We are having more honest conversations about gender norms and roles than ever before. Topics once sequestered in university gender studies departments have made their way into the mainstream media, and the specific issue of household gender imbalance has become a topic of daily conversation.
We have reached this pivotal point for two reasons: the relentless work of researchers, writers, policy makers, and activists who were talking about household gender norms long before it was trendy; and the coronavirus pandemic. Of course, our household gender divide existed well before March 2020. But the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated domestic disparity to the level of a national emergency.
It is no secret that women, particularly women of color, felt the pandemic’s impact more than men. Nearly 1.8 million women left their jobs during the pandemic in order to care for family members.1 Working moms and single parents who managed to maintain their jobs suffocated under the increased responsibilities of work, household management, and caregiving.2 Because women had to cut back on hours, were laid off, didn’t apply for that new job, were furloughed, and/or passed over for promotion during the pandemic, they will likely continue to earn less for decades to come. Assuming she can reenter the workforce in 2022, it is estimated that a woman who earned the median income of $47,299 before the pandemic will lose an accumulated $250,000 of potential earnings throughout her working life.3
We can no longer pretend these gender problems don’t exist. We can’t hide them in the closet and hope no one notices. It is too late for that. Our dirty laundry has been exposed for everyone to see.
Despite our understanding of feminist theory and the restrictions of traditional masculinity, household inequality persists. It is now commonly acknowledged that, on average, women do far more in the household than men, and this “second shift” has negative impacts on women’s careers and emotional health.4 Although less commonly recognized, there is a growing public understanding that traditional gender norms can also be detrimental to the emotional health of men and boys.
However, these conversations typically end here, leading one to wonder: What now? Having defined the problem, how are we going to solve it?
Much of our household gender inequality problems are structural, so we turn to experts to make the policy changes we all long to see: paid parental leave, mandatory sick leave, and subsidized childcare. But our household gender inequality issues are not only structural—these issues are also social. I wrote this book to remind us that cultural norms and traditions are just as influential to our gender behavior as law and policy.5 While we work to bring about structural change that benefits all Americans, what can we do on a personal level to work toward gender equality in our homes and communities?
I didn’t want to just write about our gender problem; I wanted to do something about our gender problem. I wrote this book because I believe other people feel the same way. I am grateful to everyone who has helped diagnose this problem and bring the issue into the mainstream. I want to move the discussion forward by focusing on practical solutions.
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This book is filled with ideas, stories, interviews, and suggestions about what you can do to address household gender inequality with your partner, your kids, your grandkids, your friends, and your community. My hope is that every reader can find a handful of actionable ideas that feel doable. Ideas that might make you think, That makes sense. I can give that a try. I believe that if we all make a few small changes here and there, relationship by relationship, we can move the needle on household inequality.
Skeptical? Sure, I’m a skeptic, too. A little skepticism is healthy. But the information in this book is evidence based. I have worked in gender equality and social change for more than twenty years, and this book’s methodology comes from decades of best practices. To better explain what social change looks like, let me tell you a story from my work in Indonesia.
Several years ago, I partnered with a local women’s empowerment organization in East Java to see if we could engage the husbands of the female members to boost family support for the program. As part of this process, I found myself facilitating a meeting of twenty men, all of whom were married to a member of the local women’s empowerment group.
The meeting took place in the town hall of a small village. We arranged plastic chairs in a circle and took our places. All the men wore their best clothes: freshly ironed khaki pants and batik shirts in a range of bright colors. It was hot and humid. Everyone used scraps of cardboard to fan away the sweat and the flies. I could sense that the men had come reluctantly. Although they were all respectful and kind to me, none of them appeared particularly interested in “women’s issues.” There was a lot of smoking and side conversations. But to be honest, I was grateful that anyone even bothered to show up.
I was desperate to get the conversation started. I needed genuine participation or else the day would be a failure. So, after introductions, I asked everyone, “Please give me an example of how your family has benefited from your wife’s involvement with the empowerment group.” There was awkward silence at first. Most men looked down at their feet; many lit another cigarette. It was painful to sit in silence, but I waited, keeping a hopeful smile on my face. Finally, thankfully, after what felt like ages, someone spoke up.
