It's Time to Rethink What It Means to Be a Man

As long as men continue to feel threatened by being perceived as wusses unless they live up to the norms of conventional masculinity, we can expect little progress for women.

A patient is brought into the emergency room. The surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this patient: he’s my son.” The surgeon is not the patient’s father. Why can’t the surgeon operate? This classic brainteaser works -- and it worked on me -- because of the hidden assumption that surgeons are male. The answer: The surgeon is the patient’s mother.

The riddle highlights that most jobs are gendered. Only 13 percent of occupations are sex balanced, in the sense of integrating men and women beyond token levels. And most high-paying jobs, blue- as well as white-collar, are associated not only with men but also with masculinity. Thus the personality traits commonly assumed to make for a good engineer or tool-and-die maker (good at technical subjects, not high on people skills) are considered masculine. So are the very different skills assumed to make for a good executive or factory foreman (forceful and assertive, high on people skills).

No logical relationship exists between these two sets of personality traits and skills. Their relationship is historical, based on the high value placed on qualities associated with men and masculinity. Before separate spheres arose in the late 18th century, many women worked as blacksmiths, woodworkers, printers, tinsmiths, brewers, tavern keepers, shopkeepers, shoemakers, barbers and shipwrights. So long as these women were wives acting as “deputy husbands” for men who were away, this seemed appropriate and unobjectionable. Women doing jobs traditionally performed by men did not yet jar sensibilities because men and women were not chiefly defined by their separate spheres.

Women pre-1800 were defined by their inferiority. The premise was that men, as heads of the household, had the right to expect obedience not only from their children but also from their wives. Women needed men’s guidance because they were not only physically inferior to men but also intellectually and morally inferior.

The Enlightenment’s declaration that all “men” were equal destabilized established notions of women’s inferiority. Gradually, women came to be seen as equal, too -- in their separate sphere. They went from being seen as morally weak to being considered morally superior. Under separate spheres, the “moral mother” was expected to counterbalance men’s pursuit of self-interest in the market sphere, which, still new, was painted as ruthless, “red in tooth and claw.”

It turns out that our 21st century common sense faithfully channels separate-spheres ideology. Thus today’s typical man is seen as independent, ambitious and competitive, naturally suited to market work and the breadwinner role. Meanwhile, today’s typical woman is seen as nurturing, expressive and responsive to the needs of others, naturally suited to homemaking and the emotional work required by secretaries, flight attendants and nurses. These basic tenets of separate spheres continue to shape our default understandings of men and women, reproducing stereotypes that systematically advantage men and disadvantage women in the workplace.

These stereotypes lead to powerful social expectations that link our sense of what one needs to be successful in historically male professions to masculine personality traits and traditionally masculine life patterns. One prominent physicist put it this way: “In particular, our selection procedures tend to select not only for talents that are directly relevant to success in science, but also for assertiveness and single-mindedness.” In other words, physicists are expected to have stereotypically masculine personality traits: to be forceful, proactive, assertive -- ”agentic,” to use social psychologists’ chosen term.

Physicists, the quote reminds us, are expected to be not only assertive but also single-minded. Hard-driving lawyers, neurosurgeons and investment bankers -- indeed, all historically male high-status jobs -- also require some version of assertiveness and single-mindedness. In other words, such jobs are designed around masculinity and men.

Masculinity holds the key to understanding why the gender revolution has stalled. As long as men continue to feel threatened by the possibility of being perceived as wimps and wusses unless they live up to the norms of conventional masculinity, we can expect little economic progress for women.

It has been said that masculine norms make American society “an affirmative action plan” for men. Feminists need to be on the front lines of documenting how conventional masculinity disadvantages men as well as women. Consequently, the social regard for stay-at-home fathers is even lower than for stay-at-home mothers. Think of everyday language: When mothers dream about their daughter marrying a “successful” man, most are thinking of paychecks, not Snugli child carriers.

The literature on fatherhood sends a stark message: All fathers are not equal. Breadwinners married to homemakers earn 30 percent more than those in two-job families and encounter favored treatment at work. One study found that fathers were held to lower performance and commitment standards than were men without children, presumably because respondents assumed that since a father “has a family to support,” he will work hard. This study reflects the normative father, a breadwinner with a wife who is responsible for children and home. In contrast, a father who discloses that he has family care responsibilities faces job risks. One study found that men are often penalized for taking family leave, especially by other men. Another found that men with even a short work absence due to a family conflict were recommended for fewer rewards and had lower performance ratings.

The choice is clear. Be a manly, successful, ideal worker. Or be a wimpy, nurturing father. This scorn for men seeking to fulfill family responsibilities is commonplace -- and unambiguously illegal. Granting parental leave routinely to women but denying it to men is a violation of federal law. So is creating an environment hostile to men who seek parental leave (or, even more bravely, demand flexible work arrangements). Illegal as well is retaliation against men who are courageous enough to ignore the sneers and play an equal role in family caregiving.

A key agenda for modern feminism is to work with men to decrease the penalties encountered by those who flout the expectations that stem from conventional masculinity. When ideal-worker norms police men into breadwinner roles, this hurts not only women. It also hurts many men who cannot live up to the breadwinner ideal. Since most American families cannot live comfortably on one income, many working-class men, as well as many middle-class men, find themselves in the painfully demoralizing position of being unable to “support their families.”

Men are caught between an old-fashioned breadwinner ideal and an economic era that no longer delivers the family wage, and are left facing two choices: They can feel terrible about themselves, or they can help to change an outdated ideal. Feminists need to engage men on this issue.

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