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

This post originally appeared in The Good Men Project on 

How gender equality affects their children, their workplaces, and a man’s mate.

I’ve had the good fortune to see the many ways in which gender equality is good for men through my consulting, my research, and in my own life. And I have also come to understand how loaded and confusing gender equality can be for men.

At a presentation several years ago—where I first learned how men’s involvement at home was beneficial for their health, their happiness, and even their sex lives—I was elated to learn about research that corroborated what I saw and heard anecdotally. I find gender equality continually gets framed in terms of its effect on women with scant attention paid to how it affects men, either positively or negatively.

With this series of articles, I have has sought to provide a perspective on gender equality that remains largely hidden, the myriad ways in which it benefits men. This last post in the series looks beyond the impact on men to explore how gender equality affects their children, their workplaces, and their mates.

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Children: Men play a more central role in their children’s lives than fathers in past generations. It is also true that women remain the primary caregivers, even in dual- earner couples. An important part of the story –  infrequently discussed – are the obstacles men confront to greater involvement. Men rarely have access to paid paternity leave and many men receive signals that fatherhood should not affect their work. At home, some women act at gatekeepers treating their partners as ‘parent employees’ needing direction rather than as co-parents needing autonomy.

Despite the obstacles, dads playing an active role in their children’s lives really matters and we must persist in dismantling barriers to their involvement.

A growing body of research documents the critical importance of fathers’ engagement in their children’s lives. More involved dads help infants to be more emotionally secure and confident in exploring their worlds. Fathers influence the language and cognitive skills of their toddlers and the social skills of their children on the cusp of middle school. Their nurturing care is linked to better educational outcomes for their children and higher academic achievement, all the way into young adulthood.

Dads have parenting superpowers – those things they tend to do more naturally than moms – which help their children. Men are more likely to rough house with their kids, helping them to learn self-regulation skills. They help children to stand up for themselves and youth with more involved dads are less likely to be victims of sexual assault and more likely to delay sexual activity. Men play an especially important role in supporting their daughter’s dreams and ambitions.

While fathers positively influence their children, they can likewise have negative impacts. Men struggling with their own health issues – depression, substance abuse, anger management challenges – adversely affect their children’s growth and development.

The strength of egalitarian relationships is not lost on children. Children sense the solidity and it provides them a visceral sense of safety and security. Ultimately, it frees them to keep their focus on the hard work of growing up.

Equally critical with being a provider are the deep and caring relationships fathers develop with their children.

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Workplace: I suspect that of all the ways in which gender equality is beneficial for men, they may have the most trouble seeing its connection to their work, and workplaces.

Facilitating women’s achievement benefits workplaces. Diversity of social experience helps to make organizations stronger, more creative, and more profitable. Academic research finds that diverse teams by gender, while generally less comfortable, outperform homogeneous ones.  An MIT researcher uses the analogy of a baseball team asking, which would likely be more successful – a team with all catchers or one representing all the positions on the team? An example of diversity in action was when, several years ago, a women’s network at IBM played a key role in helping the company recognize – and realize – the potential of office products for small business owners [many of whom were female.]

Many companies are working hard to recruit and retain women because, based on several research studies, more women in leadership translates to superior business results. This is not because women are superior to men, but because they are far less likely to have a voice at the leadership table. Despite progress, in every industry and profession – from technology to medicine to law to academia – women’s representation is far from proportional. Consider that in Congress – supposedly the representative legislative body for our country – women comprise only 20% of members.

The underutilization of women’s talents is increasingly being framed as a competitiveness issue for the U.S., and the world. According to the strategy consulting firm McKinsey, if women’s participation in the labor market were to mirror men’s by 2025, it would add $4.3 trillion to the U.S. economy. [link7] That is larger than the economy of Germany, the 4th largest in the world!

Men who understand the complexity of gender equality, and practice it in their lives, represent a new type of leadership that is far more in step with the modern workforce. Family structures are more varied and complex and equality is a concept that resonates deeply with younger employees.

