The Valentine’s Day Gift for Men that Keeps on Giving: Gender Equality (Part One)

This post originally appeared in The Good Men Project on 

Research shows gender equality for men translates to greater career flexibility, more financial security, and more time for life outside of work.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, many men feel pressure to send the flowers, buy the jewelry, arrange and pay for the nice dinner while you seem to hear much less about what women need to be doing ahead of this Hallmark holiday. Valentine’s Day seems to be one of those holidays that embodies gender inequality, with men getting the short end of the stick.

The great paradox about gender equality—a term which strikes fear into the hearts of many men—is that gender equality in practice is an amazing gift for women and men alike. What if men could feel less stress – and greater satisfaction – in their lives? What if they could have a better relationship with their spouses and partners, feel more connected to their kids, and learn to be more effective at work all at the same time? They would probably want to know what could catalyze all these positive changes. It turns out gender equality is the answer.

Gender equality gets a bad rap and is highly misunderstood. Too many men – and women – conjure up visions of militant feminists who are anti-men (not true) and anti-family (so not true). They interpret gender equality as a bad deal for men with less of the good stuff, security, flexibility, and time, and more of the bad stuff, pressure, stress, and expectations. It follows that men are not running to sign up for that.

But men hear far too little of the real story about gender equality from those who actually live it. They don’t learn how gender equality translates to greater career flexibility, more financial security, more time for life outside of work, and often a lot more fun. They don’t learn how gender equality brings parents closer together and contributes to a deep satisfaction with the life they are jointly creating.

The catalyst for writing this article was my participation on a research team for a study of millennial fathers. The Boston College Center for Work and Family (BCCWF) began in 2010 to focus on the experience of modern fathers. The New Millennial Dad publication was its seventh publication in The New Dad series. (Click here to download the pdf report.) The fathers we studied worked in professional roles in large corporations.

What we found in the BCCWF study was egalitarian dads – in comparison to fathers in other family situations – felt less pressure and stress, reported higher job satisfaction, and most importantly experienced greater satisfaction in their lives overall.

These results were consistent with research I conducted for my book The Libra Solution, profiling a highly egalitarian approach for couples raising children to manage caregiving and careers. We know that men in more egalitarian marriages are healthier both physically and mentally, live longer, and report higher marital satisfaction. For all the stigma surrounding gender equality, it has much to recommend it for men, and women too.

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Work-Life Integration and Career Stress

Work-life stress is ubiquitous. Women have long struggled in their efforts to combine their professional lives with their responsibilities as parents. In recent years, men’s reported experience of work-life stress has surpassed that of women as they seek to integrate greater involvement at home with a work world that is only beginning to validate their role as parents and caregivers.

In the study of millennial fathers, men were divided into three categories depending on their beliefs and arrangements relative to sharing childcare. Traditional dads did not believe they should, nor did they share care equally with their spouses or partners. Egalitarian fathers, as the name suggests, reported both that they should and that they actually did assume half of the care for their children. Finally, conflicted fathers struggled with the gap between their aspirations and realities. While they reported thinking they should shoulder half of the childcare responsibility, in practice their spouses or partners provided more care.

Among these three groups of fathers, egalitarian dads reported the greatest ease integrating work into their lives. More than twice as many egalitarian dads strongly agreed with the statement “in my current role it’s easy to combine work and personal life” in comparison to fathers in the two other family situations, traditional and conflicted. Fathers who shared equally in caring for their children were less likely to perceive that consistently prioritizing work over family was necessary in order to be favorably regarded by top management or that working more than 50 hours weekly was required for advancement. Egalitarian fathers felt less beholden to organizational norms and more able to shape their work to fit into their lives. Speaking with several fathers to explore how their egalitarian approach influenced their lives helped to illuminate the study results.

Roger Trombley, an engineer with young school-age children described why he felt less career stress, “I don’t need to feel like I’m THE provider for my family and need to get to that next level. The pressure is not all on me. I don’t need to chase that next milestone.”

He found his egalitarian arrangement served him when his company went through major layoffs. Both he and his wife, also an engineer, worked for the same large corporation and knew if one of them was laid off, they could rely on the other’s job for a time. In addition, they both worked on 80% schedules which were counted as a half-head (as were all reduced schedules) for budgeting purposes. Thus Roger and his wife were a great deal for their respective managers, highly skilled and experienced engineers working close to full-time yet using only a fraction of a job from her or his staffing budget.

Sean Romanoff, a former corporate lawyer who stepped out of the workforce when his first child was born, emphasized the power of choice afforded by his egalitarian arrangement, “I was able to hit the reset button (on his career) and not everyone gets to do that.” As he became clear that he no longer desired to practice law, he felt he had the flexibility to step back and figure out his next career steps, while having the life-changing opportunity to be the primary caregiver for his son over three years. During that time Sean’s wife was the primary earner doing a job she loved in advertising. Sean leveraged his strong writing skills to move into communications consulting and training and later when his wife needed a career break, he was able to easily move from a provider to THE provider while she jumpstarted her next career.

It’s a misnomer that men assuming the career primary role – whether his partner works outside the home full-time, part-time or not at all – provides the greatest flexibility. The thinking goes that prioritizing his career enables the family to respond to whatever demands his jobs requires. Thus if the family needs to relocate or he needs to travel extensively or work long hours on a consistent basis, these demands can be accommodated. The hope is this loyalty and focus will be rewarded with regard to money, position, and job security. And it might. But just as often it may not.

What clearly gets compromised for the man with the primary career is work-life flexibility. It follows that as the primary provider, he will be highly reluctant to push back at work. Rather he will seek to be the ideal worker – able to work long hours, be highly responsive and highly accessible – so as to maximize his chance of financial and positional success. Conversely, men in egalitarian situations have greater latitude to define their terms of engagement at work with the knowledge that the risks are far less.

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