What does it mean to be a real man at the office? It means being a workaholic, says Joan Williams, and that has devastating consequences for women, men and families. According to Williams, the author of ‘Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter’, who "has something approaching rock-star status" among work/life advocates, men prove their masculinity in the workplace by putting in long hours.
I know just what she means. This man is my father, an attorney who spent most weekends at the office when I was a little girl. He is also my husband, who works 10- or 12-hour days even though he has two young children at home. He's even my sister, a lawyer in a male-dominated firm who always asks me to call her back at work, even if it's 10 p.m. on a Saturday.
These workers sacrifice their waking lives on the altar of modern-day machismo. Many studies reveal that professional men's working hours rose in the 1990s, Williams says. "They just went bananas," she says. At the same time, men's household contributions levelled off in the 1990s and haven't risen since. A third - and likely related - phenomenon also occurred. "When men's household contributions levelled off, guess what? So did women's labour force participation," Williams adds.
Those women who continue to work are still responsible for more than their share of child care and household responsibilities. Not surprisingly, we have become the driving force behind the growing movement for better work-life balance.
We [Americans] want one of the big benefits that our peers enjoy in many other countries: Paid leave to care for ourselves or a family member who falls ill or to bond with a new child. We also want more control over our work schedules so we can fit a doctor’s appointment or a meeting with our child's teacher into our busy workdays.
Yet, despite the obvious and desperate need for these kinds of benefits, Bills that would provide them to millions of employees around the country are going nowhere. That's because men aren't involved in the discussion, Williams argues. (Right, of course! They're too busy putting in long hours at the office proving their manhood.) "We have to open up a national conversation about the gender pressures on men that are making them feel so unable to change," Williams says. "Women will continue to lose in kitchen-table bargaining over child care and housework until we open up successfully that conversation about men and masculinity."
This conversation has taken place in our house and it has had huge payoffs. In 2009, while pregnant with our second child, I learned that my husband had accrued six weeks of vacation leave and a stunning eight months of paid sick leave. I suggested (and was prepared to insist) that he use it after the birth of our son and he enthusiastically agreed –and actually made it happen.
I was pleasantly surprised – or should I say downright stunned – since he works in an office comprised mostly of military officers. He certainly has gotten his fair share of ribbing from his colleagues for taking such an extended leave (some of his colleagues in the military are just happy to be in the same time zone when their children are born). But I must say, he's also gotten some surprising and welcome chest-bumps too from envious colleagues.
One lingering complaint, however: He couldn't use his deep well of sick leave during this period (which was when our son was six months old) because of his gender. As a father, and not a mother, he was apparently not entitled to use sick benefits to care for our child because a certain limited amount of time had passed. But he did exhaust his vacation leave – and then some more – to care for our children after I went back to work, and I cannot overstate how fabulous it was for our family. During these two months I was married to the equivalent of a traditional wife and mother, with all the benefits that bestows on any bread earner. What a gift!
But my husband was the greater beneficiary. He has often said since that those two months - he tacked on a couple weeks of unpaid leave - were the best of his life. He lost two weeks’ pay and ignored warnings about the risk to his career, but he came out ahead, way ahead.
Sporting a beard, a baby carrier, and his version of a gender-neutral diaper bag (a black backpack) spilling over with diapers, wipes, my pumped breast milk and all manner of other infant accoutrements, John headed out - often with the dog in tow, too - every morning to the park, the museum, the playground, wherever, to spend some quality time with his kids.
He loved every last minute of it. When I asked him how he felt about going back to work, his eyes began to water. Now, my husband is no crier. He didn't cry when he proposed to me. He didn't cry during our wedding ceremony. He didn't cry during the birth of our first and second sons.
Like most men, John expresses neither joy nor sorrow through tears. To be sure, my husband loves his job. But the mere thought of returning to the long days and late nights of his working world – and missing out on uninterrupted weekdays with his children – brought him to an emotional precipice.
John and I are now talking about ways he can spend more time with the kids, from job-sharing to flex-time and all the other options women often wind up considering after we become mothers.
It's the kind of discussion we all need to have, not just us women. Men may be seen as less macho in the work force if they alter their schedule for their children, and perhaps they'll pay a price in the same way that women do if they attempt to find that precarious balance between work and family. But the discussion alone can yield incalculable rewards.
Talking about ways fathers can spend more time with their children could open up more options for dads and will push the work-family movement forward - and it may just make a few more overworked fathers well up with tears of joy.
By arrangement with WFS / Women's eNews