Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Elegance of Caregiving

In 2011, Anne-Marie Slaughter gave up her position in the State Department in Washington DC as (the first female) Director of Policy Planning, (reporting directly to Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton), and returned home to her husband and sons in Princeton, NJ, to resume her former academic profession as tenured professor, where, prior to her appointment in Washington, she had been Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Her decision, on the surface, was not particularly noteworthy. Her two-year leave of absence for public service was over, and staying on in Washington to pursue a political career would have meant giving up tenure at Princeton. Another professor who returned to academia, to teaching at Harvard after holding positions in public service is Larry Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton, and Director of the National Economic Council under the Obama Administration.

While Slaughter’s decision was unsurprising, the circumstances and forces behind making this decision to return home propelled Slaughter down a path of forced self-reflection, resulting in two note-worthy pieces of writing: The first, an article in the Atlantic Monthly in 2012 titled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All went viral and has the distinction of being the most read article in the history of the magazine.  The response to this article eventually led Slaughter to further reflect on the hard truths about priorities and the consequences of choosing them, which gave rise to the book Unfinished Business, published earlier this year.

Slaughter’s decision to move back to Princeton was a difficult one, and influenced by her desire to be around for her teenage sons whom she got to see only on weekends during her two years in Washington. Her choice ultimately was between family and the chance to further pursue an ambition - a political career in foreign policy. In her own words:
“This crisis had forced me to confront what was most important to me, rather than what I was conditioned to want. That realization led me to question the feminist narrative I grew up with and have always championed. I began to wonder why success as a woman, or indeed as a man, meant privileging career achievement above all else.” (Emphasis added.)

In the reactions of people around her, the decision she ultimately made was not as much of an issue as the reasons behind why she made such a decision:
To Slaughter herself, “deciding to choose family over career felt like heresy.” The reactions of people privy to her decision-making showed that “the problem was not that I had come back to the university per se, but that I had come back because of my kids.” Her status as a tenured professor at an Ivy League school took a dive all of a sudden, and depreciated only because she chose it on account of caregiving.

Unfinished Business is Slaughter’s manifesto on why “professional success is not the only measure of human happiness and achievement.” It upends mainstream views on female empowerment through professional achievement, and offers realistic alternatives down the path towards achieving equality. This essay is a response to Slaughter’s approach, as elaborated on in Unfinished Business:

Slaughter confronts the issue of gender equality by exposing the myths that we believe about career advancement. She calls these myths “half-truths” and addresses them separately as those about women, those concerning men, and those dealing with the workplace; she then furnishes the reader with the “whole truths” about those issues. 

One half-truth about women, for example, is the belief that if women were committed enough to their careers, they would be able to “have full-fledged careers just like men without giving up the joys of family life.” Feminist viewpoints that urge women to prioritize careers, and mantras like Lean-In subscribe heavily to this belief and perpetuate the idea that it is mostly a lack of aspiration that is holding women back. Slaughter exposes the false assumptions that underlie this and other myths:

Slaughter states that the assumption that women are distracted from their careers or abandon them because they lack the ambition for it is founded on the deeper assumption that these women could have flourishing careers if they only pursued them more earnestly. An extension of this assumption is that “if you are prepared to do whatever it takes to advance your career, including rarely seeing your children, then you can indeed have a career and a family too.” Slaughter further points out that many male CEOs and senior partners state that that is precisely the sacrifice they have had to make in their path to becoming leaders in their field – working extensive hours and sacrificing time with family. Slaughter shows, however, that women who desire to rise to the tops of their fields need to make those very sacrifices and then some:

Slaughter shows that typically, men who have devoted themselves to their careers have done so in the comfort of support from “wives or partners who have either been full-time or at least lead caregivers.” But a career-woman with aspirations of rising to the top typically does so with neither parent available for the children. Women who wish to prioritize their careers over everything else have an unfavorable environment because: “Relatively rare is the husband who agrees to stay home or be the lead parent so that his wife can advance her career.”
An additional burden that women face is the reality that they still shoulder the bulk of domestic responsibilities even when they hold a job outside the home. Thus, when the home environments and gender-based expectations on who bears the brunt of domestic work are so different for men and women, ambition, or the lack of it can hardly be held accountable for the differences in men’s and women’s rise in their careers.

