Men and Women Must Share 'Having it All'
Thursday, 18th April 2013 at 11:00 am
To achieve equality of opportunity, men and women must share more evenly the responsibilities bundled up in what are seen as traditional gender roles, writes structural engineer and social justice advocate, Tim McMinn.
Two weeks ago I was in Tanzania, working on a pro-bono engineering project. Every day I walked to the building site, passing fields of maize in which hundreds of women worked; removing weeds, carrying water, collecting massive bundles of firewood, or cooking in smoky mud-shacks.
In sharp contrast, as we worked with our construction team, we attracted an enormous crowd of male bystanders, generally looking on, and every now and then offering advice. By and large, the men seemed to have much less to do.
This picture does not conform to a typical conception of male breadwinners and female nurturers. In Tanzania, women appeared to be doing most of both.
We often think we have a good understanding of the origins of our own traditional gender roles, believing that they have a strong basis in human ancestry. Think, for example, of the common image of our prehistoric ancestors: man the hunter, clad in skins, with his gatherer wife and their brood of children. In other words, a nuclear family for the Ice Age.
Much evidence points to the modern family unit as a recent phenomenon, emerging with the accumulation of wealth that agriculture and organised states made possible. Our image of the hunter-gatherer family is a projection of these social structures back onto our prehistoric selves.
In her book "Mothers and Others", the anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy makes a compelling case that family life in traditional societies was very different for the vast majority of our existence.
She shows that while mothers played a vital role in bearing and nurturing children, fathers, siblings, aunts, uncles, and especially grandmothers were also critical to their success. Importantly, she shows that the role of the father was not always simply that of the 'breadwinner', but very often also a committed caregiver.
Blaffer Hrdy's work challenges the idea that gender roles have a rigid natural form – instead, they have been highly varied. But the alternative view remains pervasive, and it is one of the most significant cultural obstacles to achieving progress on gender equality.
A high-profile example of this view can be found in the recent comments by Victoria's new women's minister Heidi Victoria. She argued that we would be naive to think that we can achieve equal gender representation in Parliament because women are typically ''nurturers'', and politics is too demanding a game for women.
No doubt there are some inherent differences between men and women, but our knowledge of what they are is far too weak to provide any justification for the under-representation of women in positions of power and leadership, their over-representation in unpaid caring work, and other symptoms of gender inequality such as the pay gap, workplace discrimination, and violence against women.
Women's over-representation in unpaid care is a critical issue in gender equality, and one that men have a vital part to play in resolving. It is critical because the low status attached to unpaid care is reflected in the lower status and rewards for women in the workplace and politics. Men's role is vital because their take-up of traditionally female roles has been so small to date.
Consider the case of my field of engineering, which remains a predominantly male profession. Engaging in unpaid childcare puts female engineers at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to workplace progression and earning potential. Engineers Australia recently released their annual Survey of Working Environment and Engineering Careers for 2012. It found that there was no difference in earnings between male and female engineers aged 20-29, but that at every other age bracket men obtained higher earnings.
It is likely that the disproportionate responsibility of women for raising children is one of the main sources of disadvantage. There are many policies we can pursue to remedy this – increasing the availability of paid parental leave, childcare, and access to part-time work arrangements, for example.
However, cultural change in men is a key shift which must occur. To achieve equality of opportunity, men and women must share more evenly the responsibilities bundled up in traditional gender roles. In other words, both women and men must have it all, at least some of the time.
It's here that the 'having it all' debate loses sight of something important. Given that raising children is a central life experience for so many people, it would enrich the quality of our democracy to have a greater number of public leaders – male and female – who have experienced both caring duties and the world of work.
Therefore one of the most important things men can do to promote gender equality is to engage more equally in unpaid caring work with their partners. I have met men from all walks of life who have already taken this decision, and I am always impressed by the quiet courage it takes to go against the grain and shrug off the associated blokey stigma. But for coming generations, it will be an increasingly common and easy choice.
I think the benefits of this change will be felt not just by individual women and men, but by society generally. Broadening men and women's shared experience will help us to deepen our sense of common humanity.
This article was originally published on The Drum. It is republished here with permission.
About the author: Tim McMinn is a structural engineer and social justice advocate based in Perth. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_mcminn.