In 2009, the Center decided it was time for a greater focus on men and work-family issues. At the time, the field was predominantly women – researchers, practitioners, and consumers – and seemingly all discussion was focused on women’s struggles. While that was entirely appropriate given women’s central role in the family and the (relatively) recent struggles of professional / managerial women to balance work and family issues, it kept our field in something of a box. That box suggested that family was a woman’s world and that men’s work-family struggles were confined to the bumps and bruises that went with climbing the corporate ladder in their breadwinning role.
So we jumped in with both feet and in the ensuing three years published three reports titled The New Dad that looked at the transition to fatherhood, how men managed career and family priorities, and the growing ranks of pioneering “at-home dads”. All three reports met with a very warm reception and suggested that the work was much needed and long overdue.
It was likely coincidental or perhaps one of those times when you hear about something and then it’s everywhere you look, but it seemed that the issue of the changing roles of women and men in families, and the world, really was a major topic of conversation and I wasn’t really sure I liked much of what I was seeing. Beginning with Michael Kimmel’s Guyland which painted a picture of the young adult male as a sexist, drinking, bullying, homophobic individual who sees hazing and conformance as the guy norms as the key to survival, and ending with Hannah Rosin’s End of Men with its picture of men in decline and more graphic details about “hooking up” than any parent of teenagers or young adults should ever know (sometimes ignorance is bliss). I have great respect for Professor Kimmel and Ms. Rosin, but were they accurate in their assertions? Suddenly my rare visits to my son’s 5th grade classroom, where the girls sat politely working and the boys seemed unfocused and chaotic, were just further “hard evidence” that the world of men (and boys) was on a deep downward decline.
In my more reflective moments, these hyped-up views of boys and men in decline didn’t mesh with the research we were doing with new fathers. Nor did it match my experience teaching hundreds of young men career-life courses in Boston College’s MBA program. These men were taking work-life-family issues seriously and were sincerely looking for a way to have it all. And if they couldn’t have it all they were clear that their families would not be the ones that paid the price. While I recognized these somewhat privileged part-time graduate students were hardly a nationally representative sample, their experiences gelled more with my perceptions than the more hyperbolic views I was reading in the press.
Finally, this weekend, Professor Stephanie Coontz, a researcher who speaks from a strong, data-based position, published a piece in Sunday’s NY Times The Myth of Male Decline. In it she offered a well-grounded, balanced view that gave credence to unmistakable trends based on gender in the US, but which also sorted fact from fiction. (It’s a good read and provides excellent information on careers and family from both genders’ perspectives.)
While my male MBA’s may not be a nationally representative sample of men, according to Coontz “among dual-earner couples, husbands with the least education do as much or more housework than their educated counterparts” (which of course is still less than their female counterparts). She also points out that there are some positive statistics regarding male behavior and misbehavior that are worth noting. Since 1993, domestic violence is down 50% and rapes and sexual assaults are down by 70%. And in discussing men’s less egregious but nonetheless problematic actions, she asserts “What’s different today is that it’s harder for men to get away with [bad] behavior in long-term relationships. Women no longer feel compelled to put up with it and the legal system no longer condones it. The result is many guys who would have been obnoxious husbands, behaving badly behind closed doors, are now obnoxious singles, trumpeting their bad behavior on YouTube”. Or if you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger, on 60 Minutes.
Based on the Center’s research and Coontz’s research, it seems to me that we are more likely at the dawn of men than the end. Perhaps the shift in the playing field at work for men and women, the new economic realities, and an increasing awareness in both men and women about what it means to have had a life well-lived, offer the opportunity for men, along with (or catching up to) women, to recreate their family and work roles on balance.
At the risk of spending any more time than I’d like on the Governator, he may have spoken for all men in when he uttered his cinematic line for the ages, “I’ll be back.”
Brad Harrington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family. This post originally appeared in our member newsletter.