I’m someone who has spent much of her life thinking about and observing gender differences. Growing up in a clear patriarchy, I was very aware that women seemed to have few choices and little influence. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that I spent most of my career over the last two plus decades focused on better understanding gender as a consultant and researcher on work-life and diversity issues.
This window into gender issues through my work – along with my intense curiosity about the topic – has led me to a broader and deeper understanding of gender norms. I find that much of what is written about gender seems bent on proving who is right and who is wrong, bent on clarifying who is the perpetrator and who is the victim in the ongoing gender wars. I see it much more as a dance with both men and women playing their assigned parts. In this dance, both fail to see how they play a critical role in maintaining the status quo. In this dance, both men and women remain trapped by the shackles of gender.
As a woman, it has been natural and easy for me to see all the ways men were at fault – they didn’t know how to communicate their feelings, they weren’t organized enough, they didn’t want to commit, they were workaholics, they spent their time on the wrong things, they didn’t get what it meant to be a parent, they didn’t do enough around the house — you know the script. Only through years of reading, thinking and observing have I come to more deeply understand ‘the other side of the story’ – the challenges, complexities and heartaches that men face – as well as how women contribute, often unknowingly, to creating relationships and marriages that are not the egalitarian vision they say they want. Why is it that feminism has become defined by some as women having ‘the choice’ of whether or not to work outside the home while men clearly don’t feel like they have any choice? Why is it that women want their boyfriends and husbands to do what they do around the house – such as cooking and cleaning – while many would not consider journeying outside on a snowy morning to shovel or to mow the lawn on a summer afternoon? Why is it that women feel they can dictate the terms upon which their husbands parent – what food the kids should eat, what clothes they should wear, what activities they can and cannot be involved with?
I’ve had to admit to myself that one of the ways I contribute in my own marriage, at times, to the gender dance is by feeding into the adrenaline rush of handling so much as the strong and powerful modern woman. I’ve had to step back and ask myself on more than one occasion — what am I contributing here? I believe an awareness of how gender norms so powerfully impact our lives – even in 2011 – goes a long way in creating a new and different reality. A dad I interviewed – who has, with his wife, architected a deep partnership approach to professional work and the care of their family – had this to say about his experience of the pull of gender norms.
One of the things I’ve noticed about my own tendencies is that it’s easy for me to let it slide so if the baby starts crying, I’ll let my wife deal with it. There is a built in expectation that she will manage it and a built in expectation that I don’t have to. It’s built into her and me – it’s built into all of us I think – so I have to be constantly aware of that and not fall back on my laziness. The truth about getting up to get your kids in the middle of the night is that there is something wonderful about it. Not at that instance when it is a pain in the neck but I believe we get much closer to our children through those tiny little things that seem like annoyances. In overcoming that, in being vigilant about not falling into a trap of expectations, I get much closer relationships to my children than otherwise I would have.
It is easy to get swept up in the dance but many women and men have been – and are – writing their own scripts, breaking free from the gender shackles to create their own paths. An important body of research documents the numerous benefits that accrue to men and women who make gender equality a defining characteristic of their relationships – better mental health, better physical health, greater satisfaction in both their work and personal lives, and yes more sex.
It is high time to learn from the many men and women who have and are walking a different path; people like Fran Rodgers (yes, one of the founders of Role/Reboot and mother of Nicole). In full disclosure I was a consultant for Work/Family Directions for several years working closely with Charles Rodgers (husband of Fran, father of Nicole) in the consulting group. I had my first child while I was at WFD and I found it very inspiring to observe how Fran and Charles managed the care of their two daughters with running a company. From the outside looking in, it seemed clear that theirs was a partnership through and through and that it was possible and desirable for both men and women to be involved parents and ambitious professionals.
I was a late comer to seeing myself as a feminist – graduating from college in 1986 and like many women of my generation thinking gender challenges were a historical artifact, solved in an earlier time. Fast forward 25 years and I’ve learned things were a whole lot more complicated regarding gender than I’d ever imagined. More importantly, I’ve come to appreciate the enormous power of women and men – proactively and collectively – wrestling with and thinking about gender norms as was far more typical during the heyday of the women’s movement in the 1960 and 1970’s. While the media puts forth an endless stream of provocative and polarizing headlines (e.g. Chinese Mothers are Superior, The End of Men) and seems stuck in the same old scripts, there are many quiet, untold stories of men and women who have and who are writing new scripts. Let’s spend more time there.
Note: This article originally appeared in Role/Reboot.