06/09/2010 03:25 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Gender Fluidity: Are Men Still From Mars?

When I was knee-deep in research for my new book, INFLUENCE: How Women's Soaring Economic Power will Transform Our World for the Better, I was struck by the fact that of all the shifts created by women's economic emancipation, the most monumental may prove to be its impact on men -- their values, their expectations, and their very definition of manhood.

"Men are where women were 20 years ago," Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men told me when I interviewed him for INFLUENCE. Back then, 20 years ago, women were adding career to their repertoire; today, men are adding care -- for children, for aging parents, for communities. And while some (okay, many) might call men's engagement on the home front belated, this overdue participation may, in fact, be setting the stage for the move toward a partnership society.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about some revolutionary "feminization" of men, where they simply swap roles with women, putting on aprons while women wear suits. What's happening isn't role reversal: It's role reinvention. It's a full-blown paradigm shift, one that gives both men and women more options when it comes to pursuing their careers, providing for their families and expressing their own talents and strengths. In this new social order, both genders are less shackled by a narrow, gender-oriented vision of success. Men in this new world have more social and workplace support for becoming involved fathers, equal partners in their homes and communities, and more complete people.

Case in point: When Myra Strober, a labor economist who teaches at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, started teaching her course on "Work and Family" in the early 2000s, only a handful of men signed up. Today, men represent 40 percent of her class. Why? "More and more men are interested in being good dads," she says of her students. "They also want to be good husbands and be supportive of their wives."

This redefinition of fatherhood is happening in millions of families around the country, where fathers are spending far more hours with their children every week than their dads spent with them. It's happening in small ways, as even the most high-flying, type-A dads drop their kids off at day care and duck out for soccer games. It's happening in bigger ways, as growing numbers of dads take paternity leaves, telecommute or use flex-time to have a more balanced life. These changes are sweeping through families at every income level through the thousands of daily arrangements men make because they love their wives and their kids and want happy families.

"The solution isn't a broad political movement toward a new fatherhood," Dr. Kimmel stressed to me, "It's the day-to-day accommodations that men are making, where they're compromising and adopting new family arrangements that demand more from them at home. And they're finding they're actually enjoying it."

Shifting to this new model of fatherhood can sometimes be uncomfortable. Often, men may feel caught between a rock and a hard place, expected to fill the old-time breadwinner role and the new superdad model at the same time. Are they supposed to be the breadwinner? Will their wives think less of them if they step off the fast track? If work/family pressure is taking a toll on the kids or the marriage, who steps back? And how do they support their partner best?

While men in general and fathers in particular are going through a time of change with its attendant ambiguity, the shift in roles is already bringing tremendous benefits to both men and women. The more our communities and employers can acknowledge, recognize, and support these changes, the more concerns like closing the gender wage gap, making sure families can afford great day care, making good education affordable, enacting child-friendly laws and policies, and advancing work-life balance will become family issues, not just women's issues. As the genders work together to redefine womanhood, manhood and the family, our children will thrive and our economy will grow stronger.