Ivona Hideg is an associate professor and the Ann Brown Chair in organization studies at York University’s Schulich School of Business.
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the progress that’s been made. But perhaps it can also be an occasion to envision meaningful change.
To date, most efforts aimed at improving gender equality have focused on breaking down the barriers that women face at work. The past decade has seen considerable progress in this regard, including the #MeToo movement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s landmark gender-equal cabinet in 2015, and recent attention paid to gender imbalances in various professions and boards.
But while significant strides have been made, we’ve seen far less success on the home front. Traditional gender roles persist, resulting in an unequal division of household labour, predominantly with respect to child-rearing; this constitutes the most enduring and problematic gender barrier remaining today.
This is why the gender-equality conversation needs to include men. If women are going to do less work at home, men will have to do more.
So how do we get there?
Gender roles are deeply ingrained in our society. Men have long been considered better leaders because they are more often seen in those roles, while women are considered to be more proficient at caring for others for the same reason. To change these stereotypes, we need to see more women demonstrating their skills as business leaders and more men occupying caregiving roles at home. Unfortunately, women still do the majority of the domestic tasks and spend more time looking after children. If we’re going to make real progress, we need to write a new story about how men and women share household chores.
Businesses, particularly those that consider themselves leaders in gender equality, have a role to play in getting their male employees to take on a more significant role at home. Surveys reveal that many men express a desire to access family-friendly initiatives such as paternity leave, flextime, telecommuting and a compressed work week. With such policies thrust into the spotlight amid the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a great opportunity to create a better work/life balance for both men and women.
And yet traditional gender roles are still getting in the way. Male workers, for example, have often used flextime to advance their careers through means such as skills development and networking. Women, on the other hand, generally see flextime as an opportunity to balance child-care duties with their work load. We need to shake this up. Using these policies should be encouraged – even celebrated – so men can shoulder a greater share of domestic burdens. Once this becomes accepted practice, the hoary stereotypes will fall.
Another area ripe for male-led change is parental leave. We know that men who take parental leave are more likely to consider themselves equal partners in raising their children. So how do we get more men to stay home with their babies?
The best practice would be to create a system that reserves a portion of available parental leave exclusively for fathers. Canada offers ample evidence on how important this can be. Across the country, only 15 per cent of new dads take a portion of the available 35 weeks of shared parental leave. In Quebec, however, a five-week, fathers-only parental leave program has pushed the take-up rate past 80 per cent. A new federal program modeled on the Quebec experience should move the dial in the coming years. Businesses should follow this lead with their own leave policies.
Finally, we need to denormalize our culture of overwork. A requirement for long hours in many professions impedes the careers of women who aren’t able to devote that much time to their jobs. But it also hurts men, because they tend to work more hours than women. The gap in paid working hours is actually the widest of 18 different gender inequalities examined in a recent OECD study on Canada. This is a big problem: if men spend more time working for pay, it follows that they’ll have less time to devote to home life.
Excessive work habits also reduce the overall well-being of men by increasing stress and lowering life satisfaction. It is therefore in men’s own interest to accept a greater share of domestic responsibilities while easing back on time spent at the office. This is a case where we can improve gender equality while also improving outcomes for men. But to get there, societal and organizational expectations need to change.
For too long, discussions about gender equality have ignored or excluded men. It’s time we accepted that men need to be part of the solution – and that true gender equality entails enabling men to have equal access to caregiving and family time.
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