Many years ago, I sat down with my team members to coach them on how to address tricky questions during our Cultural Competence training program. We got talking about male and female stereotypes that affect our ability to engage with the opposite gender. One of the women team members felt safe enough to share that her decision to work full time, while her husband took time off to take care of their kids, was an issue with their family and their friends. It wasn't considered a 'normal' arrangement. This role reversal was a bit hard to digest for those who knew them.
More recently, as an immigrant, I know that many men who don't find a job for months on end in countries they migrate to, don't necessarily share that bit of information with their families back home. Their wife or partner doesn't want to either, especially, if she found a job already, and he's yet to get one. This is true for many of our cultures, not just the Indian one. We continue to feed into a parochial and patriarchal society and its hunger to see a man in a role he can't possibly escape. How can he? Who would we be if he did? Cultures around the world defy logic, education and exposure to the gender equal rhetoric, and continue to hold our men to standards so unrealistic, that avoiding the truth is perhaps the only way to bear the shame and humiliation of failing to be a man. The ultimate defeat of not being the breadwinner.
Is a man less of a man to take time off for childcare? Is he less of a man for failing to be the first one to secure a job and pay the bills? Maybe, our men need emancipation, as well.
Some of us might say, of course not, that makes no sense. Men are not the victims, they are the perpetrators. Yet, too many of us still find it uncomfortable if our male partner deviated from our conditioning of what their role is supposed to be. I don't count myself out of such stereotypes. I grew up the same way, watching men either triumph in their appointed roles and be the Alpha Male or shrivel up and die, eventually, bearing the burden of having lost face.
I remember when I first began to read romantic novels as a young girl, I never stopped to think of the man in the story as a person, he was more of a mental image I had of what a man should be like, reinforced by my environment. He was masculine, brawny, possibly intelligent (but, who cared), definitely rich, a bit roguish in a charming way, alway gallant when it really mattered and the greatest lover by the end of the story. In short, he was failure-proof. A man who got what he wanted, and nothing less. I must add, this was a short lived period of my reading history, I went back to my classics and thrillers never to return to the romantic genre. I lost patience not only with the heroes, but also with the heroines, who forever needed to be rescued and were perpetual damsels in distress. Both confining gender roles tested my patience. I knew I was done with the girl fantasy period of my growing up years that needed to be experienced.
Movies, and the pervasive world of advertising, weren't far behind. Did you ever see a man in a detergent ad waxing eloquent on how white his wife's work clothes were after he used all but a pinch of the powder! Or a woman carrying a briefcase, who swore by her branded ink pen to sign all important work decisions. The person triumphing at the end of the movie was almost always a man, and the women would proudly cheer on.
Think of images of the man you wanted to marry, or the man who is or was your father or brother or first boss. Who graced most of the magazine covers? Whom did we hero worship? What did we want in all those men? We wanted them to be men. Period. No exceptions to their masculinity, their breadwinner role, no apparent weaknesses, like asking for help (or for directions, for that matter), no moral ambiguity, no confusions and identity crises and no space for sharing a side of them that might endanger their manliness; his ego so precious that contradicting him was unthinkable.
When we examine our own biases, we might find that we want our men to be men based on our conditioning over centuries that still defines what makes a man a real man. But we no longer want our women to be what our conditioning says they ought to be, we want them changed and liberated and redefined. Do you see how this disconnect is self-defeating.
Are we hurting Gender Equality efforts advocating only for women to be emancipated from the their primary caregiver role, but neglecting to do the same for men, most of whom continue to be imprisoned in their breadwinner roles?
It has taken me years of work on my own belief system to say that both men and women, and those who find themselves somewhere on this gender spectrum, can do anything they wanted to do and be whoever they wanted to be. It's their choice, and I couldn't possibly judge either for doing so.
More recently, I listened in to a discussion on Gender Equality where a woman, who had come in with her two small children, attended as well. She asked a fantastic question - how can we make it more acceptable for men to take paternity leave? No one had an answer that might have satisfied her curiosity. Which came from her husband having taken paternity leave, only to hear from other men how they had 'too much' on their plate to have done the same. Also, that now he'd be baby sitting instead of working. The insinuation - your career was probably stalling or you didn't have enough to do, so you can afford to go on leave, they on the other hand, couldn't even entertain such a possibility. They were super busy men, still rescuing the world and being their family's superheroes. Think for a moment about the destructiveness of this comment from one man to another.
In one fell swoop, the man who had taken time off to care for his children was dismissed as less than a legitimate professional, and an even less of a man, perhaps. Not to mention, men don't baby sit their own kids, they bring them up together.
Several companies who have introduced paternity leave in the hope that it will level the playing field for women with children, are realising to their surprise that there aren't many takers! Even if as a woman one is okay with a role reversal, a man taking time off might be socially rejected for taking that decision. What would the family say, and worse still, what would his colleagues think? Wasn't he serious about his career? Let's not forget about the woman's father, who might confirm his worst fears - he knew this guy wasn't good enough for his daughter.
Even if we helped men to feel good about taking paternity leave and get over the social hurdle of it, it doesn't solve the problem completely. Most policies allow only one parent to take leave at one time, so the other has to go to work. Guess which one of them is most likely to have a higher salary and a better position, which eventually decides the one who stays, and the one that goes back to work.
We have to be curious when well intentioned policies and Gender Equality efforts stumble, and eventually fail both men and women.
I recently read, 'We are Afghan Women - Voices of Hope', a collection of 28 heartwarming and gut wrenching stories of women torn by decades of war, domestic violence and oppression. Yet, these women have braved death threats and violence to make something of their lives, so they can serve other women and their country. What blew me away was that some of these women see not just themselves, but the men in their lives as victims. Yes, the same men who were perpetrators, but they were also the victims. Victims of centuries of messaging that made it right for them to behave in abominable ways toward the women who bore their children and took care of their home. The women reason that if their men knew any better, they would have behaved better.
To underscore this assumption are startling statistics of significant decrease in domestic violence and women's mortality in areas where men were involved in women's progress, and saw the positive outcomes of women working and earning a wage right alongside them. These are emancipated men who must have felt relieved that they didn't have to be everything, and if they failed to be everything, they didn't have to be violent to compensate for it.
What a different world we would be if it was normal and accepted for our men to be able to cry and not hide their tears, wear pink if they wanted to, be the daddies at home, sit in the audience and cheer for their female partner as she won an award or got her PhD, proudly tell their families how she was taking their family ahead, to encourage other dads to do what made fatherly sense, not social sense and inspire an entire generation of young men who could be anyone they wanted to be. What a different dialogue that would be and what a different world that would be.
Gender Equality is not about women alone, it is about men AND women, and all those who identify as someone in-between. Without this inclusive view and focus on all gender stereotypes, we won't get far on this agenda. History is already telling us how decades of Gender Equality efforts continue to bite the dust. Without a movement to emancipate our men, women alone won't win this battle. Considering I am a woman, I am advocating for our men to be able to break away from their superhero roles, too. I think they deserve to be who they want to be as much as we do. Are you with me?
Do share your thoughts, would love to hear back.
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