Alison Garwood Jones

Life support

July 17, 2012

[I] coined this saying in my twenties, and believed it through that entire decade of my life. Back then, men my age reacted to me in two ways: sexual heat or professional competitiveness, but usually they offered the package deal. Keeping an eye firmly planted on me (and my rotating outfits), they monitored the pace of my success and roared ahead if they saw the needle on my speedometer twitch ahead of theirs. None of them presented themselves as the sort who, when really tested, would sacrifice their own schedules or ambition to support the dreams of a woman they were interested in. I probably would have thought they were putzes if they did. There’s the rub. Antagonistic is how things felt back then.

Still, I forged ahead, hellbent on self-actualization while my mum and dad whooooped uproariously from the sidelines. I couldn’t help thinking that a smart, ambitious young woman could count on her deepest support coming from the people who had no intention of  sleeping with her. And so, standing in the box next to my parents were a gaggle of gay guys, wagging their index fingers and screaming, “You Go, Girl!”

In the interest of balance I searched for exceptions to this rule. But they’re hard to find because almost no one reveals the truth behind two-career marriages while they’re in progress, other than celebrities and politicians. Bill and Hillary Clinton’s publicized compromises and indignities have been felt by more than some. Women watch Hillary — wondering what she’ll do — not because they’re shocked by what’s gone down, but because they can relate.

Billary in the hairy 1970s.

Not long ago, the thrice-wed Nora Ephron had some relationship advice for Lena Dunham, the 26-year-old writer and creator of the hit TV series, Girls. As Dunham recalls it,

I was sheepishly describing a male companion’s lack of support for my professional endeavors. Nora nodded in a very “don’t be stupid” way, as if I already knew what I had to do: “You can’t possibly meet someone right now. When I met Nick [her third husband, and a charm], I was already totally notorious”—note: Nora was the only person who could make that word sound neither braggy nor sinister—“and he understood exactly what he was getting into. You can’t meet someone until you’ve become what you’re becoming.” Panicked, I asked, “How long will that take?” (read the full article here).

Lena Dunham

There are some who would argue that men’s monomaniacal focus on their own progress is actually meant for the women and children (or future women and children) in their lives. It’s part of their need to provide for us while we focus on raising those babies. It’s why they don’t notice their underwear on the floor. And it’s why we write dialogue in movies like this, between a working mother and her husband,

“But I want you to want to take out the garbage.”

Men zone in and out based on their interests and attention spans and some of that is probably baked into their being. Extreme effort at work is followed by extreme laziness at home. For women, the need to maintain a stylish, orderly and safe environment at home (free of underwear heaps and raised toilet seats that babies or cats might slip on or drown in) is also built into our makeup. But so too is our need to need to achieve beyond housekeeping and biology.

We are all creatures of biology — men deliver sperm, women deliver babies. But the consequences of those native functions continue to fall too heavily on women. Biology either buries a woman’s individuality or thoroughly exhausts her as she scrambles to keep it alive.

[pullquote]While a guy may take out the trash or mow the lawn at night or coach Little League on the weekend, those are not activities that can stunt your career progress. – Kunal Modi[/pullquote]

Right now I’ve got my fingers crossed because it looks like we’ve reached a very public tipping point in male-female labour relations. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s stunningly confessional account of her struggle to balance work and family, called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” published this month in The Atlantic, will go down as the most important feminist tract since Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique (1963).

Slaughter is a Princeton professor, mom to two teenage boys, and the former Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department where she worked under Hillary Clinton. Both Slaughter and Friedan’s accounts, though 50 years apart, describe why women, then and now, are more dissatisfied than men about how their lives have unfolded. While the women in Friedan’s survey were bored and antsy about being stuck at home in 1963, the women Slaughter describes, including herself, are frazzled and stressed by decades of trying to fit themselves and their children into the inflexible timetable and structure of a working world designed by and for men (with wives).