The man appeared unenthusiastic, but slowly he began to tell his story about how, before the empowerment group, annual school fees were a problem for his family. He was a farmer who did not own his own land. After paying his monthly expenses, there wasn’t much left over. He never managed to save all the money needed for annual school fees. So, each year, the family had to take out a small loan to pay for school. Education was important. Neither he nor his wife attended school past sixth grade, and he promised himself that both his boys would graduate from high school.
But the interest rate was high and took months to repay. Money he could have saved during harvest was used to repay last year’s interest, so he never managed to save for the following year. This cycle of debt had continued for nearly a decade. He explained that he had always been frustrated that the school fees ended up costing two or three times as much this way, but he never found another solution. He just couldn’t get ahead of those school fee payments.
He paused and seemed to gain a bit of confidence. He sat up straighter and made eye contact with me for the first time. When he continued, he explained that, in her empowerment group, his wife and some friends thought up the idea of starting a small business selling homemade snacks. The women would gather in someone’s home a few days a week to slice, fry, and package sweet potatoes. They would portion them out in small bags and sell the snacks to local kiosk owners. They tasted good and sold quickly.
The money was not much at first, but it started adding up. The first week she saved 1,000 rupiah (about 70 cents US). Then it was 2,000 rupiah. Then 10,000. After several months, it had become clear that the family would have enough saved up to pay for school fees when they came due. This was life changing for this family. They would not have to get a bank loan, and they would not have to pay interest—which would save them even more money. They would be able to use their earnings from this year’s crop to invest in new farming tools, or a new variety of seed. They could save some money in case of an unforeseen health emergency. All of this was because of the work of the women’s empowerment group.
When the man finished, he shyly smiled, and the group murmured approval. I offered words of thanks and asked if there were other stories.
Another man chimed in and shared his story. His wife and her group wrote a proposal to the local government to fix the village road, and it was accepted. That new road meant a world of difference when the man took his crops to the city to sell. A third man added that his wife was more confident and happier, often singing in the house, which gave the home a more joyful feeling. He now looked forward to coming home from his fields and would try to get home early when he could. Eventually—one by one—every single man in our circle shared a detailed story about how he and his family benefitted from the women’s empowerment program.
Although the individual stories were all powerful, the true change came from that discussion about the empowerment program. During that conversation the whole mood changed. The men were sitting forward on the edge of their chairs, eager to give their opinion and listen to others. That conversation led to a full day’s work around gender norms and roles, and ended with the men making a greater commitment to their wives’ work. When they left, each man came forward to shake my hand and thank me for initiating that conversation. When I returned six months later, the women couldn’t wait to tell me about all the changes in their home—all borne from that first men’s meeting.
I have witnessed similar results from other projects: from preventing early childhood marriage in Malawi, to household decision-making in Guatemala, to HIV prevention in Zambia. My colleagues and I have produced and shared data that proves that social change works. (We have also been part of projects that failed, and we learned some painful lessons. That data helps, too.)
If I have learned anything during my career thus far, it is that gender inequality does not only happen to other people, in other places, far away from where you live. Gender inequality happens everywhere. I have seen just as much gendered behavior in the United States and Canada as I have in Zambia or Indonesia. True, gender inequality looks different from place to place, and it changes over time. But it never goes away. This means there is probably gender inequality going on in your neighborhood, in your office, in your school, and maybe even in your home. We cannot pretend this is someone else’s problem. This is our collective problem, and we all must be part of a collective solution.
I’ll be honest up front—there is no magic formula and no quick fix. Real social change takes time, and this slow process involves hard work: learning, self-reflection, discussion, and plenty of uncomfortable moments. But it is possible.
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A few decades ago, a trend took off—the idea was to combat gender-based violence by teaching women self-defense. These classes became popular, and I am sure many women learned a beneficial skill. But self-defense classes were a Band-Aid, not a solution to a problem. Eventually someone realized, Oh right, women are not assaulting themselves. Maybe, to get at the source of the problem, we should focus our energy on those people perpetuating violence.
