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Yep, Men Are the Problem

January 20, 2011 By:
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When I saw the listing for Joan C. Williams's Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter in the Harvard University Press catalog earlier in the year, I thought the title suggested lots of possibilities and would be worth a look. When the book arrived in my office and I saw the photo on the cover -- an image of a father and son sharing time together -- I was even more heartened. I thought to myself, "At last, someone's done it right. They've diagnosed the problem and offered a remedy for the intractable dilemma of balancing work, family and children."

In the end, though, I discovered that the packaging didn't actually misrepresent the work inside, but it didn't quite encapsulate it either. Or perhaps I just expected something different and so was a bit let down.

That's not to say that the arguments Williams puts forth are wrong or without merit. One could hardly fault any of her theories or conclusions. They just don't go far enough -- or perhaps it's that they go off in a direction I wish they hadn't.

Williams, who is Distinguished Professor of Law, 1066 Foundation Chair, and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, is an angry academic -- and fully justified in her anger. She's miffed at American society for having the least family-friendly public policy in the developed world; and she's enraged at journalists, many of them at The New York Times, for misrepresenting, in prominently placed articles, why women seem to be opting out of "high-status professional careers."

Added to all this, argues Williams, our country has "a workplace perfectly designed for the workforce of the 1960s," a terrain where the ideal workers are those who make sure other people are caring for their children. The culprit, the professor posits? Masculine norms that dominate the workplace still, no matter how transformative feminism has been elsewhere.

"The mismatch between the workforce and the workplace," writes Williams, "is a market failure fueled by social norms, namely, old-fashioned and rigid definitions of masculinity and the resulting gender pressures on men."

The author hopes that her book might help reframe American politics, which has never placed family issues at the center of policy debates. Writes Williams: "To match today's workplace to today's workforce, we need both public supports (subsidized child care, parental leave financed at a national level, national health insurance) and workers' rights (mandated vacation time, proportional pay for part-time work, and the right to request a flexible schedule)." These demands, according to the scholar, go against the grain today, since for the last 40 years, U.S. politics has focused on tax cuts, not beefing up government supports; deregulation rather than workers' rights.

Attention Must Be Paid 
Few could argue with what Williams says here, or with her other major point -- that building a coalition to enact family-friendly policies is hardly out of the realm of possibilities. According to the author, her book, instead of focusing on gender differences, as so much popular and scholarly work has done, "shifts attention onto the masculine norms that make those differences seem so important. Because masculine norms are a prime mover of the social power dynamics within which both men and women negotiate their daily lives, feminists need to attend to masculinity."

When I read those sentences, I was convinced that this was the book I'd been waiting for, especially when I linked these formulations with the image of that father and son on the cover, clearly thriving in one another's company.

But there's a huge hole in the work, and it goes right back to that cover image. This is a book about men and women of all classes (though after the first chapter, in which Williams argues that women have not opted out of the workplace, but have been pushed out due to those masculine norms, we leave the upper-middle classes and deal mostly with the working class, where, without question, the problems are even more intractable, again because of the testosterone).

Williams's study is, of course, also a book about work and family. But children are nowhere to be found in its pages, except as an abstraction that needs caring for, especially at inconvenient times of the day when men and women -- fathers and mothers -- often should be working.

I don't think that Williams ever hit a false note in her analysis, and I would agree that the key to the problem she analyzes definitely rests with men. The focus, however, has to be on men and their relationships with children -- real, living, breathing children, not abstractions, who need attention and masculine care as much as they need a mother's touch.

The problem is not that some men in certain classes have difficulty telling their male peers that they have to leave work to watch the kids, and so are then stigmatized as "wusses" by the remainder of the macho work crew (though that is part of the problem). And those men asked to do this chore -- pulled from "real" work to babysit -- may, in fact, resent that they've been demeaned and their time's been wasted (though Williams has found certain individuals who don't mind being called away to do their part; the problem is that she never follows them home to see what happens there when Dad's in charge).

The author is absolutely right about masculinity and masculine norms having to be rethought, but again, the key as far as I see it rests with children, not job expectations or workplace protocol. Nothing will change in society until men begin to feel the joy of spending time with kids -- and not simply on the level of play or supervision. They need to have a full-scale relationship with their children, which can only take root after moments of frustration and anger and everything else we experience with adults.

That means, of course, changing dirty diapers, and being vomited and peed on when you turn your back too soon. It means being involved from infancy and following a child through every stage, doing the menial tasks that mostly mothers or other women have been asked to do for centuries.

Once that level has been reached, men also have to begin taking children's concerns seriously, rather than looking at their offspring as appendages to their lives or accessories that come with the house, like a new dining-room set.

If men were honest with themselves and others, they would realize that they don't take children -- any children -- seriously or tend to like them much because these "smallest pawns in the games" have no power and nothing to offer them. Thus, men see them as having no worth in the kinds of relationships they deal with in the real world. If this point weren't indisputably true, then children would not have been slaughtered so indiscriminately in every genocide in recorded history. Men could not bring themselves to do such horrible things if they had any feeling for children -- theirs and others in the world.

And so, they must also begin to realize that there is worth -- real worth -- and glory to be had from all the "traditional" things women have always done at home -- cooking, cleaning, nurturing -- which is to say, making a real home for a family, and not just paying for it.

(Still, if there are men and women who don't wish to have kids because they realize that true nurturing takes enormous energy and time, so be it. Better to be a couple happy together than add one or two more miserable souls to the world.)

Williams will probably say that, by raising these points, I haven't really reviewed the book she wrote, and what I'm talking about is a different problem -- and another book -- entirely.

But I still think deep in my soul that until all of us -- especially men, wherever they reside in the world or wherever they stand on the socio-economic ladder -- comprehend that the most important job we have is raising, nurturing and truly loving our children, then nothing will ever change in the home, the workplace or the world.

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