In Sheryl Sandberg's best-selling book, Lean In, she argues that a major reason why women don't assert themselves at work is that they think it will make other people see them as selfish, cold and unpleasant workaholics. For men, success is correlated with niceness but successful women are often perceived as bossy and dislikable.
Sandberg cites Deborah Greenfield, Professor of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at Stanford, who explains that this is the result of a widespread assumption that women not only are nurturing, but that they should be – which means that when a woman does anything that signals that she may not be nice first and foremost, we feel negative and uncomfortable.
Sandberg's solution is to get us all leaning in, asserting ourselves in the hope that a critical mass of successful women will eventually change opinion. Which is all very well, but many of us feel that we've already leant so far in that we're about to fall down the well. We have to be checking our email all the time. We keep our phones on the table at dinner, we answer calls from our beds. The workplace has invaded our homes and we are forever jumping to attention.
The values of the workplace have taken over our domestic lives alongside the tools that carry them. We must be alert to new opportunities, keen, maximising the returns on our investments, prepared to shop around. We must be 'hard-working families,' the politicians tell us, because paid work is the work of highest value, the work that entitles you to take the moral high ground. And the harder and longer you work, the higher the moral ground you can claim.
The flip side of this is that the work of caring, the slow, attentive work that doesn't involve turning yourself into a brand, has been devalued. No one wants to do too much of it because it gets in the way. Caring work has become poorly-paid and low status. And then no one wants to do it even more.
Instead of importing the values of the workplace into the home, what we should have done was import some of the values of the home into the workplace – because if no one is doing the work of being generous, unselfish and caring any more, then it stands to reason that everyone suffers.
In the past, men were able to concentrate on being self-interested, to pursue the values of the market thanks to all the wives and mothers taking care of the weak, the lonely and the old. Of course, it wasn't remotely right that this division of labour was so strictly gendered – but throwing out all the caring was hardly the most sensible solution.
When I was researching my recent Mothers of Innovation report, exploring the role of women in bringing about social change, conversations kept coming back to the problem of how to balance obligations to family and community with paid work. In the developed world, women feel this is the area in need of urgent innovation. Unfortunately, no one seems to be doing anything very innovative. Feminists have had always a tough time confronting the way in which women's traditional caring roles have been devalued, because policies designed to support caring can result, whether deliberately or as an unintended consequence, in women being forced back into traditional roles.
Yet it's no coincidence that research suggests that women are less happy than they used to be. Justin Wolfers and Betsy Stevenson have found that women in America are less happy than they were in 1972, both absolutely and relative to men. Wolfers and Stevenson argue that the growing gap between affluence and happiness for women owes much to the devaluation of home life - without, of course, much lessening of responsibility.
Dual incomes necessary
Women used to be valued for being good mothers. Now motherhood is something you do in the spaces inbetween. There is no monetary value in it and little other support (everyone else is at work). In a world in which dual incomes have become increasingly necessary to maintain a moderate standard of living, parents have to find deep reserves of altruism to overcome the disadvantages of parenthood. As the feminist economist Nancy Folbre puts it, 'in a rat race, the rat willing to work the longest hours wins, even if the size of the cheese remains fixed. In this environment, we shouldn't be surprised to see a new strain of super-rats emerging, one that has reduced needs for giving or receiving care.'
Many women are resisting this future and leaving big companies because it is impossible to combine their demands with family life - to the extent that there is something approaching panic about the lack of women in boardrooms. It turns out that not everyone wants the neoliberal version of motherhood in which mothers have to define themselves by the market's criteria of success. Women are voting with their feet. But then what? We are in danger of expunging empathy, generosity and care from our account of what makes a good citizen, a well-lived life. It is not a recipe either for mental health or social survival.