Can We Pull Back the Curtain on Old-Fashioned Assumptions?

by Sarah Thébaud

Time recently reported the latest statistics on the ways that American men and women spend their time. Unfortunately, the findings in this “news” story aren’t news to social researchers: like last year and the few years before that (and the few years before that), men are slowly increasing their time spent on housework and childcare, but women still do the lion’s share, especially the least enjoyable chores like cleaning the bathroom. And, even though men spend more time doing paid work than women, they also have more time for leisure, like playing sports.
Thebaud_image1This report prompts the enduring question: Why, in our ostensibly modern, rational society, are women still getting the short end of the stick when it comes to unpaid labor and leisure? Although the answer is complicated, it often boils down to the fact that, collectively, Americans still hold women ultimately responsible for housework and childcare, regardless of their employment or career status. By the same token, we hold men responsible for breadwinning, even if they are (or would rather be) primarily responsible for the housework and childcare. Though many (especially young) people disagree with such “traditional” expectations, these old-fashioned standards of accountability affect our behavior because they infiltrate day-to-day conversations, relationships with friends and family, media, and workplaces.

One case in point: Matt Lauer’s Today Show interview with General Motors CEO Mary Barra. After referencing a public discussion about the fact that Barra just happens to be a CEO and a mother, Lauer reinforced its apparent importance by asking, “Given the pressures of this job at General Motors, can you do both [be a mom and a CEO] well?” By scrutinizing Barra’s ability to be a good parent (a talking point virtually unheard of in interviews of male CEOs), Lauer exposes our collective assumption that, even in the face of an exceedingly successful career, women are held accountable for being a “good” parent, a role that, by implication, demands more time and energy from women than it does from men.

These taken-for-granted assumptions permeate our workplaces, too. In his recent state of the union address, President Obama agreed with sociologists Lindsey Trimble O’Connor and Christin Munsch that, “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.” This statement is self-evident when you consider the massive influx of women into the labor market since the 1960s. “Male breadwinner” families are largely a relic of the past, but jobs are still premised on Don Draper, a worker who relies on his wife to take care of any household responsibilities. In an increasingly competitive economy, most employers now demand 24-7 availability from workers, which for most workers means longer and/or more unpredictable hours. Under such pressures, the only solution for many dual-earner families is for one partner to scale back their employment and career ambitions, otherwise no parent will be available to pick up the kids from practice, let alone kiss them goodnight. Thanks to our collective imagination about who is responsible for the household, that partner usually ends up being a woman.Thebaud_image2

One of my favorite scenes in The Wizard of Oz is when Dorothy finally pulls back the curtain to reveal that the Wizard, who she thought was all-powerful, is just a man. Our collective assumptions about men and women, which currently govern our dialogues, families, and workplaces, are much like the Wizard: when unquestioned, they seem to have endless power, but when we pull back the curtain, it’s clear they are merely a smokescreen—one that only serves to reinforce an unequal, and often unfair, organization of society. Lately, there seems to be a growing number of people interested in pulling back that curtain. For instance, people are taking to social media to challenge Matt Lauer’s line of questioning (e.g. Can he be a good dad and still be a good Today show host?). Policy changes that challenge the gendered assumptions of the workplace may also be afoot. For instance, studies increasingly find that when governments and workplaces support work-family policies like paid parental leave and flexible work scheduling for both women AND men, it leads to a more gender-equal division of caregiving and housework. The White House recently released a report endorsing such policies, which we know just happen to be good for business and workers’ health and happiness, too. Maybe this kind of dialogue will help move stories about gender inequality up from Time’s “Living” section to the homepage.

The fact that Americans are increasingly willing to call out people and organizations when they rely on old-fashioned gendered assumptions suggests that change is possible. Imagine what might happen if, instead of simply challenging people like Matt Lauer on Twitter, we posed a challenge to our bosses, coworkers, spouses, friends and family members every time that these assumptions infiltrated our conversations, perspectives, and decision-making. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

Sarah Thébaud is assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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