I recently watched Robert Waldinger’s TED Talk called What Makes a Good Life: The Longest Study on Happiness. I’m going to go ahead and spoil it for you; the answer lies in good relationships. At the core of these relationships is their ability to dispel feelings of loneliness. Waldinger offers an example that the couple married for many years may still bicker on a daily basis but the quality of the relationship does not lie in petty arguments. If both spouses trust the other to offer support when things get really tough, then the relationship is a good one.
I think of this TED talk as I have been thinking about Ann-Marie Slaughter’s Book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. The authors of this blog selected Slaughter’s book as a selection for our Women’s Leadership Book Club (sure, I’ll capitalize the name of our unofficial group). Slaughter’s article, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, in The Atlantic was one of the first pieces that got us all talking and was the premise for our ACPA presentation a couple of years ago. As I dove into our selected text, I was having a really difficult time relating to the description of Slaughter’s journey. She left a highly intense political appointment to return to an administrative appointment at Princeton. It was in her return to Princeton that she decided that women couldn’t have it all. Her circle of professional colleagues wondered if she couldn’t hack it in Washington and her weaknesses led her back to her family. One must admit returning to Princeton does not sound all that terrible, nor does it sound like a cake walk. It was this part of Slaughter’s story that framed her plight that I found, truthfully, not much of a plight at all. And, her story led to think that Slaughter views work in higher education as cushy. Sure, it likely is compared to politics in Washington. Yet, I felt she inadvertently dismissed the challenges of working in higher education.
Eventually, I got beyond this and kept reading. Slaughter’s writing style is clean and drew me into the research. She makes good points with an almost reluctant acceptance that her claim to fame has become shining light on the difficulties women have in the workplace when caregiving and professional advancement are at odds. Slaughter sticks to highlighting the cultural expectations alive and well in the workplace that often put women at a disadvantage for landing leadership positions. I like that Slaughter is talking about systems. In relationship to this blog, her attention to addressing systemic needs reflects how feminist leadership plays an essential role in the workplace. And, feminist leadership is not about women in leadership positions. Feminist leadership highlights a collaborative, inclusive style that embraces compassion and authenticity. Essentially, the best work product is the one created with the diversity of voices contributing to the process. Should we be able to see feminist leadership in the workplace get the staying power it needs, to become unstuck as Slaughter has described it, we’ll need those who embrace such leadership styles at the table. Those are the innovators who can create systems founded on the principles that the best talent may come from those who have multiple and complicated responsibilities.
Thus, the concept that has stayed with me is this idea of care versus competition. The workplace, as a system, places value on competition rather than on how people are cared for – whether it be children, ailing partners, dear friends, or older relatives. Whenever there is a need for an employee who needs to provide care, the workplace system is not ideally arranged. One could say that FMLA and other policies have helped. Yet, I am inclined to assert that few of us fully embrace a culture of work as one that allows for care-giving. And this caregiving is not exclusive to women as men will find themselves with caregiving responsibilities. Yet, I am going to venture to say that until we come to a place where breadwinning is not a measure of a man, we’ll still put caregiving at odds with work.
This brings me back to the quality of our relationships and a happy life. If research shows that good relationships are key to leading happy lives, how can our culture of work ignore it? Those we work with are complex, and we need to appreciate the complexities. What if workplaces embrace this research on happiness and bosses recognize that caring for our loved ones could be challenging in the short term but beneficial in the long run? Our relationships should not put us at a crossroads…especially when it is the fullness of our relationships that leads to happiness in life.