“Adolescence is the optimal time to be deliberately, positively and proactively shaping norms on gender and care.”
This piece first appeared in The Huffington Post on March 8, 2016.
Just after International Women’s Day, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau, two feminist world leaders will reconnect at the State Dinner: and a new moment in Canada-U.S. relations officially begins.
Both men are strong supporters of the need to achieve gender equality in the public, private and political sectors (currently the World Economic Forum estimates the gender gap won’t close until 2133).
President Obama and PM Trudeau are also each at particularly interesting points in their political journeys, one where they could join together to create a permanent social change in terms of tackling gender inequality by bringing global attention on the potential of adolescent boys to be the catalyst to achieve a new era in gender relations.
I have three sons and I’m doing my best to raise them with an entirely different set of values on gender, sex, care, family and work but frankly it can feel like an uphill struggle — and I often think how much more effective all our personal efforts would be if they were done against a social and cultural backdrop that shared this as a public goal.
Imagine the transformative possibility of a coordinated national campaign that proactively combined the best of social behaviour, “nudge” theory, gender studies and marketing to actively create a new frame on gender, care and careers for teen boys — one that would become the foundation for truly equitable partnerships and workplaces in the near future.
It’s an issue that Canada with our relatively progressive public frame and new style of political leadership is uniquely positioned to lead: incubating the best of global ideas on gender equality and then sharing the results and outcomes with the world.
A focus on teen boys reflects both the growing consensus that men need to be the solution to the gender parity gap and the natural opportunity that comes with this particular life stage.
In her recent best seller Unfinished Business Anne Marie Slaughter, calls for a men’s movement. She argues that the majority of gender inequalities will only be solved when both men and women have the same range of choices in terms of careers and care giving.
Similarly, Brigid Schulte best-selling author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time advocates that the conversation this International Women’s Day should be on men, since that is the only way to effectively disrupt the current paradigm where: women are expected to act like professional men plus traditional women.
Men are essential but currently they tend to come to this issue much too late — usually when they are already parents, employers or colleagues.
This is why despite high expectations for a new generation entering the labour market and women taking on significantly more in the workforce the U.S. Bureau of Labor found that the number of hours which men and women spend on housework, cooking, child care and housework has hardly moved between 2003 to 2011.
This is the second shift, also described as the “stalled revolution” on the home-front.
First identified by Arlie Hochschild, in The Second Shift: Working Parents and The Revolution At Home her research showed the detrimental impact this unequal labour division has on women’s careers and well-being.
She also found that this pattern continues because individuals enter adult relationships with their gender ideologies on families and relationships already deeply conditioned — making positive changes difficult.
This is why adolescent boys hold so much promise.
Unlike adult men (or women) who need to be persuaded to evolve their thinking and then actively reminded to overcome years of unconscious bias, teen boys are naturally in the midst of forming beliefs on gender, relationships, parenthood and care.
A 14-year study from the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University found that male adolescent views on sex shape their fatherhood outcomes — including whether or not they live with their children.
This finding suggests that adolescence is the optimal time to be deliberately, positively and proactively shaping norms on gender and care.
Tackling gender bias and the second shift to create gender parity in society is not just about justice.
Research shows that gender equity is ultimately about optimizing the world we all live in.
Countries with greater gender equality have better economic growth; companies with more women leaders are more profitable and parliaments with a higher female representation enact more legislation on key social issues including education and health — which in turn benefits more citizens.
Currently women remain stuck in the lower to middle rungs of the workforce in virtually every profession and industry. They also continue to face a substantial a 72 per cent pay gap and its getting wider.
To disrupt this status quo, we absolutely need men but our most effective means of leapfrogging us all forward is to raise a different kind of man — just as we have done with our daughters (who now graduate from universities and colleges in greater numbers than men and start out expecting a more equal playing field).
Both Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama are at a unique moment in their political careers — one that lends itself to bold initiatives: an investment in a shared conversation and strategy to shift the frame on gender, care, equality and parenting in the next generation of boys would be groundbreaking.
When that generation of men come of age, it would have a transformative ripple effect on families, workplaces, public spaces and relationships.
To collectively prosper, we know we need our girls and so now we need to strategically and positively focus on our boys.
Reva Seth is the best selling author of The MomShift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success After Children (Random House) & a Senior Associate at progressive think tank Canada 2020. She is mother of three boys.
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