Gender equality is not about winning a war!
The war metaphor distracts us with finger pointing, blaming, and endlessly seeking to justify who’s the perpetrator and who’s the victim. The war metaphor keeps us stuck. The reality is we all – both women and men – fall victim to highly gendered thinking. We are stuck in gender binaries and it has been, and in many ways continues to be, our conditioning.
In an experiment that has been repeated many times and redesigned in multiple ways, both women and men demonstrate a male-bias for leadership positions in the workplace. The experiment might go something like this: participants are asked to rate the resumes of candidates for a leadership position. They are told that each group will be evaluating the strength of one among multiple candidates. What the participants don’t know is that everyone is looking at the same exact resume. The only thing that has been changed is the name and gender [and in other experiments the race or ethnicity] of the candidate. Both women and men evaluate the supposed male candidate more favorably, even indicating he should be paid more.
The Revolution of Declining Expectations
Several years ago at the pinnacle of the financial implosion, I listened to Harvard Law Professor Nancy Gertner’s keynote address at a women’s leadership conference where she passionately described the women’s movement in the 1970’s as a revolution focused on changing the workplace and changing families, not about women having the choice to work outside the home. She went on to say that far too little had changed in either sphere and that change requires viable alternatives, which remained elusive, with companies overwhelmingly still family unfriendly and as a result, continued skewed gender norms at home. Retired Federal Judge Gertner [appointed during the Clinton administration] described the current state as the Revolution of Declining Expectations which needed to be remedied by igniting the consciousness of women and men[LL1] [LL2].
Yes, women can be a top leader -but if she has children, she had better be a good mom first. And men get major kudos for being an involved dad, BUT he better be a breadwinner too or we’re not quite sure what to make of him.
Both men and women suffer from a dissonance between their egalitarian ideology and their behavior. Take for instance the common scenario where a man strongly espouses gender equality, yet somehow that doesn’t translate to his negotiating a parental leave for more than a paltry week or two or realizing that his relationship to work must evolve if he plans on being a co-parent rather than a parent-assistant. No more flying out to a client on a day or two’s notice or heading out for 18 holes of golf, feeling fully justified because he spent an hour on Saturday morning playing with the kids.
I saw this dissonance in stark relief as a member of a research team examining millennial dads. In The New Millennial Dad: Understanding the Paradox of Today’s Fathers, two-thirds of men reported they should share care of their children equally with their spouse but only one-third actually did so. At the same time, over 90% of millennial fathers indicated wanting greater responsibility and men were twice as willing as women to seek advancement, even if it meant more time spent at work.
Similarly, a woman passionate about gender equality, especially about her husband sharing the load at home, fails to realize that her dictating the terms of engagement when it comes to parenting and household management renders him a servant, not a partner. Instead of grabbing the baby in frustration if dad doesn’t know what comforting techniques work best, she – and he – are better served in the long-run by her encouraging his efforts and giving him alone time with the baby when he can develop his comforting repertoire. And, if she blows a gasket when her husband returns from school shopping with their daughter sporting – to mom’s mind – an awful haircut, she must realize her parenting micromanagement not only saps his confidence but chills his desire to be involved.
The Mirror Image of Gender Inequality
The metaphor I’ve coined to illustrate the complexity of gender, and the fight for equality, is that of a mirror image.
Men, because of their gender, enjoy a privileged status in the workplace, which I’ve seen is highly challenging for many men to see or accept. His path upward is facilitated by countless subtle and not-so-subtle norms, ranging from male senior leaders who see in him themselves earlier in their careers, his knowing – having been schooled in the masculinity code – the importance of self-promotion for advancement, and his intense commitment and singular focus on work fueled by having a spouse or partner who is accountable for home and family management.
Similarly women, because of their gender, enjoy a privileged status as a parent and the leader at home. Everyone assumes a mother knows how to nurture a child instinctively, rather than the reality of her building skill through trial and error. School and camp default to mom as the go-to parent, even if dad explicitly asks to be called first, as my husband and I witnessed year after year after year. If a woman decides to step out of the workforce for a time, because the pressure at work feels too great and/or she wants to spend more time with her child, she is comforted by the familiar trope that she is being a good – no better – mother. But it’s hard to imagine a man feeling supported to stop working – or even cutting back at work – so he can be a better father. Ask dads who are the primary caretakers, as I have, about feeling welcomed into the mom clique at school or on the playground. While some have a positive story to tell, it’s far more common to hear about their feeling excluded, literally like the odd-man out
While women continue to struggle for their rightful place at the workplace leadership table, similarly men continue to struggle for their rightful place at home and as a parent/ caretaker for their loved ones.
The Power of Gender Partnerships
For the last 2 ½ years, I have seen the type of consciousness raising that Judge Gertner described as a remedy for the Revolution of Declining Expectations in a very unlikely place, the campuses of elite business schools. It began with my attending the first event hosted by the Harvard Business School Manbassadors, a group of men who sought to support gender equality at business school and in the workplace. Over more than two years, I have been researching male ally groups across the country and it has given me great hope for the future of gender equality.
These young men work closely with their female peers who are involved with women’s leadership groups on campus. They have candid conversations about gender, educate themselves about gender inequalities at work and at home, and work together to affect change.
I have been deeply inspired listening to young men share their desire to be a good partner in fully supporting their girlfriend’s/ wife’s career aspirations and being an inclusive leader that facilitates the professional development and advancement of women and men. They see supporting gender diversity and gender equality as both the smart thing as well as the right thing to do. They have seen the struggles of their sisters, mothers, friends and work colleagues and they have heard the challenges of their female business school peers. They want to make it better, not only for women but for themselves too. They don’t want to be absent dads and they’re tired of the locker room talk and behaviors. It doesn’t square with the women they see all around them, including the women they care about in their lives.
Male ally groups have provided a powerful forum for men to get involved and to transition from ‘the problem’ to ‘part of the solution.’ Working side-by-side with their female peers, these men and women are grappling with gender in all its complexity and seeking to rewrite the gender rules.
Rather than sapping our energy fighting with one another, or becoming resigned to ‘that’s the way it is,’ women and men can be far more effective working together to make gender equality real and not just aspirational in our lives.
That my friends, is key to getting us unstuck!