The Atlantic magazine’s December 2013 issue is causing a sh**storm in media land for an article on “how women change men.” According to a number of recent studies, having women around changes how men behave and perceive the world. Slate XX cites this article and goes on to question and lament the fact that there aren’t studies on the reverse, how men change women. Jezebel takes this even further, saying: “It’s troubling that this happens: it reveals the way in which we construct our understanding of reality around maleness as a neutral value. The scientific discourse of “men change around women!” both reflects and reinforces this value system.”
Whoa there — Slate and Jezebel are awesome, but sometimes it feels like their writers get caught up being defensive. I personally don’t think that men in general are “programmed” to hold women down, and I don’t think it’s worth freaking out that maleness is the “neutral value”. It might be the reality, but it is changing — and not because we’re all screaming about it. Instead, break down a few points in the Atlantic article and what they might mean:
1) Male CEOs with first-born daughters are more likely to give employees (especially women) raises, and men with daughters are more likely to become less attached to typical gender roles: Maybe by having an invested role in shaping your child’s wellbeing, you start to become more aware of factors that oppress and challenge their path to success. So either consciously or subconsciously, you make an effort to change what you can in the environment you can control — in this case, roles for other females in the company you run.
2) Men with stay-at home wives are more likely to believe in typical gender roles: Um, duh? It’s chicken and egg — many guys with stay-at-home wives probably decided long ago that’s what they wanted, and they sought out a gal who also wanted to fulfill traditional roles at home. In many ways we just mimic what we grew up with…and if we were raised in a traditional home we’re likely to follow that path in our lives. Education and exposure to other ways of living is the one big factor that can change these values.
3) Men who switch from a male-dominated to female-dominated career are more likely to be egalitarian at home: Yes! Exactly my point above. If you’re a man (or for that matter a woman) who grew up in a home where your mom wasn’t working and catered to your father’s needs, that’s all you know and expect. But by being around working women who are smart, motivated, determined and successful only opens up your mind and maybe changes your perceptions about what women are capable of doing.
4) Women who out-earn their husbands actually do a larger share of housework than their partners: Maybe these ladies are just more motivated to begin with, and their partners are lazy…that’s why they out-earn their men in the first place? I kid (well, sort of)! Other studies have found that in couples where both the man and the woman work, the woman still ends up taking on a greater portion of the childcare and housework. Honestly I can think of a few reasons besides the fact that men are lazy or stuck in 1950s-style traditional roles in the home. Maybe their moms did most of the childcare/housework. That was their model, and they just copy it because that’s what they know. What’s more, so many of us women have such high expectations and are so hard on ourselves that we don’t want to ask our partners to take a greater share in the housework. I’m guilty too: my fiance is still getting used to the idea of sharing dish duty and grocery shopping with me (his mom did ALL the housework, my parents roughly split it). But we’re working on it. So more of us women need to toss aside the sponge and talk to our partners. They might be more willing to help than we ever gave them credit for.
5) Why are there so many studies on how women change men and not the reverse? One big possibility: Way fewer women are studying and working in science than men. So if way more guys are designing these studies in the first place, no wonder they’re always from a male perspective!
I think this goes back to my thoughts in a blog on women in science careers: Society is built on traditions, and we learn how to behave and understand the world by what we experience in our daily lives. So the more of us women who go out into the world and kick ass at our jobs, the more of us who expect that our partners respect us and take on equal roles in the home, the more of us who choose to go into science-based careers (and study how men change women!), the more women who demand raises and recognition for good work at our jobs, the more change we’ll see. Gender roles, after all, are similar to race — and the effects of exposure their have been studied at length: In the first six months of life, babies learn to build a preference for and an ability to understand the features of a specific race and not others because they’re exposed to it all the time — but at the same time, young kids who are exposed to multiple races are more capable of understanding more races. I believe that the same kind of thinking goes for any type of exposure… so being around more strong women can only evolve things.
Back to the original question: are women changing men? Hell yes we are, and it’s something to be proud of! Between 1970 and 2011, the number of women in the workforce has tripled, and women’s salaries rose from 62% to 82% of men’s, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s something to celebrate — and keep working to improve.