Throughout the pandemic, women are the ones who’ve borne the brunt of the distress. The recent Women in the Workplace survey by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org found that one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce, largely because of the critical shortage of childcare. An alarming number have already left. In September, of the nearly 1.1 million workers who dropped out of the workforce, about 865,000 were women, while 216,000 were men, according to the National Women’s Law Center. We’re in the middle of a she-cession, a mass exodus of women from the workforce, with women of color particularly affected.
Women were already at a disadvantage at home and in the workplace, carrying most of the load as parents and enduring longstanding inequities on the job. Now that the situation has become an emergency, one of the pressing questions is whether women will be expected to solve these issues on their own. They shouldn't, according to the authors of the new book Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace, by professors David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson. They argue that men, who are often the most influential stakeholders in an organization, need to pitch in–now more than ever. “I think companies are wrestling with, How do we prevent losing two or three decades of progress on diversity and inclusion when it comes to gender? And that's a huge challenge,” said Johnson in a conversation with the co-authors moderated by Faye Penn, executive director of women.nyc. Speaking at From Day One’s recent conference on how employers can help working parents, the authors offered insights from their longtime research on gender equity:
No, It’s Not Just a “Women’s Thing”: “Too often we find that men hear words like women or diversity or equity, or inclusion about gender, and they immediately check out. They assume that's a women's thing: That's not for me, I don't really have a role in that. I don't have a voice. That’s not me. Men have been nowhere in sight,” said Johnson. “We want to flip the script. It’s not about women, this is about leadership–inclusion, equity, making people feel genuine, belonging–this should all be part of our leadership’s brand.” On that note, to some men, it’s quite an abstract concept. “Guys believe in gender equity, but most will say they’re not sure what their role is,” said Smith. “The guys who really do believe in it, they’re not doing as much as what they think they are.”
What About Your Household? Allyship does not end in the workplace. “We’re never gonna get to equity if it’s always women who have to step away from work during the pandemic,” said Johnson, noting that, when it comes to domestic duties that arise during work-from-home situations, women tend to do twice the work of their partner. (Single moms, of course, carry an even greater burden.) “As long as that’s the case, no matter how good we are at work, they’re always going to have this double shift,” he said. So, any man partnered with a woman should ask himself the following questions: Am I doing my share of the housework, of the child care, of everything that comes with that? Am I helping with the emotional labor of running a family? Am I planning the next event? Do I know my children's clothing sizes? These concerns tend to fall on women–and tend to go unacknowledged by men.
Role Modeling Works: At home, seeing their father being engaged in household and family-management chores gives a good example for both sons and daughters, the authors pointed out. Sons will learn that equally heavy lifting in the house is the norm. Daughters, by contrast, will grow up to expect the same from their own partners. At work, Smith said, men who want to be good allies of their female coworkers should talk about having to take one of the kids to the doctor, or having to leave a little earlier for a parent-teacher conference. In the good examples they’ve observed, “They talked about leaving loudly, they made it very visible when they were leaving and why they were leaving,” Smith said. “That’s to role-model for the junior men [at work].” This also means de-stigmatizing flex-work arrangements. “Most of us recognize that these are not women's programs anymore,” he said. “Not that they ever were before, it's just that women took advantage of them more often than men did.”
The Rules Have to Be Backed up by the Culture: If a company establishes equitable parenting policies for men and women, but fosters a culture that discourages fathers from taking advantage of them, the situation tends to prolong the inequity. Fear of being sidelined is strong, especially among men. While young fathers do want to lean in and be better partners at home, knowing that it’s better for a child’s development, they often face this kind of headwind, both from their supervisors and their peers. “If a guy takes two months [to take care of his new baby], men are like, Dude, why do you wanna be home with a baby? That’s something we have to overcome,” said Johnson.
America Is Not Scandinavia, But We Should Do Better: It’s well known that other countries have better maternity- and paternity-leave policies than the U.S.–120 countries offer paid maternity leave. In the U.S., the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees 12 weeks of leave after the birth of a child, but they’re not required to be paid and only 60% of workers are eligible. America’s laws tend to reflect its traditional views toward work and family. “The notion of what work is, and the nature of work–it's this very individualistic perspective that we have that, Hey, having children is your choice,” said Smith. “There’s no collectivist idea that children are a natural thing, that we should have children, and that it's healthy for our country and our families and our society to do that.”
Plus, there’s the conditioning of the American Dream: That if we work hard enough, then we can move up. As a corollary, taking time off is not a sign of hard work. It’s a notion that’s hard to shake off, even subconsciously. “I believe in the American Dream, too,” said Smith. “But I also believe that we have to support our families, because they're going to have children. And part of a healthy society is having that support network there.”
Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.