Monday, March 3, 2014

Why (and how) we shouldn't have it all

Debates over whether women should lean in, lean out, have it all or just some have been raging over the last few years, with few clear answers. Should women emulate men? Adjust what they’re doing to gain power? Opt out entirely?

At this week’s WAPPP Seminar on “Different Ways of Not Having It All: Work, Care, and Gender Change in the New Economy,” NYU Sociologist Kathleen Gerson suggests that the answers can’t, and shouldn’t be that simple.

While women have made tremendous strides in the workplace and at home, we’re entering a whole new economic era, where the boundaries between work and home, local and global job markets, and part and full-time work are all blurring---to say nothing of changing gender norms in most vocations.

Meanwhile, even household norms are changing, with more women working outside the home even through a child’s life, work tensions affecting marital relationships, and greater expectations of parental involvement throughout a child’s life.

As a result, both economics and home life are changing and becoming even less secure: careers aren't quite the linear, predictable paths they used to be, nor are household expectations of, and demands on both partners.

There are three main ways that people are thinking about these changes:
  • “Neotraditional” arrangements, in which both partners work and are committed to one another, but one partner “specializes” in care, while the other “specializes” in breadwinning
  • “Self-Reliance,” where, even in committed relationships, both partners work to provide money and care in equal doses---without counting on the other.
  • and “Gender flexibility,” in which there is an egalitarian sharing of earning and caretaking, but a vague meaning of equality: care and breadwinning are responsibilities assigned not by gender, just what needs to be done

Both men and women would prefer gender-flexibility as an ideal arrangement. But in practice, women tend to fall back to more self-reliant positions, while men reflexively tend toward neotraditional arrangements. This is partly because men are still under the subtle yet profound pressure of the male breadwinner ideal: a man who can’t support his family is unmarriageable and “isn’t a man.” Even equality is seen as chivalrous: “equality means the woman has a choice; but I don’t.”

In practice, a third of people are “neotraditionalists,” with fathers left managing time-demanding jobs. About a third of people are “on their own,” and are left to rear children by themselves or without a committed partner. One of six couples have reversed traditional roles, with women providing more financially, but this leading to resentment in the relationship. And another sixth are “equal, but exhausted.”

At the end of the day, these choices are not about gender, but universal hopes to have a balanced life with predictable work and secure relationships---all permutations of which will require trade-offs. The erosion of job and relationship security are permanent conditions with which we must all contend; to do so we may have to redefine the responsibilities of being a man and a woman in the modern world.

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