Rethinking Men, Empowering Women

by Tricia Correia

In 2013, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 38% of women earned more than their male spouses, as compared to only 23% in 1987. Women who choose to work rather than stay at home with children are now praised. And increasingly, policies such as Sweden’s 480 days of paid maternity and paternity leave are enabling women to participate more equitably in the economy.

Despite such gains, women have yet to achieve economic equality. The White House reports that full-time working women in the US earn 77% of what their male counterparts earn. Globally, women are only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.

With the increasing participation of women in the economy, what is preventing women from working more, earning more, and leading in the workplace? The answer I posit lies not with women, but with men.

Traditionally, advocates for women’s political, social, and economic rights have been women themselves. Yet today, thanks to greater cultural acceptance of feminism and movements such as the HeForShe campaign, made popular by actor Emma Watson in a 2014 speech at the UN, men too are labeling themselves feminists. HeForShe asks men and boys to “take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls,” recognizing and encouraging men’s role in the fight for gender equality.

Although including men in the fight is an important step, their involvement alone is not enough. In order for men and women to truly be equal, men must be encouraged to take on more roles and responsibilities traditionally held by women, just as women have been encouraged to take on those traditionally held by men. As Conor Williams, wrote for The Daily Beast, “If men are part of the problem, they must also be part of the solution. Professional flexibility for women rests upon a more flexible view of masculinity.”

While women have earned acceptance in the workforce over the past decades, men have not yet seen societal acceptance as caregivers and homemakers. “Most definitions of masculinity can accommodate shirts soaked with sweat, blood, or ambiguous grime … but not applesauce,” adds Williams. True gender equality does not solely entail elevating the status of women, but also requires breaking down the stereotypes that encompass both genders.

Just as women and girls do not want to be bound by gender stereotypes and discriminatory social norms, neither do men and boys. As State of the World’s Fathers reports:

“A study of teenage boys in the United States found that “boys between the ages of 11 and 15 are just as sentimental and emotional about their friends as girls…But around 16 or 17 is the age when they can no longer resist the ideology of what it is to be a man in American culture, which means being stoic, unemotional, and self-sufficient.”

Cultural norms create a narrow frame of masculinity that, unlike the frame of femininity, has not yet been expanded.

Such definitions of masculinity greatly affect the relationships and roles of men and women in households and in the workforce. For example, a US study found that heterosexual married couples in which the wife earns more than the husband are 50% more likely to get divorced than if the husband earns more. Couples who defy the stereotype of the male breadwinner struggle to maintain positive relationships.

This same study also found that “the gender gap in home production—how much more time the wife spends on non-market work than the husband—is larger in couples where she earns more than he does. This suggests that a ‘threatening’ wife takes on a greater share of housework so as to assuage the husband’s unease with the situation” (and/or the wife’s unease with the situation, I might add). It is now acceptable for the woman to earn more than the man, but it is still not acceptable for the man to earn less than the woman.

An article from The Washington Post reports that while 16 percent of fathers said they would stay at home and forgo work if money were no object, only 7 percent of them actually do. Among women, 22 percent said they would ideally stay at home, while in actuality, 30 percent do. Traditional ideas of the man being the partner who should work are preventing men who want to take on a full-time role at home from doing so, and are preventing women who want to enter the workforce from doing so as well.

Men alone do not create these limiting ideas of masculinity – women and society do too. Many women have doubts about whether men can be good caregivers. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of New America, discusses in an opinion piece for The Washington Post:

“When I speak to women’s groups, I describe the following scenario. You walk into your office, and your boss says: ‘I am biologically better at this, but I think you can do this job if I micromanage you enough, leaving you long lists of what needs to be done and calling in every hour or two to make sure you are actually doing what you are supposed to be.’ Partway through, ripples of laughter begin to spread through the audience; the women recognize that I am describing how most of us treat our husbands.”

Slaughter goes on to write, “For men to take charge…women have to be willing to step aside, despite all the cultural expectations that we’ll run the home front no matter what.” In order for women who want to “lean in” in the workplace to succeed, they also need to be willing to “step aside” at home.

The benefits of men taking on more responsibility at home are immense. When men are more involved in care work, it allows for women to be more involved in the economy. And, “If women in the United States, Japan, and Egypt were employed at the same rates as men, the GDPs of those countries would be higher by 5%, 9%, and 34%, respectively,” according to HBR. Women cannot increase their participation in the economy if men are not increasing their participation at home.

Men’s involvement at home also increases women’s pay. A study of Swedish parental leave found that “every month that fathers took paternity leave increased the mother’s income by 6.7 percent, as measured four years later, which was more than she lost by taking parental leave herself.” Splitting initial parental leave more equally between mothers and fathers not only enables working mothers to go back to work more easily, but also paves the way for fathers to take on more equitable caregiving roles down the road.

Further, these benefits don’t just reach the current generation; they also transfer on to future generations. Research finds that “when boys see their fathers, or other men in the household, carrying out caregiving and domestic work and interacting with female partners in equitable ways, they are more likely to do the same when they become adults, and to grow up believing in and living gender equality.” The daughters of these men are also more likely to “aspire to less traditional and potentially higher-paying jobs.” If men today start changing the perception of what being “a man” means to include a role in caregiving and work at home, the next generation will follow suit.

Women have made great strides towards social, political, and economic equality. However, there is still progress to be made. With a focus on women alone, we lose sight of the full picture that encompasses gender equality – a picture that involves the roles of both women and men. Only by rethinking our ideas of men can we fully empower women.


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