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MEN, MASCULINITY, AND CAREGIVING

Let’s be clear: Despite the way they’re depicted in television shows, movies, and in advertising, men aren’t stupid. They understand they face significant consequences when putting family first: Not only is their ability to provide called into question, but so is their very sense of what it means to be a man. Quite simply, we don’t equate masculinity with caregiving, and so we punish men, like my brother, who break out of our expected notions of what it means to be masculine in our culture.

“Because workplaces are gender factories where men forge and enact their masculinity, a worker’s manliness may be called into question when a man calls attention to his family care obligations,” wrote Joan C. Williams in her book Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.166 She has conducted extensive research on the work-life debate, including the challenges men face when they do the “low status feminine work” of caregiving. Joan stated “Men who take leave or adopt flexible schedules are seen as bad workers. And that ‘bad worker effect’ is totally explained by the fact that they are seen as inappropriately ‘feminine.’”167

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A 2013 study out of the University of South Florida revealed that male students reported work-life balance as more important than their female peers, but when further asked if they planned to pursue work flexibility, men were less likely to indicate that they would. And, in fact, those men who reported believing they would be perceived as less masculine for seeking flexible work were the least likely to express their intention to do so. The authors of the study concluded that “men may believe that pursuing work-life balance may put their gender status at risk, and they may avoid work flexibility as a result” despite expressing their strong desire to have it.168

These young men understand what’s at stake. Recent research shows that men who requested family leave were at greater risk of being demoted or laid off because they were perceived to have negative traits that are often used to stigmatize women, like weakness and uncertainty, not masculine ones like competitiveness and ambition.169 And men who were described as having work-family conflict (causing them to miss work) received lower overall performance ratings and lower reward recommendations when compared to men who did not experience this conflict.170 The few men who actually do take the twelve weeks of unpaid family leave mandated by the federal government often end up being demoted or let go.171 It’s no wonder so few men take paternity leave.

And it gets worse. As law professor Kelli Garria notes, “a man who takes paternity leave thus faces the problem of entering the ‘mommy track’ and engaging in gender atypical behavior. Further, by prioritizing family caregiving, he may be seen as abdicating the role of provider. Thus, because good fathers are those who take financial care of their children, he becomes, by definition, a bad father.”172 So if you put your family first and take your legally guaranteed right to parental leave, you could lose your job, not be seen as a “real” man, and then also end up regarded as a crappy father? Sounds like a no-win situation to me.

Which explains why men like Mark Zuckerberg really are heroes. Complain all you want about Facebook, one thing Mark has done right is use his position as a Silicon Valley icon to model what it means to be an engaged father in today’s world. His two months of paternity leave after the birth of his first child has set a new standard. When leaders like him declare their priorities to their family in bold and public ways, our choices and options expand exponentially.

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