Slaughter pays special attention to the question of why some women don’t lean-in or choose not to: Her answer to this question is that “plenty of women have leaned-in for all they’re worth but still run up against insuperable obstacles created by the combination of unpredictable life-circumstances and the rigid inflexibilities of our workplaces, the lack of a public infrastructure of care, and cultural attitudes that devalue them the minute they step out, or even just lean back from the workforce.”

Slaughter’s brand of feminism acknowledges many different obstacles to gender parity. 
And even within the realm of women’s ambitions, her tenets recognize a nuanced world with room for variation that allows for the ebbing and flowing of aspirations at different stages of one’s life.

In reflecting on her own circumstances, she acknowledges that she herself might have written something on the lines of Lean-In in her forties, when her children were young and when the kinds of problems she encountered were easily solved “by working harder or hiring people to help out.” However, a decade later, at the time of her dilemma where she found herself having to choose between a political career and spending more time with her sons, she gained “insight into the circumstances and choices facing the many women who have found that for whatever reason, leaning in simply isn’t an option.”

One notable area of variation that Slaughter recognizes concerns the aspirations of women who defer professional achievement for a few years as a personal choice. Where mainstream feminism views this choice as opting-out of a career, Slaughter lauds this choice of prioritizing caregiving as an essential component of a healthy community. She calls for a paradigm-shift in our notions of “success,” and suggests that “perhaps the problem is not with women, but with work.” (Emphasis in original) 

Slaughter believes that the locus of the problem is within the system – an “antiquated and broken” one, and offers ways to mend this system. She asks why working flexible hours or part-time or taking time off should take one off the leadership track rather than just slow down the path to promotions, and she answers: “Because the deep assumption in the American workplace is that the fast track is the only track. Up or out.”

Slaughter rejects this false dichotomy of “up or out,” and calls for a recognition of the track that allows for caregiving in its path. Slaughter also strongly dismisses the assumption that when women (or men) focus on caregiving at certain junctures in their lives, that is an indication of a lack of commitment to their careers. 

Slaughter rejects the idea of a career being “a race in which everyone starts at the same time and competes over the same period of time.” One of the many real-life examples she cites throughout the book is that of Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose career track record includes brief periods of being a full-time mom, working part-time after her second child, and beginning her first campaign for elected office well into her middle age, at sixty-two. 

She cautions that when we view careers through that narrow lens of a sprint from beginning to end with no room for variation, we leave behind those who have caregiving responsibilities or aren’t able to have a full-time caregiver at home, and as a result of that narrow mindset, we lose an enormous pool of talent: 
“We lose the distance runners, the athletes with the endurance, patience, fortitude and resilience to keep going over the long haul. We lose the runners who see a different path to the finish and are willing to take it, even if it is in unchartered territory. We lose the runners who have the temperament and perspective to allow them to see beyond the race.”

Slaughter views the problem of the so-called work-life balance as a concern that is not the sole purview of women. Instead, she reduces the entire problem of gender inequality to one issue - caregiving – something both men and women should be responsible for. She shows that as a rule, there is “the undervaluing of care, no matter who does it.” She exposes the reality that we tend to value people “who invest in themselves more than we value people who invest in others,” and she reminds us that in women’s fight for equality, we have “left caregiving behind, valuing it less and less as a meaningful and important human endeavor.”

To quote from my own writing that resonates with this position is an excerpt from my 2013 essay Is Feminism Elegant?

“If the presence of women in the workforce is perceived as the result of following a principle of empowerment (as opposed to a parameter), those who do not practice it, and do not enter the mainstream workforce are viewed as somehow not sipping from the cup of empowerment. They are viewed as ideologically indifferent to the general feminist agenda, or worse, ideologically underdeveloped! 
By solely viewing women’s work outside the home as gainful employment, we have gravely undermined the value of women’s work inside the home, and by extension, the value of the woman herself. So how do we revise our perception? We ought to view women’s work, domestic or otherwise, as having monetary value.”

