Gender equality will remain stalled until men and women are afforded the same rights to paid leave, says Soraya Chemaly.
Josh Levs would like to stay home to care for his third child, a newborn daughter. As he explains in a Tumblr post, “I have only two choices: Stay out for 10 weeks without pay, or return to work and hire someone to come to our home each day. Neither is financially tenable, and the fact that only biological dads face this choice at this point in a newborn’s life is ludicrous.”
He goes on to describe a series of absurd scenarios, including having to find a same-sex spouse and also legally adopting his own children. He explains, “All parents of new children have the option of 10 paid weeks off—except biological fathers.” Levs, who works at CNN, has filed an EEOC complaint against the company’s parent, Time Warner.
I write about teaching boys to be caring and empathetic regularly. Inevitably, after writing, people send me variations of the following messages: “You’re demonizing boys!” “What, are you going to make boys play with dolls now?” or, my favorite, “Why don’t you leave boys alone instead of damaging them?!”
You know what a “damaged boy” is more likely to grow up to be? A man who is probably more inclined to want to stay home and take care of his newborn child.
There are more than 150,000,000 men in the United States. What if we made it possible, easy, and shameless—for those who want to and can—to care and nurture instead of compete and dominate? Unfortunately, we remain stuck, institutionally and culturally, with the idea of fathers caring for their offspring as a “comedy of errors.” It’s startling to some people. Tied up in the incoherence of the leave policies that the Levs’ are dealing with are many normatively biased ideas about babies, women, men, and attachment. I can hear the question now: “Do you really think men and women are interchangeable? There are men and there are women and they are born biologically different.”
Time Warner’s policies are the rule, not the exception. As a matter of fact, Time Warner’s policies are better than most, which remain remarkably out of sync with the lives and desires of most Americans. Ninety percent of working women and 95% of working men identify conflict and stress as a result of work/life balance issues. A Pew Survey, Modern Parenthood, revealed that 56% of working moms and 50% of working dads find trying to meet their work and family responsibilities “very or somewhat difficult.”
It is true at every level of the workforce. There are, as Lisa Wade explains, class privileges inherently wrapped into these policies or lack of policies. Every working parent in the United States faces “choices” like Levs’, and, given demographics, many more difficult and critical ones in terms of time and money. Levs is fully employed. Part-time, domestic, and hourly-wage workers have no recourse at all in the United States when it comes to these issues, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or whether they adopt or are biological parents.
The United States ranks last among nearly all nations for work/family policies. As historian Stephanie Coontz so thoroughly explained recently, gender equality in the United States has stalled because we seem perversely committed to systemic biases that make it impossible for us to move forward. As she put it, “Structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.”
My husband and I are textbook examples how progressively minded people can find themselves struggling with increasing pressure to fall into traditional gender roles over time. With the exception of a cumulative nine months after the births of three children, I have been a working mother in virtually every configuration imaginable. I’ve worked in offices with strict policies about showing up or not, in cooperative rent-a-desk spaces, at home, and, more times than I care to remember, hiding from my children in bathrooms. I’ve worked all day, half the day, all week, partial weeks, at night, and only on weekends.
During the 15 years of working in these ways, my husband, a working father, primarily went to one place during “regular” work hours—long ones. He changed his work early in our marriage to reduce constant travel and certain types of work that made our family life more stressful. He went to work and came home where he, too, fed, bathed, played with, and read to children. And our family is, by any contemporary measure, traditional in ways most are not. Almost half of all babies born today are born to unwed mothers. In 2012 the percentage of children ages 0–17 living with two married parents was 64%, a 13% decline from 1980. Families are, as we know, remarkably diverse in their configurations and needs.
Our decisions about our work and non-work life were rational financial ones that required endless adaptations and ample stress. However, even if my husband wanted to, he could not be the one who responded first when kids called. We could not afford the penalties to his career.
Why do our workplace practices seem so intractably married to the “ideal, male single breadwinner”? Well, one reason is that we are one of the only countries in the world that shows almost no recognition, beyond sanctimonious political speeches about motherhood being “the most important job in the word,” for the value of the labor that women have traditionally done and what that labor means for our economy. Men who seek to abandon what are perceived to be male privileges and enter this valueless, feminized domestic sphere suffer what researchers call a “femininity stigma.”
This undervalued labor has traditionally “benefited” men like Levs: straight, married, and working in a corporation. I say “benefited” because boys and men continue to pay a high price for the culture’s demand that they be lifelong “producers.”
Our economic system is designed for exactly this outcome. As The New York Times put it this weekend, the “United States has one of the least civilized policies in the world when it comes to offering paid leave for new mothers.” The solution, however, is not in “maternal leave,” but in parental leave. It’s in understanding what it means, in policy and society, for men to participate equally in domestic life, with or without children. Men who, during the last few decades, have shown a marked interest and need to do this, are encountering systemic inhibitors that women face in profusion.
Companies’ responses to individual men’s requests reveal something very interesting. Research released earlier this year documented that when men “want it all” and demand flexibility, employers pay more attention and are more likely to grant their demands. The same research showed the ways in which managers actually are more likely to use a male-dominated distribution of flexible options to perpetuate gender hierarchy and status quo.
Chalk this up to another mommy tax. Parenting exacts a high price on women’s economic lives: We get paid less, are hired less frequently, considered less competent, and inclined to be distrusted by managers when we seek flexibility.
However, despite the greater likelihood that men’s requests for flexibility will be rewarded, they still face what Joan Williams, of the Center for WorkLife Law, calls “flexibility stigma” when they take advantage of leave.
Sure, the changes we need require private companies to transform the way their employees work and unions to leverage their collective bargaining power. But what is truly missing is a public policy commitment to change.
Public policymakers in Congress have done very little during the past 25 years to enact laws that would move the economy into the contemporary world and help both women and men find solutions to address work and family responsibilities most effectively. The United States, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea are now the only countries in the world with no mandated paid maternity leave.
A few weeks ago, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced a pragmatic, five-point American Opportunity Plan designed to modernize American workforce policies. Gillibrand’s plan, “On Women’s Economic Security,” addresses the long-term financial well-being of American women and their families. This disturbs many people who insist on thinking that a plan focused on helping women achieve fair economic parity and independence is a plan to hurt men. The “helping women is discrimination” argument is so much men’s power advocacy blather that it’s not even worth dignifying. Maybe helping women gain economic security and equal opportunity in the workplace dismantles systems of male domination, but that’s an entirely different matter than hurting men.
Many organizations have been working diligently for years to change U.S. workplace policies. But, our culture seems seriously stuck. Imagine what would happen if we succeeded in creating an economy that allowed men to fully participate in nurturing their children. As it stands, a stunning percentage of people think that allowing boys to experience a full range of emotions, and then being demonstrably gentle and caring toward others as they become men, degrades and hurts them. It is, frankly, sad to consider what boys and men go through in order to make sure they aren’t shamed for being fully human.
And, I know, lots of men don’t want to stay home and take care of children. Of course, the really unpalatable shocker is that lots of women don’t want to either. I don’t know Josh Levs, but for many reasons, I hope he wins his suit.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.