Then came the idea that, in order to address the gender pay gap, we needed to teach women negotiation skills. Because that is what is missing, right? The problem is that women just don’t have good enough negotiation skills. Once again, we set out to improve women. And again, I am sure many women learned something that was helpful to their career. But we eventually realized, Oh right, negotiation skills don’t matter if the workplace policies and hiring committees are perpetuating misogyny.
Now we know better. We don’t need to fix or improve women. To break the cycle of violence, we need to work with men and boys. To address the pay gap, we need to reinvent hiring procedures.
Taking these history lessons to heart, I will not address household gender balance with a book targeted to working women with children. Focusing the message solely on women suggests this is a women’s problem, and it implies that women need to fix it. But the truth is that household imbalance can restrict people of all genders, and it can be perpetuated by people of all genders. Focusing the message solely on mothers suggests this problem exists only when children are part of the equation. But we know that household imbalance happens in many households without kids.
And let’s just openly acknowledge the elephant in the room. Working parents with small kids are already functioning at maximum capacity. Balancing kids, aging parents, and a full-time job (or many jobs that piece together enough income to cover expenses) is hard, relentless work. I hear you, and I get it. The last thing any working parent needs to do is add “solve gender inequality” to their to-do list.
Our society shouldn’t delegate this task to already stretched parents. Household gender inequality is a broad social problem that is passed from generation to generation, and the ramifications are harmful for everyone. Household gender inequality is not an individual’s problem or even an individual family’s problem. Everyone in our extended family and community has a role to play, so we must recruit everyone to initiate change.
I believe readers of Equal Partners fit into at least one of the following categories. I specifically tried to address these three perspectives throughout the chapters of this book.
Future Partners, New Partners, New Parents, and Young Parents. These are the people who will be directly impacted because they are (or will be) part of a couple trying to make parity work.Parents, Grandparents, and Supports to Category 1. These are the people who will be indirectly impacted. They may not be concerned about finding equality in their own relationship, but they are very close to someone who is interested.Friends, Family, and the Greater Community. Everyone interested in supporting gender equality.I know it is a cliché, but it can’t be avoided: it takes a village to support an equal partnership. The thing I heard loud and clear from everyone I interviewed for this book was that community matters. There are very few people that exist in their own nuclear bubble; most humans are part of a larger network of communities. Sometimes communities are biological, ethnic, or cultural. Sometimes we adopt communities composed of people with whom we share common values: neighbors, political groups, colleagues, faith communities, and close friends. All of these people in the greater network can be supporters of gender equality. No matter your role—whether you are part of a young family, or whether you see a young family every month—you can have an impact. Whatever your partnership status or your gender identity, you have work to do.
Families come in many shapes and sizes, and the two-person structure does not work for everyone. I am not at all advocating for a two-person, dual-earning, nuclear family. But I do acknowledge that dual-earning partnership is the most common family configuration in North America right now. Even if you don’t participate in one yourself—many people around you likely do.
Have you noticed who I am excluding? No one. No one gets a pass from participating. We are all part of communities, organizations, companies, neighborhoods, and families that perpetuate gender inequality. This gives us all the opportunity to be part of a solution.
If you have gotten this far and are thinking, I’m already a feminist. I’m progressive. I’m good. This isn’t for me, I ask you to reconsider. Those of us who took gender studies classes in college will know the theory, but it is often hard to turn theory into everyday practice. We all (and I include myself) accidentally lean back on gender stereotypes, sometimes without even realizing it. Additional self-reflection is never a bad idea. I ask that you be open to the possibility that you could do even more for gender equality than you already are.
This is especially important for those readers who identify as cisgender, heterosexual males—in other words, straight guys. Please know that I am not targeting you, and I am not trying to demonize you—not at all. I am talking directly to you because you make up a large percentage of our communities, and as a group you hold a lot of influence and power. I am asking you to be open to the fact that you may not always “see” gender inequality around you. To move forward as a culture, that needs to change.
For all readers, take a moment to consider where you are in your life. Which category do you find yourself in at this time? Jot down a few notes about the roles you currently fill in each box, so as you continue through the book, you can better recognize the stories and anecdotes relevant to your situation. Maybe you are in two groups—or even all three.