Slaughter further promotes caregiving as a worthy alternative and supplement to competition, and calls for dismantling the latter’s “aura of mystery and power.” She questions our tendency to automatically view as role models those who have made a lot of money or risen to positions of power in their fields, and urges us to use other attributes as our compass of admiration.

She asks: “What about their values? How do they treat other people? What was the cost to their families – the people who brought them into the world, people they married, people they were responsible for bringing into the world? How can that part of the story not be relevant to who they are and how we should think about them?” 

These questions should be the obvious ones to ask when gauging the success of a person, but our notions of success are so narrowly defined and so driven by monetary outcomes that we have lost sight of what truly matters, and we need reminding. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that multiple books by public personae are urging us to re-examine our values:

In addition to Slaughter’s own thoughts on values, she quotes from conservative political commentator and NYT Op-Ed columnist David Brook’s recent book, The Road to Character, where Brooks, who describes himself as someone “paid to be a narcissistic blowhard” embarks on a mission to “save (his) own soul.” Brooks distinguishes between “résumé virtues” (traits valued professionally that lead to bigger paychecks and outward success) and “eulogy virtues” (praiseworthy character traits that are mentioned when the person isn’t around to hear it.) 
Slaughter quoting Brooks on eulogy virtues: “They’re “the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you’ve formed.” They’re the ones, in the end, that matter the most.”

Slaughter’s case for caregiving passes the “test of elegance” as described in my essay Is Feminism Elegant? 
An elegant theory is one that explains the maximum evidence with minimum effort. It employs the fewest principles or rules while doing so. Elegant theories have high explanatory power, but at the same time are parsimonious

By using one simple but over-arching principle of caregiving as the cornerstone of gender equality, Slaughter unites the cause of women of all socio-economic levels in one parsimonious leap. In terms of applicability, caregiving is pertinent not only to women of all socio-economic levels, but to men as well. Because caregiving is also needed for the elderly, it applies to everyone - those who have children, as well as those who don’t. Slaughter’s keystone of caregiving is thus the elegant and much-needed unifying force of gender parity. 

Slaughter recommends building an “infrastructure of care” that includes affordable childcare and eldercare of high quality, a right to part-time work, flexibility in the workplace, and higher wages and training for paid caregivers, to name just a few.  What remains to be seen is how this business will be finished. What will be the specific policy changes and laws that would elevate the status of caregiving - of domestic workers, professional caregivers and of housewives - while at the same time making caregiving an affordable option for women who wish to prioritize their careers? 

In her effort to get to the roots of gender inequality, Slaughter takes things we already know about men, women, the workplace, gender expectations, our notions about masculinity, what we view as threats to masculinity, our judgments about work habits, and so much more, and she weaves together a composite that allows us to see the false assumptions that many of our beliefs on gender equality are founded on. Unfinished Business is a book that belongs on the bookshelf of every woman and man on the threshold of a career, navigating a career, or reflecting on a past career. It should be read by women leaning-in and by women staying-put, by men who care about gender equality and by men who are afraid that stepping out of antiquated gender-roles might threaten their masculine identity. It’s a book the requires re-reading to fully absorb the scope of Slaughter’s analysis: broad strokes that capture the realities of multiple cohorts of women, and intricate strokes that zoom in on individual words we use – working-mother, opting-out, Mr. Mom - euphemisms that betray our double standards, and the subtle cultural messages we send out that perpetuate the cycle of gender inequality.

To end with a slogan that Slaughter developed to exemplify her case for caregiving:

“If family comes first, work does not come second. Life comes together.”

