A few weeks ago, I wrote a column in response to new research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies that showed that fathers lives essentially don’t change much after the birth of a child. For example, there has been zero, yes zero, increase in men’s uptake of flexible work in the past decade.
I took the, “I’m not going to blame men” view, because as a long time campaigner and writer on all things gender equality and its close cousin domestic democracy, something the OECD has said is the most important gender equality issue of our time, I am keenly aware that Australia has some of the most unequal parental leave arrangements in favour of women in the world and dads who request flexible work are twice as likely to have their request declined.
But while my columns often prompt a kind of “you go girl” response from the sisterhood (thanks ladies, I really do appreciate that), I was quite surprised by the deluge of responses this piece received, much of it extremely negative.
Amongst the many personal tales from various women recounting that the lack of so-called domestic democracy in their home had contributed to their separation or divorce, there were also a lot of comments along the lines of, “Come on, men would fight for change if that’s what they really wanted…. they like things just fine the way they are.”
The tone of these responses certainly opened my eyes to something I thought I already appreciated: precisely how angry women are about the status quo. And, of course, women have every right to be angry.
A new report released last week by Men Care, a fatherhood campaign working towards childcare parity in 45 nations, found that the unpaid care gap has decreased by just seven minutes over the last 15 years and at the current rate of change it will be another 75 years before women as a group achieve domestic democracy.
For women around the world who consistently do more unpaid care and domestic work than men – sometimes up to ten times as much, according to the report — that is a long time to wait.
Resentment regarding this profound inequitable division of work on the home front is something that has certainly been bubbling away beneath the surface for quite some time but is now, clearly, boiling over, leading me to conclude that the so-called “chore wars”, long a series of skirmishes on the feminist front line (or in pretty much every average household, gender politics aside) are about to go nuclear, bringing about a new reckoning.
All this prompted me to go back to first principles and explore this question in a bit more detail: to what extent is the fact that men are, to use the slightly more polite British euphemism “(a bit) shit” to blame, and to what extent is something else going on here?
I get that women, particularly women in heterosexual relationships with children, are angry. I really do. I am also a working woman married to a man and we have two young children – the struggle is real.
But my concern is that a broader debate that presupposes the main or only cause for domestic inequality is men’s uselessness/ resistance to giving up privilege but fails to acknowledge some of the policy and workplace practices that genuinely make it difficult for men to counter the cultural norms about their role as breadwinner risks pitting men and women against each other in prolonged interpersonal conflict, rather than as allies in a bigger fight.
Having now thought about this a bit more at the urging of more than a few furious readers, I stand by that. I remain of the view that exclusively blaming men for their “choices” is a bit like blaming women’s “choices” for the gender pay gap. It does not take into account the broader context (and structural inequalities) that influence men’s choices, particularly here in Australia. And here the evidence I reviewed and the experts I spoke to after I was sent back to the drawing board on this one backed me up.
For example, a 2015 study published in the American Sociological Review Journal by Sarah Thebaud, a sociologist at the University of California, the first major examination of the effect workplace policies have on the “choices” of men and women, found that men and women ages 18 to 32 have egalitarian attitudes about gender roles across all education and income levels, but when faced with a lack of family friendly policies most fall back on traditional roles. “Women disproportionately benefit from the policies since they are expected to be caregivers, while men are stigmatised for using them,” the report found.
“We have had a shift in attitudes, but there is a block, and you can see that in the empirical data showing that on the housework and caring front, not much is changing,” Leah Ruppaner, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Melbourne who has written countless papers about domestic democracy, including a new paper out this month, “Good Housekeeping, Great Expectations: Gender and Housework Norms”, told me. “The cultural or institutional aspect of this is so important.”
“If you have men who have a desire to do more but can’t exercise that desire for fear of repercussions, we need to look at that,” said Professor Ruppaner.
When I chatted about this last week with Libby Lyons, the Director of Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, she nodded in fierce agreement and pointed out that according to WGEA data just 2 in 100 organisations have set targets for men’s engagement in flexible work.
And then there is evidence that as Australia’s broader public policies and workplace practices push women out of full time work and into part-time work (or out of the workplace altogether), they are also leading to a polarisation of the workplace with men working even longer hours, further cementing the male breadwinner model with associated consequences.
New research published last week by the Australian Institute of Family Studies on the impact of work-family conflict on men suggests one in three fathers experience psychological distress and feel depressed or anxious because of conflict between their work duties and family responsibilities.
“Yes, some men are (a bit) shit, that is true,” concluded Professor Ruppaner. “But we have created a context where everyone is miserable. It’s wrong to pit women against men, we need to pit everyone against this system.”
So, if the chore wars are indeed about to go nuclear, can I respectfully suggest (yes again, sorry) that men and women consider forging an alliance against a common enemy — instead of each other.
Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica