Work, Family, and the Genderization of Caregiving

Work-life balance: man & babyInteresting fact of the day: Men who take time away from work for caregiving responsibilities face about a 25% wage penalty due to a decreased chance of promotions (very similar to the wage penalty experienced by female caregivers), whereas men who take time away from work for incarceration only experience a 5% penalty.

Really? Most companies would prefer to entrust their customers to a convict than an active father?

I read about this on one of my favorite web sites, the Work and Family Researchers Network(WFRN). The site is aptly named – its a sharing ground for the diverse academic work being done on the subject of work and family. I am perennially interested in this hot (and important) topic, and find the WFRN a great source for really insightful and profound information on the topic. What I read there is evidence based, speaks to broad experience, and thoughtfully suggests some roadways towards less gendered, more equitable work opportunities that support family and wellbeing. I appreciate this researched-based contribution to the conversation circulating in the media around articles such as Why Women Still Can’t Have It All at The Atlantic and I’m Not a Hero for Taking Care of My Kids on Slate.com. Important as these media stories are, the role they play well is bringing attention to the problem. What they lack is providing theory or vision that empowers change.

The specific article I read recently was Men at Work, Fathers at Home: Uncovering the Masculine Face of Caregiver Discrimination (PDF link) by Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, which was recently published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. The paper looks at the court’s actions in cases of caregiver discrimination involving men. There is a wealth of interesting data in the article including many of the common statistics involved in the discourse about gender, work and family:

  • Women now make up the majority of degree holders, professionals, and managers in the US.
  • Men continue to make up the majority of those with executive control, political influence, and top dollar salaries.
  • Women carry out 80% of childcare.
  • 80% of working women will be mothers during their career
  • Male and female wages are roughly the same for the young and childless, but women make only 60% of men’s wages once they have children – partly due to discrimination, but mostly because women reduce while men increase their work hours after having kids.
  • Women are “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” in the eyes of society – being either selfish and aggressive if they leave their children behind to pursue career, or upholding patriarchy if they stay home. “Tender mothers” who balance work and family are too weak and emotional to advance at work, but “Macho Moms” who won’t let family slow them down are too ruthless and aggressive – attributes which raise skepticism and disdain.
  • Working mother’s experience “The Mommy Penalty” in which they lose approximately 25% of wage earning potential due to fewer promotions.
  • Caregiving men are praised for work unseen when performed by women.
  • Men who have a family, and consequently work harder to support them, see an increase in workplace recognition and success over their non-fathered peers, something deemed “The Fatherhood Bonus.” Yet when they spend time caring for their children they are punished in multiple ways including the loss of wages described by “The Mommy Penalty” and also harassments such as loss of their job, being told to be more aggressive, demanding that they sacrificing family time, and being teased for being shy, soft-spoken, or weak.

But the truly interesting thing about this article, in my mind, was the discussion on genderization and caregiver discrimination. The author suggests that in order for men to have success fighting for their caregiving rights, they must follow the model that women successfully used to move into a more equitable, albeit still imperfect, work world; a strategy of breaking down gender stereotypes.

I always appreciate a solution oriented, strengths-based perspective. Cunningham-Parmeter suggests a remedy for the life/work balance dilemma based on a success story. A women’s success story nonetheless! So often, this discussion is dominated by themes that in essence blame women for the problem, by suggesting that they make too many sacrifices for their children and too many concessions to their husbands. Here Cunningham-Parmeter was skipping the blame step altogether and looking for clues about how to move forward.

In short, the gist of his suggestion is that in the same way that women worked to change gender stereotypes, and prove that women are indeed competent, wise, and valuable to the workforce, men need to prove that they are indeed people with interpersonal relationships. Women suffer when they are seen as without skill, and men suffer when they are seen as without relationship. Cunningham-Parmeter explains that, prior to women’s work to break down the feminine gender stereotype, femininity was primarily considered something women are (soft or tender), and that they needed to show it was also something they do (reason holistically, make associations, see the bigger picture). Men need to prove that masculinity is not only something they do (reason, fight, and provide), but also something they are (curious and nurturing).

Breaking the masculine gender stereotype is a challenge for multiple reasons. Because dominate stereotypes are considered the norm, they are nearly invisible. If you cannot see the way men are stereotyped, then you can not prove that they are discriminated against due to this false image. In addition, the masculine stereotype is the personification of power and success in our culture. Therefore empowering men to illuminate the falsity of the stereotype would, in our culture, be a process of disempowerment, unless the entire culture changed along with beliefs about the masculine to redefine success and power. One can only hope!

I don’t believe that gender is the one and only reason that caregiver inequality is what it is in today’s workforce, but it certainly does have a place on my list! The discussion also shed light on a lot of other observations in my life: like why so many of the progressive father’s among my doula clients take less than their full paternity leave, and why self-concept changes have been a hard part my husband’s choice to be a stay-at-home dad. I see women compensating for their partner’s lack of freedom to more equally share parenting all the time. Yes, this puts an unfair burden on women. And if you could see the joyful home my husband has created under our roof, you would also see the unfair burden it puts on men and children, when fathers cannot be more active in family life.

I have a lot of ideas for how the situation can change:

  • Close the wealth gap. Aim for enough for everyone in the world – no more, no less.
  • Redefine success. And use the word wellbeing in your definition.
  • Believe in alternative sources of power and influence.
  • Cheer on and support those who seek traditional positions of power with integrity.

This article clarified another point that I’ve now added to my list:

  • Look at people, not stereotypes. See each person’s valuable strengths.

I am so grateful that I personally have found a work/life balance that thrills me. My work is energizing and meaningful! I give my best because I love to. I am rewarded with praise, thanks, and money, and when I return home, I’m so excited to see my little ones. I rarely think of them when I am at work because I am rarely gone from them too long. And I rarely am driven crazy by the incredible challenges involved in rearing them because I get to go to work before it becomes too much. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on my kids lives, or on being their mother, and I don’t feel like my work prospects are dull or limited.

The nuts and bolts of my balance are not important; the point is that it’s right for me. This world will likely continue to demand that there are full time parents, full time workers (as in 80 hours/wk plus), and lots of people somewhere in the middle. What I dream of for all of us is the economic and gender freedom to choose our place on the spectrum at will, and without harassment. When left to our own devices, without coercion, I think we all care about our children. We all care about our own joy. And we all enjoy work, when we find work that we believe is valuable. With this freedom, we would each work it out uniquely. Some would choose jobs that are incompatible with family, some would need help in order to balance work and family, and some would be able to primarily take care of their family while working on the side. And we all would be OK.

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