Monday, June 29, 2015


Bobby Jindal’s announcement that he will be competing for the 2016 GOP presidential ticket is being met with mixed emotions by the Indian community. Jindal has already secured the distinction of being the first person of Indian heritage to serve as governor of a US state – for two terms, no less. This is a position he gained by winning a very large margin over his opponents – no small achievement in the southern state of Louisiana that has a long history of racial tension. No matter the outcome of his run for presidency, Jindal is the first of his kind to have accomplished what he has so far.

However, any pride that the Indian community may feel that a person of Indian origin has come so far in America’s political echelons is misplaced, and should be tempered with the reality that Bobby Jindal is not the typical Indian immigrant. As Shashi Tharoor, former Under Secretary of the United Nations has noted in his latest book, India Shastra: Tharoor asks “How proud should we be of Bobby Jindal?” and answers “Let us be proud that a brown-skinned man with an Indian name has achieved what Bobby Jindal has. But let us not make the mistake of thinking that we should be proud of how he behaves, or what he stands for.”

Jindal was born Piyush Jindal, but at the age of four, he asked to be called Bobby, after the youngest character in the television show The Brady Bunch. Apart from rejecting the name given to him by his parents (although legally he still is Piyush), Jindal has openly dissociated himself from his Indian heritage. In his teens, he converted from the religion of his birth, Hinduism, to Christianity. He dislikes being called “Indian-American” and prefers the term “American.”  As Tharoor clarifies in India Shastra: “…Bobby has never supported a single Indian issue; he refused to join the India Caucus when he was a Congressman at Capitol Hill, and is conspicuously absent from any event with a visiting Indian leader. It is as if he wants to forget he is Indian, and would like voters to forget it too.”

If Jindal wishes voters to forget that detail about his origin, Indians on the Twitter-sphere have not.  Following Jindal’s announcement to run for president, Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu began the flurry of tweets mocking Jindal with the hashtag #bobbyjindalissowhite:

While the comment above was tweeted in jest, Kondabolu may have accidently hit upon a truth: Tharoor states, on a serious note, in India Shastra (about Jindal) that “The two of us jointly won something called an Excelsior Award once from the Network of Indian Professionals in the US, and his acceptance speech on the occasion was striking – obligatory references to the Indian values of his parents, but a speech so American in tone and intonation that he mangled the Indian name of his own brother.” 

Another tweet from Kondabolu reads:

And another, on a half-serious note:

Adding to Kondabolu’s hashtag, The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi created the hashtag #Jindian as the Indian version of “redneck,” and tweeted the following:

This last tweet is in reference to the controversy regarding Jindal’s unofficial portrait done by Louisiana painter Tommy Yow Jr. from a photograph of Jindal, where the skin tone on the portrait is several tones lighter than the skin of the real Jindal. This portrait has been hanging in the Louisiana Capitol office since 2008, but people took notice only in February of this year when a blogger tweeted a picture of the portrait causing an onslaught of comments and jokes.

While the jokes about Jindal’s choices of personal identity are entertaining, what is not so amusing is Jindal’s stance on political issues. It is Jindal’s option to associate with or dissociate from whomever he pleases. However, if the Indian community were better aware of Bobby Jindal’s political opinions, the majority would rather he not be associated with the Indian diaspora.

According to 2012 statistics from The Pew Research Center, 65% of Indian Americans are Democrats or left-leaning; 18% are Republican. As a conservative Republican, Jindal stands severely opposed to the prevailing values of the Indian community. As Tharoor notes:

“Most Indian-Americans are in favour of gun control, support a woman’s right to choose abortion, advocate immigrants’ rights, and oppose school prayer (for fear it will marginalize non-Christians). On every one of these issues, Bobby Jindal is on the opposite side. He’s not just conservative; on these questions, he is well to the right of his own party.”

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being opposed to the majority viewpoint, or changing your name, or choosing a religion different from that of your birth, what is disconcerting about Jindal is the sum of his parts.

