Do Engaged Fathers Empower Women?
The New York Times magazine ran a really thought-provoking essay in a special issue on empowering women yesterday. By Lisa Belkin, author of the paper’s Motherlode parenting blog, the piece (linked here) argues that women’s careers won’t achieve equality with men until men assume equal responsibility in the family, for parenting roles.
“That women are not yet equal in the workplace is largely a result of the fact that they are not equal at home,” writes Belkin in a related blog post. “And that last gap will not close until our policies and expectations change for men.”
To summarize, Belkin compiles a lot of (U.S.-based) statistics that could show that women have achieved equality with men, such as the fact that women earn three college degrees in the States for every two earned by men. Women also hold 51.4% of America’s managerial and professional jobs. However, she writes, women still only make 81 cents of income for every dollar earned by men, and women hold only 3% of the CEO spots in Fortune 500 companies.
Telling women they have reached parity is like telling an unemployed worker the recession is over. It isn’t true until it feels true. That’s because measuring women’s power by looking only at women — and by looking mostly at the workplace — paints a false picture.
Women aren’t reaching equality, Belkin writes, because men aren’t assuming equal responsibility for their role in the home. What’s most fascinating to me, as a dad who has written about his struggles with fatherhood, is Belkin’s take on the status of dads within the home. She writes,
Men today are at the turning point women reached several decades ago, when the joint demands of work and home first intensified. In her new book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, Joan C. Williams describes how men find themselves caught between meeting cultural expectations and a growing dissatisfaction with the constricted roles shaped by those expectations. “You have to ask why, if women are asking men to change, and if men say they want change, it hasn’t happened,” she says. “Either they are all lazy, or they are under tremendous gender pressures of their own.”
Later, Belkin writes:
Can we make it “manly” (or even better, “gender neutral”) to spend a day with a child, or earn less money but have more family time, or be the only parent at a parent-teacher conference because your wife has a meeting?
Belkin ends up suggesting some legislative incentives modeled on Swedish law that may encourage men to assume more responsibility for the care of newborn infants, which she believes would then encourage more men to become more engaged in parenting. But what I find most exciting about this article is the recognition that North American society is in a state of flux when it comes to men and fatherhood. Things are changing, she recognizes, and this can be tough on the guys who are becoming engaged fathers because they’re pushing against work-related pressures as well as societal, gender pressures.
My memoir, Superdad, reflects the way I felt conflicted and dissatisfied with those gender and societal pressures. I think it’s encouraging that print media (Belkin’s essay) and popular literature (my book as well as Dalton Higgins’ Fatherhood 4.0) are beginning to reflect that. From my own casual observation, I’d say about a third of the dads at my kids’ Queen West-based Montessori school would qualify as equal-opportunity parents who assume at least 50 percent of parenting responsibility. (Whether I qualify among them depends on the week and the school/work schedules of my wife and I.)
The thing is, most of us are too inclined toward self-deprecation to ever portray ourselves at the forefront of anything. If you told us that engaged fatherhood was a political decision, a form of activism that encourages social change, then we’d probably look at the ground and scuff the dirt with our shoes, then change the topic to Brett Favre’s ongoing disastrous football season. In general, I’ve found that guys aren’t all that willing to discuss fatherhood with other guys. But Belkin’s article portrays engaged fatherhood as a decision that, slowly and steadily, could improve things for our wives and daughters. Probably, we haven’t thought about it that way, but all the same, her article reflects the fact that it’s an exciting time to be a father.
Christopher Shulgan is Bunchland’s guest editor for the month of October and the author of Superdad: A Memoir of Rebellion, Drugs and Fatherhood.
Photo by Monique Montgomery.