Men and the Gender Revolution at Work and Home

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Richard Reeves, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, co-director of the Center on Children and Families, and editor of the Social Mobility Memos blog. Prior to Brookings, he was director of strategy to the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister.   Some of his other previous roles include director of Demos, the London-based political think-tank; director of futures at the Work Foundation; and principal policy advisor to the Minister for Welfare Reform. He spoke with Stew Friedman about his New York Times piece Men’s Lib! about how men need to catch up with women in the gender revolution.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: What inspired you to write, with your co-author Isabel Sawhill, Men’s Lib!

Richard Reeves: It came out of a conversation that Sawhill and I had been having for many weeks and months, and something we had both been working on for years. It’s really about the integration of some of those social and economic issues that you talk about so much on this show. Very often we’ll see this social side of life – families, gender, men’s and women’s roles, and so on – as one half of the coin. And then we look at what’s happening in the labor market with unemployment and the economy. But, of course that’s not how we all live. In practice, the lines between those things blur, and the implications of the connection between work and life, for both men and women, have become much more important. What inspired us to write this particular piece was partly a positive feeling and partly a negative feeling. The positive feeling was that there’s an important message here about how men can do better if they adapt to the world as it’s changing.  At the same time there is a real men need to step up problem.  There are opportunities for men in the new post-feminine, post-industrial world. The fear is that unless that adaptation happens, we’ll fall back into a pining for a world that’s gone. Even in some of these policy debates now you get a sense that people are kind of wishing things could go back a bit. You hear discussions about marriage and breadwinner men. You can sense there are those who fell that if we can go back to the way things were, we’ll be okay. We need to think really hard now about what it means to be a man and a working father as well as what it means to be a working mother.

SF: Those definitions are in flux now, aren’t they?

RR: Right, and it’s been true for women for quite some time. Part of the thesis of our article is that there have been really quite profound changes in women’s lives and in the range of options that have been available to women, but we are very careful not to say that the work of feminism is done. It may be that there are more women graduating colleges now than men in the US, but it’s still true that women earn less than men and that there are few women in boardrooms. But there hasn’t been an equivalent change in men’s lives in the last 40 years; we have seen an unbalanced gender revolution, a half of a gender revolution. For us to proceed now, most of the action is going to be on the side of men changing their roles and as we say in the piece, to become more like women in the way that women have become more like men.  They’re educated, they’re in the role of breadwinners, now we need men to do more on the home front, to think of themselves as working fathers as well as just fathers, and not to define a man and a father in that narrow breadwinning way, which is outdated anyway. It doesn’t work economically, even if we wanted it to.

SF: It’s just no longer the norm.  At Wharton we’ve studied the changes in attitudes and values of men and women with respect to work and family over the past 25 years.  I published a book a couple of years ago called Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family, and one of the main observations from that study comparing the Class of 1992 with the Class of 2012, is how very different both men and women feel about their roles, particularly in the domestic sphere, where there’s much more convergence now around the idea of there being a true 50-50 life that’s possible, an egalitarian world.  You write about that in your article about the move to greater egalitarianism.  Shared responsibility is necessary at home, if women are going to advance in the workplace.

RR: It’s a hard truth, but you can only have equality at work if you have equality at home. Otherwise you can only get one half of the workforce, where the other is at a disadvantage if they’re still expected to do most of the work on the home front.

SF: Which is how it’s been.

RR: I think you raise a good point that it’s a necessary part of completing the long journey towards gender equality. I guess the other thing we try to add to it is an economic agenda and analysis, too.   The economy that made the market that supported the old model just isn’t there anymore either. In effect, two things have happened. One, is there’s been the rise of women’s rights and feminism and a long and slow recognition of the need for gender equality.  Two, what’s happened is the economy has changed in such a way that particularly relatively modestly educated men can no longer earn a breadwinner wage in a manufacturing sector.  So you’ve seen both these social and economic changes that have hit men.  I think it’s important that we are sensitive to the fact that that’s a difficult change for a lot of men. It’s easy for men with high levels of education, like us and many of your listeners, to make those kinds of transitions. It’s maybe harder for men with less power in the labor market and less education. The evolution of more egalitarian attitudes towards what Michael Young called the symmetrical family has actually been the greatest among those with more education, and those with much more modest education have more traditional views.

SF: And that’s holding those men back from taking the initiative to transform their economic agency, their capacity to contribute in the labor market by moving into more of the H.E.A.L. jobs, the acronym that you use to describe health, education, administration and literacy.  They are remaining in the model of traditional breadwinner type of role.

RR: We look at which areas of the economy are growing and producing jobs, and we deliberately contrast the emphasis on STEM jobs and STEM skills, which is pretty well-known –science, technology, engineering, and math.  There’s been a big push to get girls involved and to get women into those, which is great and actually successful in some places. But what we call HEAL jobs, as a kind of contrast, in health, education, administration and literacy…

SF: Did you make up that acronym?

RR: Yeah.

SF: It’s excellent, because it not only stands for the major categories that you need to represent, which is about providing human service, the symbolic connotation – healing, caring – is also wonderful. Well done, Richard.

RR: It’s interesting the way you have seen more women moving into legal professions, dentists, even civil engineering has gone to 16% women when it was 3%, pharmacists now 48% women. You haven’t seen the same movement for men. Men are 22% of kindergarten and pre-kindergarten teachers, and that’s the same as it was in 1980. There’s been very little increase in the number of men in education. Pre-K is a growth area; early-years education is a growth area. 2% of those working in that area are men and it was 2% 35 years ago.

SF: Why is that? Is that because of the low wage rate or the stigma associated with doing work that’s traditionally associated with women?

