OUR WORK-FIRST CULTURE IS HOLDING MEN BACK
For decades we have been hearing about how the workplace is a minefield for women. We are all fully aware by now of how glass ceilings, pay inequity, outright sexual harassment, and the more subtle unconscious bias have limited women’s professional options. And, we women know how hard it is to manage that career and our family commitments. But we rarely hear about how the workplace is keeping men from achieving their goals as fathers.
How does it do that? You might ask. The same way it has hurt mothers. By insisting on face time and by reinforcing the notion that true success requires 24/7 commitment. You know the drill: Your unwavering devotion to your job shows you must display traits such as hard-charging ambition, single-minded focus, and tenacity. If you want to be part of the team, you have to forgo family, outside interests, even sleep. Women have been fighting against this for decades. But men? They’ve been quietly living under the weight of it all.
In 1997, The Second Shift author, Arlie Hochschild, wrote about the challenges women and men face in the workplace in her book The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. She explored the rise of the work-first culture and defined the term “the ideal worker,” who, as I explained in chapter 3, has a partner at home to focus on the children, the house, and all other nonoffice related activities. In a perfect world, the ideal worker also has a secretary to care for the nonessential workplace issues.
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My guess is we’d all secretly love a wife and a secretary. But we know that’s not our modern reality. In today’s world few households can afford to have one person working full-time and one person devoted to the home. But the model that today’s workplace is built on expects it. So when both parents are forced into a workplace that requires ideal workers, something has to give. For decades what has obviously given has been women’s careers as we’ve tried to be both ideal workers and ideal mothers. And, what’s given is the leaky pipeline that means there are few women at the top. It’s a harsh penalty for working in an archaic model.
But men have also faced penalty. Joan C. Williams, who heads the Center for WorkLife Law and has written extensively on this issue, argues that maintaining an ideal-worker norm designed around traditional notions of male life patterns results in gender discrimination against men, too.147 Joan wrote, “Expecting full-time, uninterrupted work from men has the effect of policing them into an outdated, stereotypical gender role, one that does not afford them the opportunity to be deeply engaged fathers.”148
As I have shared, my own father lived his life in the ideal worker straitjacket. He had my mother at home who cared for the family and his devoted secretary who cared for workplace obligations. This allowed him to rise to great heights first as a lawyer and then in project finance. He was highly successful professionally. And while he will tell you he is proud of his professional accomplishments, he often shares how much he regrets missing our childhood as he toiled long into the night and traveled the world for work.
In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware wrote, “ ALL of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”149 It’s not fair to limit the lives of men when we demand more for women.
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