Men who practice gender equality are more effective at advocating for and retaining women. A study comparing male managers with wives who did, and did not, work outside the home found those in dual-earner families were more likely to promote women. Men who become co-parents shift their understanding of being a caretaker from an intellectual to a more sophisticated personal perspective.

Gender equality helps men to strengthen their ability to prioritize and focus. It is a catalyst for learning to work more efficiently, more effectively and more productively. Time becomes the critical path resource. Companies also benefit from the skills men develop and strengthen through parenting. The equanimity required to deal with a difficult toddler comes in handy when managing a highly emotional client and the ability to ask the right questions, honed while raising teens, applies equally well to managing people.

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Spouse/ Partner: Perhaps the biggest upside for women [and men] in egalitarian partnerships is the opportunity to develop key parts of themselves as professionals and parents. In 2008 I heard Nancy Gertner – a Harvard Law School professor and former federal judge – describe the women’s movement as a revolution focused on changing workplaces and gender roles to enable women and men to be both providers and caretakers.

In egalitarian families, women experience greater freedom to excel at work and to feel less alone in managing all the complexity of caring for a family. Women working outside the home enjoy better mental health, particularly as it relates to depression and anxiety, than those who are full-time caregivers. Work denotes achievement and status as well as providing an opportunity to have impact in the world beyond one’s own family. Sadly, caregiving is not held in high regard. Despite the hollow rhetoric about the importance of children and families, the U.S. underscores – through its policies and allocation of resources – just how little caregiving is valued, for women or men.

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Couple/ Family: Egalitarian relationships tend to be characterized by a deep sense of partnership and mutual regard for all that the other person brings to caring for the family. In egalitarian relationships each member of the couple can relate to the upsides and the downsides of work and of home – great colleagues and unrealistic deadlines, overtired children and sweet moments of connection. They are able to be a resource for one another as professionals and as parents.

During the height of the recession, an article in the Wall Street Journal article highlighted how couples who both lost their jobs supported one another and found new positions more quickly than those without spousal support. In my research with egalitarian couples, a consistent finding has been the sense of having a co-parent to navigate the many challenges of childrearing. One woman shared that while her husband struggled to stay up late when their children were teens, she found it far easier to change her routine and be available if needed. Conversely, while the drama of middle school sent her reeling, her husband was masterful at taking it all in stride.

The deep sense of partnership in egalitarian couples leads to high levels of mutual marital satisfaction. Divorce rates for egalitarian couples are lower than for those in traditional arrangements.

Egalitarian families are inherently resilient with both parents equipped to operate in the economic and the domestic spheres. Financial security is enhanced by having two breadwinners and the model seems a far better fit for the instability and unpredictability of the modern workplace. Women and men in egalitarian relationships are more able to experiment in their professional lives, to hold out for what they want professionally, and to walk away from toxic work situations.

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The Power of the Self-Reinforcing Cycle

I liken gender equality to a stone thrown into a pond, generating ever-expanding circles that ripple outward. Changing norms at home drive changing norms at work which in turn strengthen changing norms at home in a self-reinforcing cycle. So when men transition from parent helpers to co-parents, it frees their wives and partners to focus more at work. As a result, women are more likely to advance and to contribute more generously as providers. In turn, men feel less pressure to maximize their incomes and to ‘give it all up at the office’ leaving them more space in their lives to be the kind of fathers they want to be.

When men jointly manage the care of their children, they put up more limits at work which helps to erode the harmful myth of the ideal worker with no constraints. Egalitarian men help to normalize the model of a healthier balance between work and other life priorities. As a result, no longer is leadership potential so closely linked with the desire and ability to prioritize work above all else. Women stop self-selecting out of leadership roles that they perceive as requiring unacceptable parenting trade-offs.

Finally, men in the throes of balancing work and parenting demands better understand the appalling lack of support for families in the U.S. Egalitarian men join with the voices of many women to insist the U.S. catch up with the rest of the world by developing supportive policies and mainstreaming practices that no longer pit work and home against one another but instead see them as two elements of a healthy whole.

Read the previous articles in this series:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three