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Men Need to Lean Out

For gender equality, husbands need to play a supporting role

Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP/Getty

Could you marry a woman who out-earns you? Conditioned by enlightened, 21st century thinking about gender, many men would likely answer (or at least try to answer), “Yes.” It’s politically correct and the scenario is easy when it’s hypothetical. But on an emotional level, this power redistribution is difficult to square, for men and women alike. Indeed, the inverse—Could you marry a man who earns less than you?—may be just as challenging for women. In 2003, New York magazine ran the story, “Alpha Women, Beta Men,” about Upper East Side couples who suffered exactly this dynamic. The men felt emasculated; the women, less feminine. The couples tried to conceal the problem from others and even from themselves. Confiding in another woman who also out-earned her husband, one woman noted, “It’s like one of those things where you realize you’re married to people who drink.”  The relationships almost invariably ended in divorce.

Americans’ views don’t seem to have evolved much in the time since. In 2010 Pew Research conducted a survey asking, “How important is it for a man to be able to support a family financially if he wants to get married?” 67% of Americans responded that it was very important. When the same question was posed about women, only 33% of Americans thought their financial situation mattered. But it is perhaps the following remark, written in 2011 in the comments section of “Alpha Women, Beta Men,” that best captures our feelings on the matter: “Kurt” writes, “The women in the article are almost certainly not ‘marriage material.’ They appear to be very controlling bitches and that is not attractive. They have probably always been like that for their entire lives. Maybe the only men who were willing to tolerate the bad attitude were the unambitious losers they married?” 

The uncomfortable truth is that money-making and earning power lie at the heart of our conception of American masculinity. This is deeply detrimental to women—not because it prevents women from advancing in the workplace per se, but because it prevents men from participating equally in the activities of the home. And as Anne-Marie Slaughter emphasizes in her new book, Unfinished Business, women don’t advance at work in the same way, at the same pace as their male counterparts, when caregiving responsibilities—cooking, cleaning, carpooling, arranging play dates and doctors appointments—fall predominantly on their shoulders. 21st century men tend to support their wives’ careers, but when something has to give, it’s almost inevitably the woman’s career that suffers. Leaning in more aggressively isn’t enough to tip the scale unless men also start to lean out.

In Unfinished Business, Slaughter, CEO of the New America Foundation and former director of policy planning in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, picks up the argument she began in her 2012 Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Perhaps most provocatively, she calls for a redefinition of masculinity: “Most of the pervasive gender inequalities in our society—for both men and women—cannot be fixed,” she writes, “unless men have the same range of choices with respect to mixing caregiving and breadwinning that women do.” Men have to be encouraged to be lead parents, to defer promotions or work part-time, to take paternity leave, and to ask for flexible hours just as women do. But they’re not going to make those choices unless they are respected and rewarded as men for doing so. That is to say, unless we dissociate masculinity from money-making and treat caregiving as valuable, life-sustaining work—an investment in America’s human capital.

The notion that it’s a man’s job to “provide,” Slaughter points out, goes back at least as far as the New Testament. Saint Paul writes, “If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.”  The idea has been so internalized through the centuries that we seem to think there is a near-biological instinct for men to be providers, but it may very well be a socialized bias. “For the skeptics who shake their heads and think I’m challenging nature itself,” Slaughter argues, “consider just how certain men have been for centuries that the highest and best role for women was as wives and mothers, daughters and sisters, nurturing and caring for others.” As traditional notions about women’s roles in society continue to break down, it’s hard to see why men’s shouldn’t too. 

In the process, our notion of what it means to provide must itself evolve: “Why,” Slaughter asks, “does ‘providing’ or ‘supporting’ mean money rather than care? The production of food rather than the preparation of it? The purchase of a car rather than  the driving of it? The building of a house rather than the making of a home?” Masculinity must mean this larger, richer sense of providing in which men aren’t just ATMs but engaged nurturers of their families.

