MEN’S LIBERATION?

This morning I stumbled upon a piece I had written last year about gender stereotypes.  I spent a good portion of my time last year studying this topic through the lens of how it impacts children – particularly girls.  Being a lifelong feminist, I have always been out front supporting women’s issues and have believed that, as a woman, it is my obligation, to help advance the causes that help advance the women’s movement.  So, working on gender stereotypes as they relate to young girls was not a far leap for me.  Interestingly, what I found so surprising about this work is the sympathy for men that began to emerge when I started to study gender from both perspectives.

Uniting my professional areas of interest, I began looking at the stereotypes that men struggle with when it comes to finding some equilibrium with their life and work.  Naturally, we often think that men have it easy because they are always up for the stretch assignment and they are always in the pipeline for the C-Suite jobs.  Men have the advantage of being invited to the golf outings and cigar bars and can seamlessly maneuver their way into the inner circle.  But, this assumes that every man wants to be in the pipeline or that every man wants the stretch assignment or that every man wants to be at the golf outing or inside the inner circle.  We so often hear about women who have opted out of their careers in order to stay home with their kids or have a less stressful lifestyle where they can find more balance between work and family.  How often do we hear the same about men?

The Great Recession has shifted the balance of power in most families and this should be changing the equation for men.  When The Shriver Report was published last summer, there was so much press and buzz about how women were finally equal to men in the workforce with women representing 49.9% (compared to 35.5% a generation ago in 1969).  This, of course, is all great news for both men and women and corporate America.  There is so much evidence that women in the workplace – particularly mothers – increases productivity and, ultimately bottom-line performance.  And, while women are making 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, the gap continues to close and, perhaps, in my lifetime or my children’s, that margin will narrow even further.  So, what does all this mean for men?  A USA Today article in January 2009 reported that men were facing unemployment at much greater rates than women because of the industries in which they work.  Construction and manufacturing, heavily populated by men, were the hardest hit by the recession while healthcare and education had a bit more stability – industries where women represent nearly three quarters of the workforce.

So, going back to my original points, what does any of this have to do with how gender stereotypes impact men?

The reality for men is that they are equally – if not more so – impacted by the stereotypes imposed on them by our culture.  While many will agree that the role that men play as husbands and fathers has evolved significantly over the past several decades, it is still not unusual to hear – particularly in suburban communities – about the families where the dad works and the mom stays home to raise the kids.  In many of these communities, it would be highly unusual to see a dad at the playground during the day or a dad at pick-up after school.  Similarly, the men that work in more corporate environments tend to be more significantly impacted by stigmas about taking advantage of work/life offerings.  The stigmas, while different than the ones women face, are very difficult for dads to overcome.

Now, the question I ponder in 2010 versus when I originally started writing about the cement floor for men that affixes them to being in the role of breadwinner for the family, is whether or not this new normal created by the Recession will change the assumptions and expectations we, as a society have in regards to the roles men and women play both in the workplace and at home.  Sue Shellenbarger wrote a great piece in her column last week about the imbalance of benefits for dads vs moms and questioned whether men are discriminated against when it comes to work/family benefits and policies.  I would argue that men are absolutely discriminated against.  According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2009 Employee Benefits Report, only 15% of companies offer paid paternity leave.  The rest expect men to use sick leave or vacation time to be able to spend time with their new child and assist their wife or partner with the care of this child.  Shellenbarger reports in her column that the number of complaints coming from men about the availability of flex and family programs is increasing and that men are generally dissatisfied with how they are being treated in regards to these programs.

Fundamentally, I believe we have deep-rooted issues in the way we treat employees in general when it comes to strategies for helping them manage the multiple demands coming from their professional and personal lives.  And, as I have stated before, those companies that can make some headway in this area will have an enormous advantage over those that are stuck with their heads in the sand.  That being said, I also believe that we need to overcome our own struggles with stereotypical expectations that run along gender lines.  All the talk about the mommy wars – where are the daddy wars?  Why aren’t we more concerned about giving men the options they clearly crave to have choices when it comes to how they work.  The pressure on men to continue to conform to outdated models is still quite great – almost as great as the pressure on women to break through the glass ceiling.  We are getting more used to seeing men in caretaking roles simply because so many of them are out of work but it needs to become the new normal for men to be in those roles.

Tell me what you think about this topic.  Do you or your male spouse/partner have experiences you want to share?  Let’s see if there is any truth to all the hype.

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