Critical Tasks in Transforming Gender Inequality

“Many men have something to lose from further advances in gender equality. But it is also true that in certain important ways, men potentially have much to gain from deeper and more robust forms of gender equality in American life. In a world of real gender equality, men would have a richer array of life choices for parenting and work. The dominant models of masculinity also promote intense forms of competitiveness that make many men miserable. So, while men do have things to lose from a full realization of the ideal of gender equality, they also have potentially important things to gain.”

Erik Olin Wright

“In the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, men and women both have complex and sometimes contradictory interests in pushing forward the frontiers of gender equality. Although most women benefit from greater gender equality, certainly some women experience increasing equality as a threat that imposes costs on them because it would further erode the historic protections of women that accompanied their economic dependency on men. For women who, for whatever reasons, embrace the ideal of lifelong female domesticity and really want to be full-time housewives and mothers, the decline of this cultural ideal and the accompanying social supports for such a life is harmful.

In pretty obvious ways, many men have something to lose from further advances in gender equality. Certainly men have some privileges in the workplace and at home that are undermined by gender equality: when the obstacles to women entering professions and managerial positions are removed, competition for these jobs increases. Some men, undoubtedly, would have gotten better jobs if women dropped out of the race. If true pay equity existed in the wage structure of jobs, the wages of some men would decline. Because of resource constraints, gender equality in the funding of sports at universities means a reduction in funding for some traditionally male sports. At many universities, some intercollegiate men’s sports had to be dropped altogether. And if gender equality within the division of labor in the home were to increase to the point that men shared equally in the time-consuming burdens of domestic tasks, then the leisure time of many married men would decline. But it is also true— and this is an important yet often neglected point—that in certain important ways, men potentially have much to gain from deeper and more robust forms of gender equality in American life.

In a world of real gender equality, men would have a richer array of life choices for parenting and work. The dominant models of masculinity make it difficult for many men to play a full and active role in caregiving activities within the family. It is difficult for men to interrupt their careers to take care of small children. The dominant models of masculinity also promote intense forms of competitiveness that make many men miserable; in working excessively long hours, they often lose sight of more important things in their lives. Further advances toward gender equality will potentially involve a significant restructuring of the rules that govern the relationship between work and family, and this change would give both men and women greater flexibility and balance in their lives. So, while men do have things to lose from a full realization of the ideal of gender equality, they also have potentially important things to gain.

In moving more fully in the direction of gender equality, perhaps the key problem that needs to be solved is the gendered division of labor within the family.* As we have seen, even after the major changes that have occurred in the participation of women in the labor force, women still spend considerably more time doing domestic labor—housework and child care—than do men. This situation is itself a source of gender inequality insofar as it means that married men with children have more free time than do married women with children, at least if the women also work full-time in the labor force. There is no inherent reason that spouses should do exactly the same things in the household, but from the viewpoint of egalitarian conceptions of fairness, they should share equally in the burdens of domestic responsibilities—and this means that however the labor is divided, the spouses should end up with the same amount of free time. This is not the case in most families.

Source: https://www.bls.gov/tus/charts/household.htm

The inequalities in the gender division of labor, however, have an impact far beyond simply the specific problem of free time available to men and women within families. The division of labor at home also deeply affects inequalities in the labor market and employment. The greater domestic burdens that, on average, married women have compared to married men act as a significant constraint on the kinds of jobs they can seek in the labor market. It also affects the attitudes of employers toward prospective women employees, married or not.

It is one thing to demonstrate that the gender division of labor within the family constitutes one of the central social processes impeding further advances toward gender equality, but it is another thing to do something about this problem. Public policy can directly intervene in public forms of gender inequality in all sorts of ways: by developing legal rules against discrimination, changing the funding formulas for university programs, adopting affirmative action policies, and so on. But it is basically impossible and undesirable to directly intervene in the domestic division of labor. The idea of a law mandating equal housework for men and women is ludicrous, and the vision of housework police monitoring how couples share tasks is monstrous. So if we are to move toward a more equal sharing of the time burdens of family life, the process will have to occur through indirect means that change the incentives men and women have regarding these tasks—and, perhaps, that also affect the balance of power of men and women within these domestic relations as they negotiate over domestic responsibilities.Three policies are particularly relevant here: pay equity; publicly provided, high-quality child-care services; and egalitarian paid parental leave.”

Wright, Erik Olin and Joel Rogers. 2015. American Society: How It Really Works, 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. [From Chapter 15, Gender Inequality, Section 4, Prospects for Further Transformation: Critical Tasks, pp. 394-397. Picture added. Reference by Wright and Rogers reproduced below.]

* For a wide-ranging discussion of the link between the gender division of labor within the family and the broader problem of gender inequality, see Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers, Gender Equality: Transforming Family Divisions of Labor, Vol. VI in the Real Utopias Project (New York: Verso, 2009).

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