The Daddy Wars: The Work/Family Problem We SHOULD Be Talking About

06/26/2015 04:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016
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A major study making the rounds has kicked off another round of circa 1990s "mommy wars," a loathsome frame for a problem that affects us all, no matter what year it is. A Harvard Business School study, using data from 24 countries including the UK and US, found that the daughters of mothers who work for pay, outside of the home, have better jobs, higher salaries and more equal relationships with spouses than those of stay-at-home mothers. While son's work ambitions do not appear to be similarly shaped, there is a notable effect:  the sons of working women spend more time caring for family members and engaged in fairer distribution of household work than the sons of women who stay home.  There has been a particular emphasis in news coverage on the effects of working mothers on daughters. "Having a working mother works for daughters," and "Working mothers benefit daughters."

There is a greater predictor of a girls' ability to see her own expansive potential, however. Last year, a study of 300 families found that a father's household chore participation is the strongest predictor of daughters' career ambitions. The daughters of fathers who do household chores, particularly those thought of as "women's," are less likely to pursue traditionally feminine jobs, meaning those that pay less and have less social status -- those are almost the same outcomes tracked in this recent study on women's workforce participation. It's not enough for fathers to say they believe in equality. For a girl's ideas about herself and her potential to be substantively influenced, and for boys to feel it is acceptable for them to do "girl jobs," fathers need to do the work that women have traditionally done, and be ok with doing it.

This information is particularly useful when considering the possible effects on boys in households who see their father's engaged in cross-gender chores and are themselves expected to do the same.  It turns out that without conscious or necessary parental deviations from gender scripts, men with sisters, particularly younger sisters, are considerably more likely to be socially conservative adults with traditional attitudes about gender roles. Having brothers does not have the same effect on girls' beliefs about gender. Why? Researchers at Stanford, who conducted a study on childhood socialization, believe that implicit bias in the home, tied to chores, means that girls are more likely to doing chores, and traditionally gendered chores, such as sweeping, laundry and dishes.  The study found that 82 percent of girls, but only 60 percent of boys said they were expected to help with the dishes. Boys learn, no surprises here, what to think about work this way.

In most homes, not just in the US, but around the world, chores continue to be thought of as women's responsibility. Even in families where both parents work, chores are largely divided along gendered lines and there is a leisure time gap favoring the person doing "men's" work. Girls and women continue to do more chores and for longer periods of time, on average, two hours more per week. The most recent time distribution surveys reveal that in the US, regardless of who is working in a dual income, same sex household, 65 percent of men versus 82.5 percent of women are doing household related work, 30.4 percent of men and 41.6 percent of women report being engaged in caring for household members. Among those doing this work, there is also a difference: men doing care work spend 22 fewer minutes doing it, and 47 fewer minutes per day doing household chores.

Even linguistics analysis show how the unpaid and invisible care labor is prioritized for girls. One study showed that up to almost half of parent-initiated talk with daughters involved getting them to help do something, whereas the vast majority of conversations started with boys were about play and open-ended exploration.

In addition, parents tend to assign greater value to work masculine work, paying boys more often and more for their chores.  These patterns are documented, year after year.

Same sex parents have more egalitarian distributions of time and work, but the families where gender breaks down the most are those headed by a single parent. The children of single mothers, in particular, appear to have the most gender-neutral and egalitarian approaches to domestic labor.

So, while working mothers might be influencing their daughter's ideas about work and work/life balance, it turns out that what fathers do at home may be as or more important.

Chores, as practice for life, are a central way that children learn to "do gender." Unfortunately, it's a way that mainly perpetuates benevolent sexism and discriminatory sex segregation in the workplace.

"Dads, here's another reason to chip in on the household chores," is the one way one misguided article about the father chores study began. That's just more of the same sexist blather informing workplace and home-based inequality.  The entire point isn't that fathers should be "chipping in" to help in an area that is mothers' responsibility, but that the unpaid labor of taking care of home, children, aging parents and more be a mutual task. A persistent lack of prioritizing fatherhood and the effects on the economy of conflicting ideas of masculinity are major aspects of several problems, including girls ambition and women's equality.  Media coverage of the recent Harvard study shows that it is still almost impossible to write about related topics in a way that does not pit women against one another.  "Working moms have more successful daughters and more caring sons," reads one headline. "Does having a job make you better mum?" reads another. Better than whom? Your parallel universe self? No, better than a mother who "doesn't work." However, we are really talking about a problem, ultimately, that men have to resolve.

There are many things that dads can do to support the development of egalitarian attitudes at home, like take parental leave or equally absorb chores, but what men need is for other men to stop shaming them when they do those things. Joan C. Williams, who is the founding director of the Center for Work-Life Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, has written extensively about the problems men face in the workplace when they challenge gendered norms and expectations. She coined the term "flexibility stigma" to describe the hostility and obstacles that they face.  While women, mothers, pay a Mommy Tax for their efforts to support their family men, under considerable stress to balance work and home responsibilities, are particularly penalized when they deviate from idealized roles requiring full-time, all-male breadwinning.  Men who take paternity leave after the birth of a child are less likely to get promoted or receive raises, for example.

It is overwhelmingly true, given the demographics of workplace hierarchies today, that policies are shaped mainly by men and, more often than not, men who have no interest in value systems that challenge their higher, sex-based social status.  Men make up an average of 84 percent of boards, business and senior corporate managers.  There are more men with the name John (or Robert or William or James) than all women put together. Sixty percent of them have spouses who stay home full time (compared to 10 percent of the 16 percent of women women execs).  Studies of men in traditional marriages show that they are actually hostile to women in the workplace. They are measurably disinclined to create or enforce policies that help equality in the workplace. That definitely is bad news for ambitious mothers, but it is also spectacularly bad news for egalitarian fathers.

Benevolent sexism, the kind that insists men are strong, women are weak; men are producers, women reproducers; men are earners, women nurturers, pervasively inhibits women's workplace success. But, now, it is taking a very obvious toll on men who would like more balanced lives, engaged with their children and supporting their spouses.  Women, no matter what their individual ambitions or abilities are, can't rewrite corporate policies or write laws to change this. Given the very obvious facts of how we are organized and governed, men have to. Men whose personal lives are gender segregated continue to run our economy and ultimately, are holding back workplace progress that would enable individuals, families and the economy to thrive.

We don't call this a Daddy War, but, if we insist on that kind of ridiculous and unhelpful narrative in media, then we really should.