"Women are in the labor force -- and every other public arena -- to stay. So the choice for men is how we will relate to this transformation. Will we be dragged kicking and screaming into the future? Flee to some male-only preserve, circle the masculine wagons, and regroup?" asks masculinity scholar Michael Kimmel. "Or instead, will the majority of us who are now somewhere between eager embrace and resigned acceptance see instead the opportunity for the 'enthusiastic embrace' of gender equality?"
These are some of the questions at the center of a new report released by the Center for American Progress last week in partnership with Maria Shriver. Despite its title, A Woman's Nation, it's really about a future in which both men and women have the support to live fulfilling, healthy lives. The report features a broad range of public intellectuals, academics, and policy-makers reflecting on this benchmark moment in women's labor participation. (Full disclosure: I contributed one of the concluding essays to the report.)
It has been exciting to watch the conversation about these issues unfold -- starting with a segment on NBC's Meet the Press and extensive Time magazine coverage, and continuing on MSNBC and other major outlets. Finally, so-called work/family balance is being given airtime and column inches as a political issue, rather than just being pegged as a lifestyle quandary of the well-to-do. Finally, we are acknowledging the complex class, race, and gender dynamics at play in the workplace. Finally, coalitions are forming in order to amplify grass-roots activism going on across the country.
For all of our progress on framing the issue, however, one challenge remains largely unmet. We have yet to figure out a way to tag these issues as critical to both women and men. We have to stop using "work/life balance" as coded language for "working-mom stress." Despite ample evidence that men are served by investing more time and energy outside the workplace and "coming out" as fathers while in it, there are very few men who are taking on this issue in a substantive, political way.
Sure, there's a new spate of "dadlit" -- in which men like Michael Chabon, author of the recently released Manhood for Amateurs, wax poetic about the project of contemporary fatherhood. Other titles that encourage men to see fathering as a source of humorous anecdotes and even a little enlightenment include Neal Pollack's Alternadad and anthologies galore. Blogs on the topic, like Dadcentric, Geek Dad, and Rebel Dad, abound.
But while memoirs on this issue are an important part of men's process of publicly owning the importance of their roles as fathers and partners, all this writing doesn't add up to a revolution. Men need to transcend from the personal into the political, as women have done. It's great to get a good laugh out of playground politics, but it's imperative to look beyond the purview of the local park and start advocating for change at the federal level. There is the rare organization, like Take Back Your Time, and the rare book, like Jeremy Adam Smith's The Daddy Shift, that are doing this sort of advocacy cross-gender, but they are anomalies among a sea of women-focused organizations and books.
Additionally, neither heterosexuality nor fatherhood is a prerequisite for wanting a more flexible, healthy workplace. Anyone who hopes to be a balanced person with relationships and passions outside of work has a stake. Want to be an active part of making your neighborhood a more livable, communal place to live? Want to go on a trip with your friends every once in awhile? Want to have some job security even if you get sick or injured? All of these interests require a reasonable and consistent work schedule, a living wage, health care, vacation time, and sick days. And, of course, sons who have become caretakers of their aging parents, an increasingly common trend, also have to take these issues seriously.
The current economic recession is actually a great opportunity, at least as it pertains to this set of issues. Everything's falling apart, so why not put it back together in a more enlightened, egalitarian way? That reconstruction effort is going to take massive public engagement -- and that means both genders at the table, advocating for a higher quality of life for all Americans.
So what will motivate men to embrace work/life policy issues as their own? Frankly, I don't know. And I don't think I should have to. For too long, feminists and women's advocacy groups have begged men to meet us half way, to recognize the ways in which inhumane work policy, traditional gender roles, and economic insecurity are bad for them too.
It's time for women to give up a little ownership, a little control. It's time men wrote not just their own parenting memoirs but their own work/life manifestos. And then, it will be time to work in coalition, not in gender silos. I'm eager to launch a truly nuanced and politically focused conversation about these issues with the men of my generation so we can finally acknowledge and advocate around the fact that these are not "women's issues" but everybody's issues.
Jamal Simmons, writing about the next generation in A Woman's Nation, argues, "Both genders are trying to figure out how to navigate this new world. We are on new terrain and it means men must be as flexible as the women in our lives." I would add that in addition to that essential flexibility, men also need to take on significant ownership. As men cede some ground in the traditional labor force, it's time that women ceded some ground in the fight for a more dignifying work policy.
Now that would be genuine balance.