It’s a beautiful vision—even, dare I say, a utopian one: women streaming into the traditionally male sphere of work; men streaming into the traditionally female sphere of domesticity; the final dissolving of the boundary between the two in order to produce a more balanced society, one that values breadwinning and caregiving in equal measure, as equally vital forces in the creation of a prosperous future.  But why on earth would men give up their roles as dominant breadwinners? What incentive do they have to lean out? Notably, Slaughter never calls it leaning out. She talks instead about men being “free” to be caregivers too: men’s liberation, as it were. But her choice of words is revealing: “The majority of American women have demanded over the last half-century that society reject and revise traditional norms about what women want and what they can do. It is time to do the same for men.” (my italics)

Who exactly is doing the revising? Her language suggests that men aren’t going to do it for themselves. Can women do it for them? This ambiguity points to the conflict at the heart of contemporary feminist movements like Lean In. Everyone wins, the argument goes, when women are equal partners in the workplace. It is true, in a sense: Studies across the board show that firms with greater female representation generate more revenue and societies where women contribute to the economy are more secure and prosperous.

On communal, societal, and global levels, gender equality is better for everyone. But on the local level, individuals must lose: Individual men must lose out to individual women. They must lose promotions to women in equal numbers as women lose them to men; they must take part-time work to support their wives’ careers as often as women take part-time roles to support their husbands’; they must even step out of the workforce entirely to be caregivers when their wives are breadwinners. As Susan Sontag wrote back in 1972, “Any serious program for liberating women must start from the premise that liberation is not just about equality. It is about power. Women cannot be liberated without reducing the power of men.” What gender equality in the workplace really means is the reduction, by half, of men’s power in business and political spheres and its usurpation by women. Sheryl Sandberg is a brilliant marketer, and she has marketed gender equality in part by glossing over this unpleasant detail. 

So we can try to redefine masculinity, but why would they let us? We can encourage men to lean out, but why would they do it? What do they stand to gain?

American men are speaking out increasingly against Amazon-style cultures of overwork. They’re rejecting workaholism and its attendant sprites, stress and sleep deprivation; they’re embracing identities and pursuits outside the status-oriented drive of the office. If 1950s housewives once looked at their lives and asked, “Is this all?”, now men are beginning to ask the question too. They’re looking at lives besieged by emails, presentations, and conferences calls and wondering if, in the relentless drive to succeed, they haven’t in fact missed out. The workplace “wellness” trend—companies offering mindfulness programs, expressing concern for the happiness of their employees—is one manifestation of this. Men are also more engaged in the lives of their children than their own fathers were. Jack Sullivan, co-founder of the Fatherhood Institute, claims that men are “belatedly escaping what we now recognize to be the confines of our gender.” He sees a distinct cultural transformation in the ways men engage with children, women, and each other. 

Slaughter is eager to support this idea. She points to Huggie ads marketed at dads instead of moms and Dove commercials with lines like, “What makes a man stronger? Showing that he cares.” In 2013, half of fathers in a Pew study reported that they wanted to spend more time with their kids. (By contrast, most mothers already have their fill; only one-fifth expressed a desire for more.)  Writing about the top five regrets of the dying, an Australian caretaker of the elderly reports that the most common regret was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself.” The second, from every male patient she nursed, was, “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”

But will women reward men for leaning out? Sontag doubted men would let go so readily: “No ruling class ever ceded its real privileges without a struggle.” The trickiest part, however, is that women also have to let go. They have to let go of the old model of masculinity to which they have long been attracted; they have to want men who are caregivers as much as they are breadwinners; they have to be ready to marry men who earn less than them. The challenge may not lie in a power struggle so much as in this tectonic realignment of values—which is in no way to diminish its difficulty. It is, in fact, a realignment in how we think about power. The interior world—the world of desire, respect, pride, and attraction—is where the last frontier of this struggle will really be waged.