10/21/2011 02:56 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2011

What About the Men?

Yes, what about the men? The statistics are becoming sadly familiar -- men are lagging behind women college graduation rates, the overall health of men is declining while women's health is not, men's work-family conflict is rising while women's is staying the same, and men lost more jobs early in the recession than women.

In response, there have been cover stories on national magazines, proclaiming The End of Men and The Beached White Male, and even a photo in Newsweek of a suited man, captioned "Sorry, He's Toast."

To address the question of what about the men, particularly about their rising work-family conflict, three national organizations -- my organization, Families and Work Institute, WFD Consulting in collaboration with WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP), and Boston College's Center for Work & Family -- launched studies and on October 19th, we gathered at a Congressional Hearing to share our findings.

The three studies focus on somewhat different groups of men -- ours is drawn from our ongoing nationally representative study of the U.S. workforce, and was restricted to employed men who live with family members. The Boston College study is of white collar fathers with a child 18 or younger who work for one of four Fortune 500 companies, and the WFD-AWLP study is of men in six countries who work for for-profit companies with 500 plus employees.

If I had to pick just one "headline" finding from all three studies, it would be this: men -- not just women -- want to be both nurturers and breadwinners.

Yes, there are differences of course. Women take more responsibility for the care of children but men now derive their sense of identity from their family as well as their work roles. According to Brad Harrington of Boston College and an author of The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted "despite the fact that most of these fathers are ambitious, they don't view their work as the center of their existence."

  • Two-thirds of these fathers strongly agree or agreed with the statement, "To me, my work is only a small part of who I am."
  • Only 16% of the fathers supported the statement, "Most of my interests are centered on work."

The study probed to see how fathers define their responsibility to their children. According to Brad Harrington, very few fathers define their responsibilities in either/or terms -- either as the breadwinner or nurturer. Perhaps surprisingly, the largest majority sees their responsibility in both/and terms -- as both caring for their children and meeting their financial needs. Fathers further define caring as "providing love and emotional support" and "being involved and present in their children's lives."

Kathie Lingle of AWLP described the finding from their study, Men and Work-Life Integration: A Global Study as "myth busters." One of the main myths is the stereotype of the work-identified male and the home-identified woman. In her words, "this stereotype was simply not borne out by our study. Men and women in the U.S. are equally likely to see their identities in the same way. And both are more home-identified than work-identified!"

Our study reinforces these conclusions. In The New Male Mystique, we find that 71% of men are either family centric (putting their family life first) or dual-centric (putting an equivalent priority on their work and their family lives). And they are increasingly walking the talk. Overall, men's time with their children on workdays has increased by more than an hour (from 2 hours a day in 1977 to 3.1 hours in 2008) while women's has stayed the same (from 3.8 hours in 1977 to 4 hours in 2008, not a statistically significant difference). In fact, this trend is most pronounced among younger men. Millennial fathers now spend 4.1 hours with their children, up from 2.4 hours in 1977.

An obvious conclusion from these studies is that men's and women's roles are blurring.

So, why, we were asked at the hearing, is the national media story so focused on the decline of men?

I immediately flashed back to a parallel time, not too many years ago, that I personally experienced. When women began to enter the workforce in record numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, the story was about the decline of women. The media joked about the woman in the masculine suit and the little string tie and women were urged to wear sexy clothes in greeting their husbands returning home from the travails of work. Children were portrayed as suffering, as being raised by strangers, not their families.

As families have come to depend more of the income of women (45% of family income comes from women in dual-earner households, according to our data) and as family income has largely kept pace with inflation because of women's employment, those media stories seem to have declined.

There is no question that there are significant problems that both men and women face. Women's stalled advancement and men's lowered educational attainment must be dealt with, for example. The workplace has not truly kept pace with the changes in families' lives. And the way we raise boys and girls today needs much deeper scrutiny and change.

But is it the decline of men? As my co-presenters, Brad Harrington, Kathie Lingle and I said at the hearing: we prefer to see this as a new beginning.

What could be more wonderful than the fact that both women and men want fulfilling family lives and fulfilling work! Does that mean that men and women are the same? NO. Different individuals -- men and women alike -- have many differences and always will.

Written for National Work & Family Month