Monday, July 18, 2011

The New Male Mystique: Counterpart to the Superwoman

470px-Japanese_Road_sign_(Pedestrians_Only).svg I'm catching up on my reading this summer and ran across a multitude of things on work life balancing that I hadn't encountered before and which are worth sharing.

Earlier this month, the Families and Work Institute issued a new study on work-family conflict and men as part of the National Study of the Changing Workforce: The New Male Mystique. About two years ago, the national study revealed that a higher percentage of men ( 60% in dual earner households) than women (47% in dual earner households) were reporting work-family conflict. The current study seeks to answer why that is, and the authors concluded:

We suggest that the increase in work-family conflict experienced by men is a symptom of the new male mystique—today’s male version of the “feminine mystique” coined by Betty Friedan in 1963 to describe how assumptions about women finding fulfillment in traditional domestic roles created tension and conflict for a number of women, preventing them from finding their identities and opportunities for meaningful work. Applying Friedan’s reasoning to men, the “traditional male mystique” would reflect the notion that men should seek fulfillment at work and strive to be successful as financial providers for their families. We use the term new male mystique to describe how traditional views about men’s role as breadwinners in combination with emerging gender role values that encourage men to participate in family life and a workplace that does not fully support these new roles have created pressure for men to, essentially, do it all in order to have it all.

The study released a number of findings. Here are a few:

  • Work-family conflict is not simply a function of hours spent working. Job characteristics and psychological factors—including attitudes about work, family and appropriate gender roles—all contribute to men’s work-family conflict.
  • Work-centric men are more likely to experience work-family conflict than dual- or family-centric men.
  • Men who hold traditional gender role values—i.e., strongly agree the man should earn the money and the woman should take care of the home and children— are also more likely to experience work-family conflict.

The recommendations included more flexible work arrangements for men and more cultural support for men to take advantage of those.

Some of these findings suggest a reason for the conflict beyond the lack of flexibility and supportive bosses that we expect. I would suggest, in fact, that analogizing to the Feminine Mystique is completely backward. Betty Friedan's book was about how many women were not fulfilled by the domestic role they were supposed to glory in. Here, the converse is true. The men feeling the greatest amount of conflict don't seem to be rejecting the breadwinning role that they are supposed to relish--they instead feel the conflict when home encroaches.

In other words, the findings suggest that more men than women are reporting feeling the conflict. To the extent that some significant number of men don't expect to feel any conflict because they see themselves as primarily breadwinners, those men are going to experience the competing demands as conflict rather than as the balance they expected to strike. It seems from the findings that men who expect to prioritize their families as much as or more than work don't report the conflict as much. And perhaps enough women have just been struggling with that expectation issue for so long that they tend to expect the competing demands and so may not experience it as conflict to the same extent.

Maybe it would be a good time to revisit a radical experiment in work-life balance conducted forty years ago by the Norwegian government where couples split a single job. It's reported on in this Time story from last October and sounds really interesting. Most of the couples continued the arrangement after the study and remembered the time as strengthening their family even though they were not particularly well off economically.

Our current economic situation might help reset expectations, although so far it seems to be mostly heightening financial stress on people. On that economic front, legislation has been introduced that while not focused on partners within a family would promote state worksharing programs. The Layoff Prevention Act of 2011, focused on keeping people in jobs with reduced hours, was introduced earlier this month as H.R. 2421. The legislation would provide workers whose hours are reduced with unemployment insurance benefits to account for the reduced hours.


Scholarship, Worklife Issues, Workplace Trends | Permalink

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