Feminism harshly judges women who give up too soon, but Slaughter was willing to be the first to say in 12,674 words, ENOUGH! More importantly, she’s called on the workplace and society to accomodate women’s needs because we aren’t going back into the home full time. Men on their own don’t earn enough to support their families any more. In fact, a study released last week by Prudential Financial found in a survey of over 1400 American women that a majority (53%) were now the breadwinners in their family. And, yet, children are still let out of school at 3:30 pm, as if moms are at home waiting to greet them.

[pullquote]Raising children and running a household are not ‘women’s roles’ and treating them as such is counterproductive to your own family’s economic well-being. – Kunal Modi[/pullquote]

Extending school hours is one of many changes Slaughter and others have called for. That and more freedom to work from home. Let Skype handle face time. And c’mon, email conveniently replaced actually talking to your fellow desk jockeys years ago. It shouldn’t be a problem.

Social media instantly picked up on Slaughter’s story and her cri de coeur ricocheted around the globe. Every time this happens I feel like change might actually be possible. Many a dinosaur has been felled by Twitter: Hosni Mubarak and, one can only hope, Rob Ford. But wouldn’t it be something if the pressure of our tweets could force family-friendly changes on the 20th-century workplace we’re still tethered to?

[pullquote]Have we finally reached a tipping point in male-female labour relations?[/pullquote]

At this point, I’m really encouraged by the way men are reacting to Slaughter’s story, guys like Kunal Modi, a thoughtful writer and public policy expert. The questions and points he delivers in his blog show that men are realizing they have no choice now but to make changes in their own lives to accommodate the new economic normal that includes women on a grand scale. He also knows that women have done all of the twisting and turning over the last 50 years to balance work and family life, while men across the generations have been consistent in their sameness. Here’s a round up of Modi’s observations from his most recent  Huffington Post blog:

• “Our office parks and corporate organizational charts still resemble the Mad Men era. Men, just as equally as women, must take ownership of  family issues, which are core to economic competitiveness.”  So men, learn the facts:

• Women earn 57% of undergraduate degrees and account for nearly 60% of all graduate school enrollment. But they comprise only 17% of Congress, 16% of Corporate C-Suites and are underrepresented or misrepresented in media and popular culture. [Yay Kunal! He throws a link to the must-watch doc, Miss Representation]. Also, despite earning the majority of undergraduate and graduate degrees, women hold only 16% of Fortune 500 corporate officer positions and board seats, according to the latest Catalyst Census.”

• “In a study of men and women in professions most likely to run for political office, women take sole responsibility for household tasks 43% of the time compared to 7% of men. Also, women take primary responsibility for childcare in 60% of cases compared to only 6% of men.” Is it any wonder that political representation in the U.S. stands currently at: 83% male in Congress, 88% male in state governorships and 92% male in mayoral offices in the country’s 100 largest cities. Men are still crafting the majority of workplace policies, and thinking largely from their own perspective, not a woman’s.

[pullquote]If you think we’re living in a post-gendered world, you’re sorely mistaken. – Kunal Modi[/pullquote]

Modi calls on men to “do your job at home.” Tag-team with the woman in your life after work and pull your weight during the  so-called “second shift.” But before that happens these behavioural patterns (and stats) will have to change:

•  On the average workday, employed husbands typically found 30 more minutes for sports and leisure time. [I know this to be true. I work part-time at a bar and I watch working fathers arrive at 5:00 pm for two or three hours of drinking time with their buddies. Meanwhile, their working wives are holding down the fort at home. “Yeah, yeah. I’m coming,” they grunt into their smart phones as their friends do a collective eye roll in support of their choice and right to kick back. Somehow these guys are still confused and disappointed when they come home to a tired and frustrated spouse].

• In addition to helping out during the second shift, “men must also increasingly take ownership over the morning school carpool, the mid-day doctor appointments, parent-teacher conferences, meal preparation and waiting for the cable guy. Working women don’t clock out as ‘Mom’ between 9 and 5 and you cannot expect to clock out as ‘Dad’ either.”

