Michael Kimmel: “Gender Equality is Probably the Best Thing that Has Ever Happened for Men”

25 May 2015

Michael Kimmel (Gender Identities in a Globalized World) will address gender equality at the 2015 Ted Women event in Monterrey, CA on May 29. He will discuss why men resist gender equality and why they shouldn’t. He shared his ideas with STI…

STI Experts

You are one of very few male speakers in the entire Ted Women event (along with former President Jimmy Carter).  What do you add to the discussion about gender equality?

I’m the man bites dog. When women talk about gender equality it is assumed that they have a bias or a vested interest that I perhaps don’t have. When people hear a man say basically the same things women have been saying for forty years, they somehow think, “Oh, well if a man is saying it, it’s more objective, so it might be true.”

You also have a unique angle in your argument, don’t you? You sometimes explain your talks as selling the idea of gender equality to men as something that is in their interest.

Yes, I have to persuade men that it is in their interest, rather than just “fair” or “the right thing to do.”  But first, I have to get them to pay attention to the issue at all. Men often don’t “get” what it has to do with them. They are not as aware of gender as women are. This is because privilege is invisible to those who have it. Men don’t have to think about our gender because it hasn’t been a problem for us. But women are making gender visible as one of the foundations of our identity.

Can you give an example?

Women have come to make up about half of the labor force over the course of maybe three generations. This has led to them having to manage to balance work and family in a way they didn’t before. But can women have it all? - A thriving career outside the home and a warm loving family to come home to? The answer is no. Women can’t have it all because men have it all. This is because women do the second shift. If women are going to manage both as men do, we’re going to have to make some changes.

How do you propose to engage men in this process?

We need to make gender visible and make privilege visible. Reveal to men their own sense of entitlement to maintain the status quo. There is often resistance to this, because nobody likes to see himself as a victimizer. And it leads many men to assert that in fact men are victims of reverse discrimination – that women are trying to “take” something that is rightfully “theirs.” They mistakenly believe that gender equality is a zero sum game – that any gains women make must equal losses for men.

You assert that although men don’t believe that they will be better off ceding their privilege and striving for equality with women, in fact they will be.  How do you make this case?

Fortunately, the data are overwhelmingly persuasive. For instance, in industrialized countries, the single best predictor of gender equality within relationships is the amount of housework and childcare the man does. Men like to use terms like “pitching in” and “helping out” with housework and childcare. Yet when those concepts are replaced by the concept of “sharing,” data show the results are positive for everyone.

When men share housework and childcare, their children are healthier and happier and more successful, their wives are healthier and happier, and they themselves are healthier and happier. The children do better in school and are less likely to need the care of a mental health professional or prescription drugs. The wives are also more likely to go to the gym and less likely to be depressed or need medication.  And the men also take better care of themselves – smoking and drinking less, getting more preventative medical care and less urgent care.  And they have more sex than men who do not share housework and childcare. Their relationships are happier and because they enjoy equity with their partners. The thing that makes a thriving marriage thrive is not so much equality – sameness – as it is equity – the perception of fairness in the relationship.

So you are primarily talking about gender equality within romantic relationships?

I do concentrate on this. But in the upcoming Ted Women talk I will discuss it on a further 2 levels. First of all I will add in the corporate side – explain that it is a good bottom line thing.  Companies that are more gender equal are more profitable, their employees are happier and more productive, etc. There are tons of data from catalysts. And further, gender equality is good for society – for countries.  Countries that rank highest in gender equality also rank highest in the happiness perceived by their citizens. This is not just true because they are richer.  Even within Europe, this is the case.

So if everyone wins with gender equality or equity, why does it need to be “sold” to men at all?  Why don’t they naturally embrace the idea?

Because of that sense of entitlement they inherited from their surroundings. Baby boomers have the most trouble adjusting because they assumed their world would look like the set of Mad Men, and it no longer does. Change is hard because people are not like an etch-a-sketch:  we can’t just decide what we want something to look like and then make all our emotions fall into place.

If entitlement is learned, won’t it be “unlearned” over time as the surroundings change?

That’s what’s happening. Young men are much more interested in gender equal relationships. They assume they will have them. They assume that their wives will have careers. Surveys show this attitude, which is not affected by race or class. This is new for an entire generation, not only some pockets of it. These men are preparing to be involved fathers.

But there is still the question of how they are going to manage it. And the research is interesting, because they don’t really know how to get what they want. It’s new. They don't have much example. For example, 20 years ago there were a few companies with paternal leave programs. But no one took advantage of them. Because to do so would have been a sign that you were not committed to your career. So, even men who wanted to work out a more equitable distribution of time with their wives were dissuaded from doing so by the opinion and unconscious bias of other men and society in general. What constituted a dedicated male worker was that he was available 24/7. Good workers outsourced their families. A man who wanted to participate more in his family was seen as less committed to work. Young men want to change this, yet they may run into the same bias and have a hard time getting what they want.

So, men’s and women’s expectations of equality are getting measurably closer from generation to generation?

Over all. Yet there are still differences. Men and women often want the same thing – an equitable balance of career and family. They have the same plan A. But if they can’t have it?  That’s where the difference still lies. Women now say, “Well, I’ll go it alone,” while men revert back to the 50’s model. 

So you still have your work cut out for you?

Indeed. But the proof is out there. Gender equality is probably the best thing that has ever happened for men.


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