If men don't lean back, women can't lean in

I’ve been wanting to talk about men staying home ever since hearing from a listener last year. She wrote that she wouldn’t be able to do what she does without her husband staying at home with their little girl, that her job involves a lot of travel and that he’s been game for all her trips, and their international moves. Yet the reactions he gets form society are mixed: he’s had someone walk away from him at a party in DC after finding out what he did. Other women have asked her things like, ‘Oh, so your husband doesn’t want to work?’ My listener was sick of the assumptions everyone made about her other half – and grateful she could excel in her career because of him.

Christopher Persley, his wife Jenelle, and their daughter Camilla

Christopher Persley, his wife Jenelle, and their daughter Camilla

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the cult of masculinity and what that means for both men and women. You could start with the worst and most obvious results of this, such as domestic and sexual violence, which is why organizations like Promundo exist. Because the cult of masculinity – what men feel they have to be to be a man – is the flipside of the stuff we talk about on The Broad Experience all the time. Society has long wanted women in a particular box, and so many of us women feel we need to live up to all those stereotypes. But men have their own societal expectations to live up to – and plenty of those come from women as well as men (see above). But this stereotype of the ‘real man’ harms both sexes. It keeps men putting in long hours at the office, living for work, measuring their worth by their roles as employee and provider rather than, say, as partner or father. Yet as one guest told me last year, not much will change for women at work until the workplace and society in general ‘lets men be fathers’ and accepts that not all men are burning to get to the top, just as many women aren’t.

Until more men are willing or able to lean back, there’s a limited number of spots for women who lean in.

Still, as Meg Jay said in one of my recent podcasts, it’s not acceptable for men to say what women often do – that they want to take a career break for kids, or that they want to stay at home altogether. Those expectations about male/female roles are deeply embedded in our psyches. Society still wants men to be go-getters above all else.

One of my guests on the latest show on men staying home, stay-at-home dad Christopher Persley, voiced some of this when he said when you interview for a job, it’s not done to act like you don’t want to get to the top. We’re expected to pretend, to play that awful ‘where do you want to be five years from now?’ game, which always made my heart sink when I was in a traditional workplace. I couldn’t say, “I have no idea” or, as he wanted to say, “I just want to be doing this job exceptionally well,” because that would not be considered thrusting enough for the modern workplace – especially if you’re a guy.

I suppose it’s a bit ironic that I’ve released this show on men just after International Women’s Day. But I’m with former guest Avivah Wittenberg-Cox: women as a group won’t progress unless gender roles in general blur – and we need to stop judging when they do.