[pullquote]For the prosperity of our economy and the vitality of our democracy, we each must do our part to ensure that the organizational structures of our institutions reflect the demographic realities of our times.— Kunal Modi[/pullquote]

Modi concludes, “For the sake of corporate performance and shareholder returns [and, I might add, happier relationships], men must play an active role in ensuring that the most talented young workers (often women) are being encouraged to advocate for their career advancement. In a 21st century economy, talent is king, and companies cannot afford to lose the next Sheryl Sandberg [or Anne-Marie Slaughter] to archaic organization charts and male-centric policies. Flexible work arrangements and high-quality, on-site child care should become staples of corporate work structures to attract and retain millennial workers .

“Let’s get involved right now,” says Modi to all the guys out there, “and not in a patronizing manner that marginalizes this as some altruistic act on behalf of our mothers, wives and daughters — but on behalf of ourselves, our companies, and the future of our country.”

The good news is: women really love men who pull their weight instead of checking out. The rewards should be worth it, guys, so take heart.





7 responses to “Life support”

  1. Meg says:

    Great post Alison. Should be required reading. Funnily enough, I find young women unconcerned about "care" and one told me it wasn't even a feminist issue.

  2. Meghan Adamson Poole says:

    Another winner, AGJ! You often have that POV that everyone is thinking but doesn’t want to say out loud for fear of alienating themselves from society. It’s interesting that we’ve come so far with our advances and breakthroughs in just about everything except ourselves. When will we as a society – as a human race – catch up to these technological breakthroughs? Most of us, if you ask me, have a thought process that is a couple centuries behind. It’s time to grow with the ever changing times. There are so many different opinions on this topic – we’ll call them “books”. Now, I’ll read your book if you read mine. We have to at the very least attempt to be on the same page in order to continue to advance as a society. Sometimes, it’s like we’re going backwards. That being said, I couldn’t be happier that I feel 100% like an equal in my marriage. I wish all women did. I did find a keeper. I think most men feel like statements such as yours above are just another feminist attempt at “man bashing” but I think it goes far beyond “girl power” and well into the new age way of thinking that this world needs.

    And I love the part about the bar! Don’t we know this to be true!

    Ex’s and Oh’s …


  3. I’m still searching for a balance between being a supportive father of daughters and good husband and the male bashing out on the internet. “Men should do more…l only puts us on the defensive and make me deaf to much of this.

  4. jenn whinnem says:

    I know we haven’t met, and I’ve been ambushed by strangers on the internet and I hesitate to come off like that. And yet , this post pains me to the degree that I am actually swyping this on my phone.

    I am a feminist. As such, I believe it is counter productive to complain about a system and then reinforce it through the perpetuation of stereotypes about men. If we as women want to be equal we cannot continue to act s though men are buffoons. Otherwise, WE are the buffoons for wanting any piece of their lot.

    The other glaring problem with this post is that it is such a white woman’s perspective, and one who has enjoyed some privilege as well. Betty fRiedan perpetuated a white and middle class perspective as THE norm for ALL women. This is not the case, and we only seek to alienate other women from the conversation.

    Additionally, declaring things such as ‘men zone in and out’as if that were true of all men.that is as unfair as three men who do drink at the bar and t take their wives for granted.what science do you have to back this up? Have you read any gender theory’ while you and I probably share similar physical characteristics that make us women, I can assure you that’s where the resemblance ends, and I would resent being treated a certain way because someone had assumed all women are alike.

    This is not my most cogent blog comment, and really what I wanted to do was not to nail you to the wall, but to ask you to think through the implications of what you’re posting -that you come off as bad as as the parties you’re criticizing. Yes, you’re entitled to your opinion no maturer how informed or uninformed it is.

    • AlisonGJ says:

      Jenn, thanks for taking the time to weigh in with your thoughts on this thorny and ongoing debate. I really appreciate it.

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