Front-lines and Sidelines: Time to Let Go of Gender Stereotypes

Last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced their intention to lift the military ban on women in combat. To say this is a dramatic step would be a significant understatement. General Dempsey catalyzed this breakthrough decision with a letter to Secretary Panetta which stated that all of the armed service chiefs agreed that "the time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service."

The change in the military options available to women is controversial and for many good reasons. But the will to make these changes expeditiously signals an unmistakable message from the Department of Defense. While things are still far from equal for the genders in the armed services, it appears that exclusion of women from even the most "manly" military roles will not be accepted without significant deliberation. Whether you agree with this decision or not, it is a continuing sign of the progress women are making in the workplace (in this case, the workplace being the battlefield) and the continuing reduction of the limits that have historically been imposed based on gender. There is some evidence that this decision will have a significant impact on women in military leadership. Today, 80% of the highest leadership positions in the military are held by men and a major reason for this is their combat experience. While I'd personally rather see the trend moving in the opposite direction (i.e. let's limit both genders involvement on the battlefield), this decision shows continued progress in the on-going battle against limits based on gender stereotypes.

On a seemingly very different topic, you may have noticed that this is also Super Bowl week - the event that celebrates another of the last male bastions - professional football. Super Bowl week's television coverage is often filled with more hyperbole, testosterone, and macho stereotypes than any week of the year. On the field, the gender roles obviously will not be changing - the women will still be doing the cheerleading while the players will remain all male. Having women participate on the field would doubtless prove unwise. Recent efforts by the NFL suggest that the game itself, with its current rules, may be too rough and damaging for the toughest of men. I doubt even the most ardent feminist would suggest that we integrate women into the NFL in the spirit of equality.

But Sunday's game will share the spotlight with that other great Super Bowl tradition, the Super Bowl ads. And if recent history is any indicator, those ads, which cost over $3.5 million for 30 seconds, will probably do more to reinforce gender stereotypes than a bone-jarring hit from the Ravens' Ray Lewis. Sunday's advertisements will no doubt pay homage to men behaving badly, or at least not "dadly" (to borrow a term from Al Watts from the National At-Home Fathers Network). The men depicted will likely be a throwback to the past: inept in the home, more interested in beer than babies, and on the sidelines of family life. Think I'm off the mark?

While I haven't seen this year's crop of Mad Men's wizardry, past evidence is compelling. In a 2010 marketing journal article, Professors Jim Gentry and Robert Harrison shared the results of a study they conducted on the depiction of men in advertising between 2007-2009. They reviewed nearly 1400 advertisements targeted at men that aired during major sports programming. Gentry and Harrison found that 0.1% of those ads showed men in a domestic role and 0.5% showed fathers with emotional connections to their children. 12% of the ads did depict meals and food, but in all, the men were dining out (and trust me, they weren't taking their kids to health food establishments). Nearly 1 in 10 of the ads depicted violent images of men but virtually none showed men in a positive family light.

So as women make significant strides in one of the last exclusively-male workplaces, the military, men continue to be mired in outdated, limiting stereotypes that pigeon-hole them as something less than whole persons. A handful of companies are trying to change this - take the Dove for Men campaign for example - but most seem content continuing to convey the same old clichés. Maybe I'll register my dissatisfaction by boycotting this year's Super Bowl Sunday spectacle and not return until images of men and fathers are brought into the 21st Century (or at least until the Patriots are playing again).

It's time men and fathers get off the sidelines and become vocal about the ways in which our lives are limited by gender stereotypes as the women's movement has done so well. Let's exert some pressure on advertisers for men to be seen in a more realistic and holistic light. I could exhort men to action with a "Come on Guys" or "Go Daddy", but somehow I think that latter chant will likely conjure up exactly the wrong image.