Workplace innovation, male caregivers, and the gender revolution

You are here

Workplace innovation, male caregivers, and the gender revolution

by Brenda D. Frink on Monday, March 7, 2011 - 1:32am

For the past twenty years, scholars have referred to a “stall” in the movement toward gender equality. Various measures of gender equality—for example, the gender gap in wages, the total percentage of women in the paid labor force, and the percentage of women in male-dominated occupations—have remained relatively constant since the mid 1990s.

But the choice of the word “stall” suggests that the gender revolution has not reached its final destination and that sooner or later it will start moving again.

Indeed, perhaps the stalled revolution is already on the move.

Professor Myra Strober weighed in on this question at a panel convened by the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research. According to Strober, the workplace gains that women made in the 1970s and 1980s resulted largely from the enforcement of Civil Rights laws passed in the 1960s. These government actions helped to narrow the pay gap and to lessen occupational segregation in the professional workforce. And as opportunities opened up, women began to train for, and enter, traditionally male occupations, such as law, management, and medicine. (It is noteworthy that neither in the earlier period nor at the present time has occupational gender segregation lessened much in traditionally male manual occupations, such as carpenter, or electrician.)

Today, one of the biggest barriers for women in the paid labor force is figuring out how to combine a serious career with motherhood. Women still pay an earnings penalty for having children. On average, accounting for other significant factors, mothers in the work force earn about 10 percent less if they have one child, and another 14 percent less if they have two. The more education a woman has, the higher her motherhood penalty.

And parents continue to have difficulty finding high quality, affordable child care. Yet work/family balance issues, such as childcare and paid parental leave, are not even on the political radar. If we look to government action as a measure of progress, the gender revolution does indeed seem to be stalled.

However, said Strober, there are signs of hope.

For one thing, working women have new allies in the effort to create equitable workplaces. The phrase “family-friendly,” once thought to apply only to women, is increasingly relevant to men, as well.

Many middle-class fathers now want to spend time with their children.

Many middle-class fathers now want to spend time with their children—and they want careers that will accommodate this goal. In fact, Strober reported that 40 percent of students in her work-family course at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business are men who want their future bosses to take fatherhood seriously

Just as men are taking a greater role in childcare, they are also taking a greater role in elder care. As life expectancy for Americans increases, elder care has become a more important issue in the workplace. In fact, said Strober, employees currently miss more work time caring for aging parents or spouses than they do caring for children.

As more fathers and sons take active roles as caregivers, work-family balance has become an issue for both genders, not just for women.

Perhaps as a result, corporate HR departments are beginning to experiment with family-friendly policies. In an effort to retain both male and female talent, companies increasingly offer part-time work, flex-time, and work-from-home arrangements. Some employers allow workers to decrease or increase their job responsibilities over the course of their careers, while others are talking in terms of career “lattices” rather than career “ladders.”

It remains to be seen whether the changes in men’s roles as caregivers and more flexible work arrangements will yield tangible benefits to women.

At the moment, however, they offer hope for jumpstarting the stalled gender revolution.


Myra Strober is Professor of Education and, by Courtesy, of Business at Stanford University. This article concludes a five-part series on the “Beyond the Stalled Revolution” panel.