Leaning Together: Women Can't Lean In At Work Unless Men Do At Home

All the talk about "leaning in" at work, inevitably leads to the subject of leaning in at home. You can't be equal at the office unless you are equal outside of it.
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a hand holding the tower of...
a hand holding the tower of...

Lean In too far, and you tip over.

Unless there is someone leaning toward you, forming a brace, so you hold each other upright. It's physics. And life.

All the talk about "leaning in" at work, therefore, inevitably leads to the subject of leaning in at home. You can't be equal at the office unless you are equal outside of it.

Sheryl Sandberg preaches this in her book, "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead", advising women to choose their spouse carefully and describing her own marriage as a partnership of equals. And everywhere this week there was conversation, both academic and personal, about what that equality looks like, and whether it will ever be the norm.

We certainly haven't found it yet. The Pew Research Center released that news, in the form of a report titled "Modern Parenthood: Roles of Moms and Dads Converge As They Balance Work and Family," which concludes that while the gap is closing, it is still there. In 1965, for instance, fathers worked an average of 42 hours a week and mothers an average of 8; now that ratio is 37 to 21. The gap in the number of hours spent on housework has also narrowed; once 32 hours for women and 4 for men, it is now 18 to ten. And where women did nearly five times as much childcare as men in 1965, they now do twice as much.

So fathers are doing more at home, but mothers are still doing even more than that, and it is therefore not surprising that women still feel differently about work than men. The percentage of women who prefer full-time work to part-time (37 percent) has increased notably since 2007 (when it was 21 percent), but it is still lower than the percentage of men. And while men say the most important quality in a job is a good income, women say it is flexibility.

In a compelling essay on Atlantic.com, philosophy professor Alexandra Bradner, of the University of Kentucky, describes this still-present divide as "invisible work." On a hunch and a whim a while ago, she emailed a group of women she describes as "ambitious, heterosexual working mothers" and asked them "to send [her] a list of the invisible tasks they do on their 'second shift,' family needs that their equally ambitious, working male partners simply do not see." The women answered, she writes, with a "collection of lists that averaged around 35 items each, full of the taxing, the trivial, the short- and the long-term: sick child duty, travel planning, photo organization, holiday preparation, emotional support work, hairstyling, online searches for sports equipment, et al."

The future of life and work, of gender equality and women in power, she believes can be found on those lists -- and whether or not couples divide them equally. Partners can start by asking themselves whether they do half of such obvious chores as laundry, dishes, and diapers as well as many far less apparent ones, like "Do I plan half the travel? Do I write half of the lists and notes? Do I write half of the e-mails to my kids' teachers? Do I take on half of the management of my care providers?"

Her assumption is that most mothers will still say they do more and more fathers will still say they do less, but in the mix of conversation sparked by Sandberg's book and the Pew study this past week were a few important essays from fathers, weighing in with their versions of what "Leaning Together" should look like.

Also on Atlantic.com, for instance, Andy Hinds responded to Bradner's piece with his own household philosophy: "Whoever cares the most wins." In his see-saw marriage (Hanna Rosin's term for a relationship in which partners take turns being the breadwinner) he is currently staying at home with the three-year-old twins while she works as a doctor. He hopes Bradner isn't serious about the 50/50 division of labor because if "one person cares more about a given category than the other, that person will be more skillful and efficient at it. It would make no sense for me to demand that my wife do half of the household repairs, since it would take forever and I would have to coach her through it and then probably go back and re-fix it. Likewise, it would make no sense for my wife to demand that I do half of the monthly financial chores, since I have no head for money."

He does endorse the idea of keeping better track of assumed and invisible tasks, however, as does Charlie Capen, of How to Be A Dad. He and his wife are in the process of figuring out "who does what around the house," he writes, as he transitions from primary caregiver to out-of-office career.

They are making their lists -- and essentially answering Bradner's questions through Hinds' lens -- because culture and history demand it, he says. The old assumptions don't hold, but the opposite should be a systematic family plan, not a free-for-all.

"The advent of feminism and a strong desire on the part of manpeople to be more hands-on at home has sort of left the household organization chart in disarray," he writes. "You'd think we wouldn't need to write down job descriptions or might've already done it implicitly, but that is exactly what we are doing. It's necessary now. What are our job requirements? What, precisely, is the division of labor in this mini-group?"

So far, he writes, they have decided "this isn't about gender roles. It's about what needs to get done, who can best fulfill those requirements." And they go into it with Charlie knowing that "I can't breastfeed, I can't plan our lives and I can't really hang photos that well. She can't... well... whine about things as well as I do."

Beyond that, he says, it's a work in progress.

Whether we all lean in or fall down may well depend upon how it goes.

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