RR: That’s a great question, and I don’t honestly know the answer. I suspect that they are wrapped up with each other because of the historic sexism in the labor market.  Women-dominated jobs did tend to be lower-paid in part because they were women-dominated. Their wages were seen as less-important, so the history of the gendered nature of some of these jobs is still visible in some of the wages. But even for elementary school teachers and nursing, there are fewer than one-in-ten male nurses. That has increased a little, but my point is that in some areas of education and health, the caring professions, from relatively low-paying jobs to middle-paying jobs, these are in the middle class, those jobs are being created in this service sector. But they are female-dominated. What you’re seeing, for whatever reason, is that men’s reluctance or inability to reorient themselves towards those jobs puts them at a disadvantage.  These sort of outdated views about what constitutes a men’s job, the person that that is hurting is men.

SF: So there are a couple different paths to progress here and I’d like you to try to address both, and you do in your article, to some degree. One is social policy and the other is what individual men and women can do to try and transcend, in order to move past traditional signals as to what is “appropriate” for one or the other gender.

RR: In terms of policy, using policy pretty broadly here, from public policy at national, state, local level through to corporate policy, the policies of different institutions ought to start with the do no harm principle. By that I mean don’t build in assumptions about gender and about men’s and women’s roles into your policies. Don’t have an asymmetric assumption about time off to care for kids.

SF: Let’s just define that for our listeners. Asymmetric being…

RR: If you can take more time off if you’re a mom than if you’re a dad upon becoming a parent or if the default is to call mom rather than dad.

SF: So that’s why we prefer the term parental leave to maternity leave or maternity and paternity, refer to parents.

RR: As a slight aside, it’s interesting t how often even when it’s formally called parental leave it very often immediately gets relabeled maternity leave by people who almost can’t stop themselves.  If there are going to be things like parental leave and family leave, just make sure that they’re going to be instituted in such a way that they’re equally available to mothers and fathers. Let’s not presume at the outset that this is going to be something that is for women, because that both adds to the inequality that you referred to a moment ago but also hampers men’s ability to reform. But there’s also stuff to do on the cultural and individual side.

SF: On the policy side, if we could just stay on that for one moment longer, part of your article gives a brief comparison a cross-national comparison of policies that really do create significant social and cultural change, especially the examples of Sweden and Germany. Tell our listeners, briefly, about that.

RR: In countries that have a national scheme of parental leave, which the US does not at the moment (it’s at the state level in certain states), sometimes the design of those actually makes part of a leave available only to men. So in a sense it’s use it or lose it, they’re actually not transferrable from the father to the mother.

SF: What’s been the impact of that kind of imperative from the government?

RR: Quite significant. People do respond to incentives. What you see is a significant increase in number of fathers who take that leave who then continue to be more involved in their kids’ lives. We know pretty well that fathers who are involved early in their kids’ lives were more involved later. In fact, some of the studies, the one in Quebec that I mentioned found a more egalitarian division of labor that lasted as far as the study went, which was three years after the taking of the leave. It did seem to recalibrate the family model.

SF: So people don’t revert to the traditional model of splitting caregiving and breadwinning along gender lines.  Mark Zuckerberg’s example: Now that his daughter’s arrived, he’s taking two months off. That sends a strong signal, doesn’t it?

RR: It does, and there is evidence as well from human resources literature that even in divisions of companies where the boss or senior figure takes paternity leave, the men who then subsequently become fathers are much more likely to as well. That is really a quite important cultural issue. I used to work in the UK on the Liberal Democrat side of the coalition government, but I was very proud that David Cameron, when he became Prime Minister, took paternity leave. These things do send strong signals.  When you’re running a company or a business, to send that signal is pretty important. People believe their eyes, not their ears.

SF: It does send the message that it’s not only okay, but that it’s a good thing to do.  That was a part of Zuckerberg’s announcement with which I was a little disappointed. He said that he’d be taking two months off because it’s good for his kid and for his family. He ought to have included that it’s good for his business as well.

RR: That’s right. He came across as a big policy wonk in that statement, as much as I admire him for doing what he did. What will happen is businesses will worry about some of these changes but the truth is, as Zuckerberg established, businesses worry about family leave, but businesses and capitalism are infinitely flexible and adaptable. They absolutely will adapt to men doing the same thing, too, and that will bring greater equality in terms of wages and promotion opportunities.

SF: Which makes it a more egalitarian world for us all. We’re seeing more and more examples everyday. Could you address briefly what you would advise people, men especially, to help them overcome the cultural and psychological barriers that might hold them back from entering sectors of the economy where they could really gain, create value, and start to be a part of this social movement to change the roles of men in society?

RR: I’d start with a three-word admonition — just do it.  I think that taking the step is always the most difficult. Talk to the women in your life about what they want from you, what they hope for and expect. I think that men will be pleasantly surprised to find that it will be good for them and good for their relationships to move into those places. I’m proud to say that I’m a working father.  And use the power that you have as a man, as a father, and as a worker, use that power not only for your own benefit by taking opportunities but also to create a world in which some of our daughters grow up to see both men and women as broad and flexible in the things that they can do. Take the idea of what it is to be a man and turn it on its head. There’s a way to do that that’s actually hugely empowering for men. This is not a loss. It doesn’t have to be a loss. Let’s just see this as something we can be proud of and feel like more rounded as individuals and as men, be better partners and fathers, better workers, if we’re able to take those leaps. You have just got to do it.

About the Author

Jacob Adler , W’18,  is a sophomore at Wharton and a contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, and Fake Teams.

This article was originally published on Wharton Work/Life.

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