For nearly eight years, I held leadership positions in international women's organizations. And for all eight of those years, every time a stranger asked me what I did for a living, I always felt a brief twinge of discomfort, as if I needed to offer some kind of caveat or explanation when I answered the question.
Why such strange behavior on my part? Was I not bold enough to stand behind my own beliefs?
It wasn't until recently, when my good friends started having children, that I figured out what was really bothering me. And it had nothing to do with a lack of conviction. What bothered me is the way that men are being increasingly left out of the picture.
The first clue for me came last year, when my friends Diane and Edward had their first child, a little girl. Immediately after the birth, Diane took parental leave from work for three months, Edward for a week and half. He wanted to stay home longer during this special time in his family's life, but his work was putting pressure on him, and he responded. As their girl got a little older, Diane adjusted her work schedule so that she was with her daughter part-time, while Edward continued to work full-time.
I casually asked Diane if she was okay with this arrangement. Did she see it as a problem that she was taking on most of the childcare duties?
Her answer turned typical understanding on its head. To the contrary, she explained, it's also a privilege to be able to take off time to care for a child. If Edward had it his way, he would also reduce his workload in favor of family time. But he couldn't, because this decision would have raised serious eyebrows in his company. When women take time out for children, it's accepted and even encouraged; not so for men.
The scenario was repeated multiple times. Six months later, another set of friends, Jess and Charles, had a beautiful baby boy. Jess had two baby showers, special medical attention, tons of support from friends and family, and access to several local mothers' groups for moral support. She was psychologically and emotionally prepared for motherhood.
Her husband got the opposite treatment. After a short few weeks of parental leave, he returned to the office. Every day, he would put in a full day at work, then commute back home to take the parental night shift -- an additional eight hours taking care of his son. Of course, Charles had given up much of his social life (and his sleep) to do this; but unlike his wife, he had no fathers' groups he could join to help make up for the gap. When Jess had a challenge, she could turn to mommy blogs, online forums, and an entire industry of self-help products aimed at new moms; Charles, by contrast, was left to navigate this major life transition mostly on his own.
Because apparently, society doesn't think fatherhood is a job as worthy of support and admiration as motherhood.
Far be it from me to suggest what decisions individuals and couples should make about how to raise their families. As far as I'm concerned, the whole range of possibilities -- from stay-at-home moms and dads to working and single parents -- is fine, so long as the arrangement works well for the individuals involved.
But there's an ironic double standard at play here. Women can demand full equality in the workforce, but the idea that we should have priority in parenting roles is somehow left sacrosanct. We can complain about the wage gap; we can react in fury when former Harvard President Larry Summers suggests there might be a genetic basis for women's underrepresentation in science and engineering. But somehow we don't question it when a similar type of thinking is applied to families. We're the mothers, after all. We're the ones who bear children for nine months. Of course we should have priority in child-rearing decisions, especially in the first few years.
Family life is but one area in which circumstances have been changing rapidly. In her controversial article, "The End of Men," Hanna Rosin argued that we are headed toward an upcoming era of female dominance -- a time when women, not men, will occupy the society's most powerful and lucrative positions. Her argument may be greatly exaggerated, but the overall point is not. Much has shifted for women. And in most cases, our reactions have not caught up.
Why, for example, aren't women's groups yelling about how boys are now dramatically underperforming girls in elementary education -- and increasingly underrepresented in higher education? Does our silence mean this is actually acceptable? Where is the solidarity with men's groups, who have been complaining for years about the way that many state laws discriminate against men in areas like parental leave, divorce, and child custody?
Bring such questions up behind closed doors, and the responses from women's advocates are sometimes quite smug. Men have been dominating society forever, the basic response goes. Is it really so bad if the tables get turned a little?
And this, in a nutshell, is the kind of thinking that has made me so uncomfortable for so many years.
We no longer live in the era depicted in the television series "Mad Men" -- where women can only be secretaries, and their main purpose is to look good for their husbands. Yes, there is still much important work to be done. Yes, the journey is far from over.
But we also have to recognize the places where we're already there, or we risk simply replacing one hierarchy with another.
Let me state this as clearly as possible. I wholeheartedly support organizations working to advance the status of women globally. Is it important to make sure that girls in developing countries aren't systematically denied the right to elementary education? Absolutely. Should we try to prevent the loss of more than 350,000 women every year who die from preventable complications of childbirth and pregnancy? Definitely.
But I got involved with this work because of a bigger vision, one that was not just about women. I got involved because I think people shouldn't be denied access to opportunity based on criteria that have nothing to do with their abilities -- whether the yardstick is the color of their skin or the economic circumstances of their parents (or, of course, their gender).
It's a value that is fundamental to American culture. We want to bring as many people as possible to the table; what you achieve when you get there is up to you.
And the point is, barriers are barriers, whether they affect the boardroom table or the kitchen table. There's no reason we shouldn't be as concerned with removing these obstacles when they occur for men as when they occur for women.