It was a dizzying experience reading the recent IFS blog post by Dr. Steven E. Rhoads, asserting that universities and other workplaces should discontinue gender-neutral policies because most women, especially those with young children, don’t really want to work full time. I had recently written a piece arguing the opposite, The Case Against Maternity Leave, because the evidence shows policies aimed to “help” one gender typically end up disadvantaging that very gender.
I wanted to better understand Rhoads’ point of view, and the closing argument in his blog post that "proponents of ’leaning in’ have no reason to believe they speak for most women or that they have a better understanding than women themselves of what’s good for them. Why not try to accommodate the life preferences women in fact have?"
I have my own issues with the “Lean In” school because it asks women to lean into a work culture and social policies that are still geared to a middle class 1950s world that no one lives in anymore. I say it’s time to value care work because it is our connection with others that gives life meaning. And it’s time to update those work cultures and policies to give people of all genders more choices in how to work and live, which, in the end, will make work better, families happier and more stable, and the economy more innovative and productive.
But I wondered how Rhoads could claim to speak for the life preferences of women—or men for that matter. So, I read his 2004 book, Taking Sex Differences Seriously, which argues for a biologically-determined vision of the traditional breadwinner-homemaker ideal.
Reading both the blog and the book was disorienting, not only because he claimed to know best what women really want, based on a foundation that irresponsibly disregards the full range of scientific research on gender differences, but also because I happened to be in the middle of a boisterous extended family reunion in Wyoming.
You’d assume, perhaps, given Wyoming’s macho cowboy tradition and history of culturally conservative politics, and my family’s heritage in the ranching business, that Rhoads’ vision on the page and life on Casper Mountain would synch up: Men are men—aggressive, competitive, interested in casual sex, and suited to work. Women are women—nurturing, drawn to caregiving and homemaking with an “inexplicable need to bond with their young,” as Dr. Rhoads put it in his book. Each gender chemically and hormonally wired for the roles they are to play in life. Nothing to be done. And, more ominously, nothing to “wish or legislate” away.
And yet, I watched my cousin, Sean, a respected dentist, board member of the local Rocky Mountain Gun Club, hunter, fisherman, leader of the ski patrol (whose wife manages their business), in the kitchen, doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, and refusing help.
Another cousin, Seano, a sheriff’s deputy, undercover cop, and member of the local SWAT team, lovingly carted his baby son around all weekend through feedings, naps, fussing and diaper changes, clearly putting a lie to Rhoads’ assertion in his book that fathers “usually don’t enjoy taking care of them [children] for extended periods.”
And it’s not like that behavior was unusual—a brief burst of guilty bonding to make up for long hours at work. True, Seano’s work often does require long hours. But talk to him and his wife, Kerstin, and the shared care is a conscious decision they’ve both made about how they want to combine their work and family lives. Seano said he’s grateful for Kerstin’s support in his difficult work. But in the same breath, he talked proudly of supporting her, too, and the new marketing business she’s starting.
Another cousin, Steve, brought his darling eight-year-old twin daughters, so his wife, Brandi, could take their son to a Little League championship. Both Steve and Brandi have high-power jobs at the same company. I was reading Rhoads’ view in his book that women are in a culture war between a “majority who are traditionally feminine and others who are more like men than their sisters are.” The latter, he insists, without supporting evidence, have been “exposed to higher levels of testosterone.” These two twin girls, ostensibly exposed to the same amounts of testosterone in utero, couldn’t have been more different. One loves nail polish and dancing. The other is the only girl on her baseball team. Yet they were both out riding four-wheel ATVs on back roads, building campfires in the woods, and baking a spice cake and decorating it with M&M’s.
One day, for breakfast, my cousin’s wife—a state senator—cooked breakfast, while my cousin looked after their three kids and washed up. That day, two four-year-olds, a boy and a girl, took turns hurling a fire truck off the back deck—he in a Spiderman cape and she in a Wonder Woman T-shirt. All the kids lined up to learn how to shoot a bow and arrow and clambered to go to the museum to see mastodon bones. That night, we told stories around the fire of our immigrant past, and how our educated grandmother helped our uneducated grandfather break from his family and homestead his own ranch.
I’m aware that these are merely anecdotes against the backdrop of the larger human story. But that’s just the point. Unlike Rhoads, who handpicks anecdotes and uses them, however tortuously, to support a single, limiting worldview, my aim is to show the confounding, complex, unpredictable, mysterious, and often wild variation in the human behavior, outlook, and desires of all genders.
What kind of world, through policy, practice, and culture, do we want to create for ourselves as humans? For men and women? For our families?
