Time to give male privilege the kiss of death
Splitting breadwinning and caretaking between sexes an ideal not yet realised
WITH good reason, much of the concern about misogyny and the subjugation of women is currently focused on the workplace. As the #MeToo testimonials have shown, the professional world all too frequently tasks women with silent endurance of morally unacceptable (or downright criminal) behaviour. But even those of us who have avoided the most abusive workplaces live with malignant gender dynamics in our homes – and risk passing them on to our children.
Study after study shows that, among heterosexual parents, fathers – even the youngest and most theoretically progressive among them – do not generously share the workload at home. Employed women partnered with employed men carry 65% of the family’s child-care responsibilities, a figure that has held steady since the turn of the century. Women with babies enjoy half as much leisure time on weekends as their husbands.
Working mothers with preschool-age children are 2.5 times as likely to perform middle-of-the-night care as their husbands. And in hours not so easily tallied, mothers remain almost solely in charge of the endless managerial care that comes with raising children: securing babysitters, filling out school forms, sorting through hand-me-downs.
For the past year, I’ve been interviewing mothers who work outside the home for a book about their experiences raising children with men. Too often, although not always, I hear some version of the story a woman in Portland, Oregon, told me: “He’s great with the kids, and from friends I talk to, my husband does a lot more. But he’s on his phone or computer while I’m running around like a crazy person getting the kids’ stuff, doing the laundry.
“He has his coffee in the morning reading his phone while I’m packing lunches, getting our daughter’s clothes out, helping our son with his homework. He just sits there. He doesn’t do it on purpose. He has no awareness of what’s happening around him. I ask him about it and he gets defensive. It’s the same in the evening. He helps with dinner, but then I’m off to doing tooth-brushing and bedtime, and he’ll be sitting there on his phone.”
Empirical research shows that no domestic arrangement, not even one in which mother works full time and father is unemployed, results in child-care parity between heterosexual spouses.
The story we tell ourselves, the one about great leaps toward the achievement of gender equality between parents, is a glass-half-full kind of interpretation. But the reality is a half-empty glass: Modern men and women espouse egalitarian ideals and report that their decisions are mutual, but outcomes tend to favour fathers’ needs and goals much more than those of mothers.
The result of this covert power imbalance is not a net zero. A growing body of research in family and clinical studies demonstrates that spousal equality promotes marital success and that inequality undermines it. And the disparity creates not only undue emotional, physical and financial strain on mothers, but also perpetuates attitudes about what is and should be acceptable – or even desirable – between a woman and a man, with children as their eager audience.
Ideals are no substitute for behaviour. What are kids to make of their father sitting on his phone reading Facebook while their mother scrambles to prepare them for the day? It’s not hard to predict which parent’s personhood those offspring will conclude is more valuable. Children are gender detectives, distinguishing between the sexes from as early as 18 months and using that information to guide their behaviour, for example by choosing strongly stereotyped toys. And research shows that men’s attitudes about marital roles, not women’s, are ultimately internalised by both their daughters and their sons. This finding is a testament to kids’ ability to identify implicit power – whose beliefs are more important and therefore worth adopting as their own.
But therein, too, lies an opportunity, an answer for the men who are asking with great sincerity, “What can we do?”
First, accept at least half the responsibility for this pervasive marital dynamic. Power issues are not often raised between couples, but when they are, studies show that they’re most often framed not in terms of how husbands need to change but rather how wives do – she needs to be more assertive. When juxtaposed against a discussion about rampant sexual harassment, it sounds like another tired version of “She should’ve worn a longer skirt”.
Second, commit – wholeheartedly and without being asked – to examining male privilege. Our culture’s devaluation of “women’s work” has left men with little incentive to shift into less-traditional roles at home, even as women have become ever more successful breadwinners. Women are much more likely than men to report that the division of child care with their spouses is imbalanced, perhaps because, as one study found, men perceive that they are doing their fair share when they contribute just 36% of the work at home.
With that in mind, up the ante around participation in the most laborious and chore-like aspects of family life. Men can pack backpacks and suitcases, they can search for child-care alternatives in preparation for upcoming school holidays. They can restock groceries, plan meals, purchase birthday presents, send thank you notes, schedule paediatrician appointments, check folders. Any husband can make the family’s lunches.
College undergrads, not yet coupled, show mixed tolerance for the regressive patterns in daily life. In studies, these young men and women predominantly report hope for a future in which they will split the pleasures of breadwinning and caretaking equally with their spouses – what researchers call their Plan A.
But when asked for a Plan B, the sexes divide. The men anticipate being primary breadwinners alongside wives who are primarily caretakers. The women anticipate divorce. This conflict is not a road map toward any kind of meaningfully connected life.
What we tolerate uneasily in the workplace needs to change. What we live with more complacently in the home does as well. Neither can do so in a vacuum. Only tiny steps toward the lived expression of equal worth in both worlds can foster the kind of progress that turns #MeToo from a hashtag into an anachronism.
● Lockman, a psychologist in New York City, is at work on a book about the gendered division of labour in childcare.
These gender stereotypes are pervasive in the workplace and home to this day, says the writer.