful women who have it all are only able to get there because they rely on a vast network of service providers, who are often underpaid and working in an unregulated occupation. The increasing number of middle class women in the workforce over the past several decades has been coupled with an increase in the number of nannies and cleaners working in private homes–largely immigrant women of color who have their own challenges to achieve a work-family balance, but with far fewer resources. These care workers have been essential to the professional success of middle-class women.

If, 50 years ago, it was “the woman behind the man” who provided the often invisible social reproductive care that bolstered middle-class male success, perhaps today it is the “service workers behind the woman (and the man)” who enable professional success.  Women who might have it all certainly don’t do it all.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Lynn Ballen says:

    This was totally unacknowledged in last Sunday’s NYTimes piece about executive women and maternity leave. A photo Caption reads: “Maria Seidman, right, head of a tech start-up, in her nursery in New York”
    And there was Maria sitting with laptop on the right, but on the left, standing hear the crib was the anonymous woman employed as her nanny, holding Maria’s baby.
    Seriously? @NYTimes – you post a pic of a careermom in a glam nursery But the nanny in the pic -who makes it all possible – is not even mentioned?? #privilegefail

  2. Maybe many Americans would find this irrelevant, but I find it fascinating that the Canadian context has not come up. Why not interview top executives, women and men, who have families, in Canada? There, parental leave (almost 52 weeks) is funded through employment insurance (for parents, doesn’t matter the sex or gender or if they have biological children). Sure, some parents might not choose to take this leave, but I am certain many do (in Quebec, the costs of paternal leave left government officials flabbergasted! They never thought so many fathers would take the paid 5 week partner-specific leave, which is in addition to the year-long leave that can be split between both parents).

    We’re not that far away, yet many comparisons in the US are done with Europe instead of Canada…

    • Good point! And yet, how would small and medium size businesses pay for the temporary help that would be needed to replace those on extended leave? Big corporations have resources that the smaller businesses do not.

  3. Sandra Basgall says:

    What we seem all to forget, women could have successful, meaningful careers and children if men were responsible also for the house work and children also and that women did not have to have the majority of the responsibility.

  4. Chelsea de Haviland says:

    The have it all used to be “a career and a husband or partner with or without children. What is troublesome to me in both of these commentaries leave out the underlying problem that women don’t get paid to be mothers, caretakers and domestic workers for their own children and households. Their work is devalued, so is it so surprising that this undervalued work is done by poor, unprivileged immigrant women of color and at such a low wage. Haven’t immigrant women of color replaced AA women in this role as “help”, as immigrant men, women and children of color have replaced AA men working in agriculture and other low-paying labor-intensive jobs.

    I would say that women who hire other women to care for their children and homes so that they can go out and work, should pay them a reasonable wage and give them decent benefits. At the micro-level, that would help quite a bit.

    At the macro level, I think the best solution I’ve heard is for the society/government/large corporations to pay all women or men (or both)to raise children and run households. However, the primary function for a corporation (by law) is to make money while the primary function of a mother/caretaker is to nurture and take care of others. So, how, in the current environment, we reconcile valuing the work of mothers and homemakers and endorsement of a capitalistic financial system is unclear.

    Remember the organization, Wages for Housework? I took this off of one of their recent postings:

    According to Selma James, “many thinkers of women’s autonomy fail to mention in their praise or solutions for women’s emancipation, that the work women do at home is invaluable not only because it has held countless generations of families together, but because it has held a specific type of family together—the sacrifice of women at home has been the glue of working families. However, James’ analysis does not stop at empty praise, as many Conservatives are fond of doing. Rather, she continues with the important demand that women must be paid for their labor, “If we raise kids, we have a right to a living wage.”[1] And here she is not speaking of professional domestics, nannies, and immigrants who function in that capacity off the books, though she is also committed to their own struggles for dignity and autonomy. She wants to link the struggles of women who work in the home whether as hired helpers or as housewives with the struggles of women in the workplace.”

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