* Please note that I use the word parent broadly; it in not confined to a biological relationship. The word parent refers to anyone who is parenting: stepparents, guardians, in-laws, etc.
A NOTE ABOUT PRONOUNS
I do not believe in the gender binary, and I prefer to use language that includes all gender identities, including male-identifying, female-identifying, nonbinary, transgender, queer, and gender nonconforming.
I admit this is hard to do with the English language. Have you ever realized that there is no gender-neutral word for the child of your sibling? We have niece, and we have nephew. The same goes for the sibling of your parent; there is only aunt and uncle. There are not enough words for us to describe people that do not identify as male or female. This makes English quite frustrating when one writes about gender. It often means that being gender inclusive requires clunky writing that can detract from the content. I hope, in the future, the English language evolves to meet our needs. For now, we work with what we have.
My goal is to recognize that our cultural past has greatly impacted the way we see the world, the way we act today, and the way we continue to raise our children. I try to do this without perpetuating cis, heteronormative assumptions. It is important to acknowledge the past while speaking to our present.
I agree with other writers who have pulled back from using a simple male/female descriptor to talk about gender roles more broadly. Anne-Marie Slaughter uses the terms breadwinners and caregivers in her 2015 book, Unfinished Business, and Kate Manne speaks of human beings and human givers. When I quote research that presents results in terms of men and women, I use that language. But as much as possible, I refrain from talking about what women do and what men do, and I choose to use the terms Female Role and Male Role. I believe these terms acknowledge the tremendous influence gender has had on our domestic patterns, while avoiding the assumption that all people taking on female roles are women, or that all people taking on male roles are men. For ease of language, I often use he when discussing the Male Role and she when discussing the Female Role. But I am fully aware that a person of any gender could take on either of these behaviors.
When I use pronouns, she/her reflect female-identifying people, and he/him reflect male-identifying people. Please know I do not assume that these two pronouns collectively describe all people, nor that our adult gender identity is the same gender we are assigned at birth. Therefore, when I reference all humans, I often write people of all genders and not men and women. When I write about parents, I try to avoid mom/dad, and instead use birthing parent/non-birthing parent.
If any of these words are new to you, feel free to refer to the gender glossary at the back of this book for clarification.
WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT
I divided this book into three sections. Part 1 begins with some background information that diagnoses our household gender problem, and then explains how social change methods can help us make a change. Part 1 also includes a deeper look at the two life events that often cause the greater gender shifts: partnership and the birth of a first child.
Part 2 is solely focused on a group I affectionately call the EP40. These forty men are, by my definition, equal partners in their households; they intentionally take on half the physical and emotional load of their household. Part 2 digs down into this group of positive deviants, using their personal stories to answer some core questions about this group of men: Where did they come from? What is their motivation? How do they do it? What advice do they have for raising the next generation of boys? This section also includes the interviews I did with the partners of the EP40.
Part 3 is the personal action piece of the book. After reading eight chapters full of stories, anecdotes, statistics, and data points—now what? Part 3 is about which specific changes you want to make in your own life.
One last note before you begin: you do not have to wait until you read part 3 to look for solutions. I never intended for readers to have to get all the way to the end of the book to start thinking about how to initiate social change. Solutions and practical tips can be found throughout all chapters of this book, and I encourage you to track the ones that resonate with you. For this reason, I have provided a notes section at the end of parts 1 and 2 for you to jot down particular statistics, stories, and anecdotes that you want to remember.
VIOLENCE AND FEAR
This book is for individuals who feel safe in their relationships and in their homes. These chapters are not for people who are currently experiencing violence, or who fear potential violence from their partner. If you have experienced domestic violence, or if you are concerned that violence is a possibility, then I strongly recommend that you put this book down and talk to a professional. Initiating intimate conversations about gender in a violent home could lead to further assault, which is to be avoided at all costs. Please remember that whatever is happening, it is not your fault, and there are many people out there who can help. I suggest you look into resources in your community that specialize in survivor support: a therapist, the YWCA, and/or a shelter that specializes in domestic and intimate partner violence. You can always contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or thehotline.org.
EQUAL PARTNERS. Copyright © 2022 by Kate Mangino.