And I can certainly argue the science. Unlike Rhoads’ cherry-picked data, some of it outdated, some misinterpreted, the best work shows that there is often more biological variation within gender than there is across gender. For instance, just as women’s bodies very obviously change when they are in the process of becoming mothers, so, too, do men change hormonally and neurologically when they become fathers. Their testosterone levels drop, their bodies produce prolactin, the same hormone responsible for producing breast milk, and oxytocin, the bonding or “love” hormone. Their brains’ nurturing and communication pathways light up, just like women’s do when they look at an infant. Mice studies show that, with more exposure and experience, father brains become more like mother brains, wired for nurture.
What I find interesting is that scientists discovered many of these hormonal changes by accident, in thyroid studies, according to Kyle Pruett, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center who has long studied fathers. So entrenched is Rhoads’ vaunted breadwinner-homemaker ideal, even in the minds’ of inquiring scientists, that nobody bothered to look.
The point is this: of course, men and women are different biologically. But we are members of the same species. Humans have survived through millennia because we are cooperative breeders, say experts like anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. We have always helped each other care for and raise our young. And in the centuries of agricultural life, of family-run businesses, we all helped each other work for our daily bread, even mothers, even children. The Industrial Revolution separated the work of men and women.
The productivity gains and political commitment to a “family wage” in the two decades after World War II enabled more Americans to live the breadwinner-homemaker life so nostalgically celebrated by Rhoads and others like him. But the Industrial Age is over. Wages have stagnated since the 1970s, and basic costs like healthcare, housing and education have skyrocketed, even though worker productivity has continued to rise—the fruits of that labor funneling increasingly to the 1 percent. And now, with changing mores and shifting economics, nearly three-fourths of all children are being raised in families where all parents work. And many of those families are time-starved and stressed financially, mentally, and physically.
American workers put in among the longest hours of any advanced economy. The stress of those long hours and demanding work cultures is now the 5th leading cause of death, according to studies by Stanford professor of organizational behavior Jeffrey Pfeffer and his colleagues. Rhoads insists that women would prefer to work part time in order to be more present for their families. But let’s face it, no one wants to overwork the punishing American way. It’s no surprise that Gallup routinely finds 70% of U.S. workers are not engaged at work, and the majority of Americans would prefer to run their own business, to set their own schedules, if they could.
Both women and men report feeling high-stress levels trying to make it work in unforgiving work cultures, with outdated cultural expectations like Rhoads’, and with policies that are, frankly, hostile to modern families. The real question, then, is what kind of world, through policy, practice, and culture, do we want to create for ourselves as humans? For men and women? For our families?
With changing mores and shifting economics, nearly three-fourths of all children are being raised in families where all parents work. And many of those families are time-starved and stressed financially, mentally, and physically.
Rhoads warns against what he calls a feminist agenda to create an androgynous world. As if allowing the personhood of women, which is what feminism is at heart, meant that we were all going to march around in Mao pajamas and be sexless, indistinguishable automatons. How boring. Not to mention oppressive—as oppressive as Rhoads’ view about the limits of my own destiny because of my gender.
But what if men and women could make real choices— for themselves and their families—about how they choose to work and live? What if the goal were an egalitarian—not androgynous—world? A world where humans could craft their life courses based, not on gender, but on what moves the soul? Where people could create loving families of blood and choice. And where those families, not just women, had time to care for and bond with infants and set their own family dynamics, to care for themselves and others—freely, without constraint. That means paid family leave of adequate duration and wage replacement.
A world where career paths could be fluid and flexible, not one steep ladder to the top, where work cultures enable, instead of punish, men and women who take time for the important work of care. That means fair wages, and high quality, affordable early care and learning. That means workplaces that no longer require and blindly reward long hours and total devotion to the point of sacrificing life, family, time and health, just because that’s the way it was done in the 1950s. Instead, it means workplaces that recognize that in a knowledge economy, healthy, well-rested, and happy workers who are better able to control and predict their schedule and workflow, with time for life, are not only more productive but are setting themselves up, neuroscience shows, for having the best ideas and insights.
Are we there yet? Of course not. The tenure study Rhoads’ cites in his IFS post, where male economists used family leave to get ahead at work, is far more indicative of how these traditional gender norms and outdated workplace expectations imprison both men and women than the result of any biological drive. The research out of Iceland, Quebec and other places is clear—gender-neutral policies that are both designed and implemented well are a good place to start toward a world that allows us all to become more authentically human.
As I finished Rhoads’ book and thought about his blog post in the mountains of Wyoming, I couldn’t help but wonder if this academic effort was merely an elaborate ruse to get out of doing the dishes. When boys grow up, he writes, “they may be good family men, but they do not usually do much domestic work. Males, like high-testosterone females, tend to be more stubborn and intractable about this and other matters.” I looked up at the startling array of stars in the clear night sky. Life is big and mysterious. Human beings are wondrously, maddeningly complicated. I wanted to say, “Steven, be a man. It’s your turn to load the dishwasher.”
Brigid Schulte is an award-winning writer and journalist, author of the New York Times bestselling book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, and director of the Better Life Lab at New America, a nonpartisan think tank.