Men’s care work and wage work both are powerfully impacted by the dynamic of masculinities. Masculinities are the male equivalent of female gender norms; they are plural because there are multiple variations, but with a dominant or hegemonic set of standards that set out the hierarchy among men and which men are at the top of the heap. Just as gender norms powerfully impact women’s lives, the same is true of men’s lives. Masculinities constrain their engagement and performance of fatherhood, as well as the way in which they work, including limiting themselves and the women they work with. Structural constraints (the assumption work is primary, so the amount, timing and expectations of workers assume no family responsibilities) impact the gender divide in both work and family realms, but the cultural constraints are also powerful. Even while challenged and in flux due to movement and change in gender dynamics, hegemonic masculinity, the dominant masculinity norm, continues to create hierarchies between men and women, and among men. Movement in the gender dynamic belies the strength of its underlying foundation. It is necessary to continue to ask both the woman question and the man question, and in those inquiries, to dig deeper and intersectionally. So whatever we think we have identified about women and men, we need to ask, “And is this true for all women, all men?”
A series of recent articles about men and women, fathers and mothers, expose the dynamic and range of ways in which the constraints of masculinities remain a significant barrier to equality.
First, a recent opinion piece in the NY Times explores the way that fathers care for their children, noticing a shift in their engagement in the tasks of caregiving but also in the messages and roles they convey about gender to their children. This is significant movement from the breadwinner definition of fatherhood as singularly an economic role. But while the shift is important, it is critical to recognize how much distance is yet to be travelled. The disparity between men and women in family work (caregiving and household work) remains, and it is significant.
A second story, “How Society Pays When Women’s Work is Unpaid,” highlights this family work differential by the concept of the “time gap,” an additional factor to be noticed in addition to the wage gap. No less a high-profile figure than Melinda Gates laments the significance of this issue for women, but the example she provides of a solution, that of husband Bill taking the kids to school several times a week, is limited. The message is that no less a man than Bill Gates can be asked to “help.” But imagine if Bill had written about this instead of Melinda. Imagine if Bill owned a robust version of taking responsibility for the full range of family work (and planning, and long term thinking) that would constitute real equality.
What gets in the way of both men’s care and doing their share of other household work is masculinities’ defining of men’s and women’s gender roles. Michael Kimmel, one of the leading researchers of masculinities, provides a rich example of this in a profile of a class he teaches in his masculinities program. Kimmel asks young college men and women the attributes of the Good Man. Somewhat tentatively, not sure what he is after, they respond “honest”, “caring.” Then he asks them, what are the attributes of the Real Man. The answers come thick and fast: “take charge, authoritative,” “take risks,” “never cry,” “walk like a man, talk like a man.” And there it is—the norm that does not embrace care, equality, or women’s equal value. Rather, it is a norm that would reject engaging in care, or sharing household work, because it is “women’s work.” The core command of masculinities remains: “Don’t be a girl.”
And the rejection of things female means the devaluation of women and the defending of what is considered male from female incursion. That clearly has an impact on women’s opportunities and ability to be accepted and valued as equals. But it also has an impact on men. It means they are defined and limited in a way that pushes them to be complicit (dominant and gender differentiated), in order to be accepted as a Real Man.
These two threads are clear in two other recent stories. First, a recent comprehensive study demonstrates that when women enter a job category in significant numbers, the compensation for the field declines.
In other words, when enough women are doing the work, it becomes “women’s work,” and therefore it has less value. This is in addition to differential payment of women for the same work (doctors and lawyers making less for the same job based on gender), and differential payment for very similar work by identifying it in a gendered way (housecleaning versus janitorial work). Not only are women harmed by this, but it also encourages men to defend against women changing the value of the job, keeping it “men’s work,” and deters men from taking work categorized as “women’s work.” Gender segregation and hierarchy is sustained.
The second thread is the defense of male work, defending male turf. One of the most vehement examples of this recently was exposed by two female sportswriters, who published the almost-daily vile, threatening, and nasty feedback they get. The harassment is not about their work, but who they are; not about their personality or point of view, but about their gender. In an attempt to combat this, instead of the strategy of ignoring it, sloughing it off as “boys will be boys,” the two sportswriters created a YouTube video, with one of their male colleagues reading the comments to them. Removing the distancing and anonymity of social media and instead presenting this as if said face to face brings home the misogyny and gender hatred.
The patterns of devaluing, objectification, and harassment demand stronger legal remedies. These patterns should be considered not just as expressions of dominant masculinities aimed at women, but also that they are aimed at men, to punish non-conforming men and to keep all other men in line.
The construction of gender norms, and the limitations imposed on men, returns full circle to affect men’s care. As long as women are not men’s equals at work, that dynamic pushes asymmetric patterns of family work. As long as men must conform to a masculinities norm at work that devalues care, it will affect their engagement in care. This has such a powerful impact on family law, and the ability to construct caregiving as men’s work that is part of being a Real Man. Imagine if the students asked about the meaning of being a Real Man responded by saying “an involved and engaged father” as their FIRST answer.
And then we have to ask the next question: and is this the same for all men? The news articles did not differentiate by race, class, or sexual orientation, but all of those intersectional identities have an impact on both care and wage work. Low income African American fathers, for example, are more likely to be in a non-marital household, and are discouraged by the purely economic demands made on them, often impossible to satisfy, of the child support system, while having little support for their caregiving role. At the same time, a recent study found that Black fathers as a group are more engaged with caregiving than many fathers, contrary to the stereotype of disengagement. Men of color are at the bottom of the masculinities hierarchy but also engage in resistance to the hegemonic norm. Their unmet needs as well as their successful resistance suggest issues to resolve and possible strategies that might work for all men. Gay men face unique challenges in creating families and having their family ties recognized, as well as facing harassment and underemployment at work. A binary gender paradigm that presumes a heterosexual norm disserves them. Grappling with the questions of work and family equalities therefore requires intersectional analysis.
A range of remedies might be used to grapple with these issues. The bottom line is that we remind ourselves to “ask the other question(s).”