Jindal’s choices of identity, while an affront to some, are more perplexing than offensive. By his own account, Jindal maintains that the Indian values he grew up with were very much in consonance with the values of the larger community, and he had no trouble fitting in. In his 2010 book, Leadership and Crisis, Jindal states: 

“But the values I learned from my Hindu parents ran deep: honesty, respect for elders, hard work, modesty, reverence, the importance of family--traditional Hindu values that meshed quite well with Louisiana's traditional Bible Belt beliefs. I never felt culturally different from your typical Baton Rouge kid.”

If cultural assimilation was not the goal of Jindal’s shift in religion, and subsequent associations and dissociations, then what was? Some believe it is a calculated move to further his political ambitions. 

Bobby Jindal has an impressive education that few can equal. He graduated from Brown University, double-majoring in Biology and Public Policy. He was accepted at Harvard Medical School, and Yale Law School, but chose a third option instead: He went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and studied Political Science with a focus on Health Policy. 

Jindal’s work history is equally remarkable: His first public-service job was as secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Later, he became the executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, in Washington D.C. He then moved from healthcare to education, when he became president of the University of Louisiana. Finally, before he became governor of Louisiana, he was also the assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the Bush administration.

Despite a wealth of education and work experience, Jindal launches his rhetoric from the vantage point of his religion: He is vehemently against gay marriage, responding to this week’s supreme court ruling legalizing gay marriage with: 

“This decision will pave the way for an all out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision. This ruling must not be used as pretext by Washington to erode our right to religious liberty.” 

He is against abortion and stem cell research, and supports the teaching of creationism/Intelligent Design in schools. In 2008, as Governor, he passed Senate Bill 561 (SB561), which paves the way for creationism to be taught in Louisiana’s public schools. Efforts from the scientific community to repeal the bill have been unsuccessful so far. One such effort, spearheaded by then high school student Zack Kopplin included having 78 Nobel laureates as well as Jindal’s genetics professor from Brown University urge him to repeal it, but to no avail.

Jindal also views gun legislation from the lens of religious freedom. He is a poster child for the National Rifle Association (NRA). He has an A+ rating from the NRA for his long-standing work on proliferating gun-ownership and curtailing gun safety legislation in America. In Jindal’s own words: 

“I was proud to pass Louisiana’s own second amendment to our state constitution, giving us the strongest pro-gun laws in America... I am honored to earn the NRA’s highest national award for legislative achievement.”

In April this year, as in previous years, Jindal addressed the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum, where he likened efforts to curtail gun-ownership with infringements on religious freedoms. He told the adoring NRA soldiery that the NRA is “the most effective civil rights organization” in America. He criticized New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, for “pressuring grocery stores and restaurants to ban guns,” and warned that “next, he (Bloomberg) will bully sporting goods stores to quit selling guns and ammo.” 
He reminded the audience about the NRA’s recent victory in quashing Obama’s proposal to ban civilian use of “green-tip” ammunition that has armor-piercing capabilities: “We rose up and we stopped him…” he said, to a cheering crowd.

In his efforts to neutralize the disadvantage of being an ethnic minority, and his desire to minimize the “elitist” stigma sometimes associated with being an educated intellectual, Bobby Jindal has foolishly espoused the cause of the far-right conservatives of the Republican party. Now he’s stuck with it, or perhaps it’s grown on him, and he really believes the toxic jabberwocky he spews.

It is difficult to grant people the quality of being genuine if they themselves reject who they are. Furthermore, if your choices for change in identity are motivated by reasons other than survival, or ease of living, or assimilation, but rather, are calculated steps taken to further political agenda, you risk being seen as inauthentic.

Bobby Jindal is a contradiction in his own self-chosen identity. Despite his very impressive education, when he speaks, he sounds like an unsure novice with a mantra of a few politically charged words that he keeps recycling: gun rights…  second amendment… religious freedom… liberty…. America is the greatest country in the history of the world……

It is hard to parse out what Bobby Jindal really believes in, and what characteristics he has carefully chosen to hold him in good stead in the political arena. He appears to be a calculated shell of a person, with not much authenticity within. 

In the words of Lewis Carroll: Beware the Jabberwock, my son!