The Masculine Critique

In 2009, the staff of the Boston College Center for Work & Family decided it was time to significantly increase our focus on men and work-family issues. At the time, the work-family field -- researchers, practitioners, and consumers -- was predominantly women and virtually all discussion was focused on women's struggles in relation to this delicate balancing act. While that was entirely appropriate given women's central role in the family and the (relatively) recent struggles of professional/managerial women to balance their professional and personal commitments, it nonetheless kept our field in something of a box. That box suggested that family was a woman's domain and that men's work-family struggles were confined to the bumps and bruises that went with climbing the corporate ladder in their role as breadwinners. We thought, it was time to break out of that box and calibrate more fully how men were feeling regarding these issues.

So we jumped in with both feet and in the ensuing three years published a series of reports based on our research titled "The New Dad." These reports looked at the transition to fatherhood, how men managed career and family priorities, and the growing ranks of pioneering "at-home dads." All three reports met with a very warm reception from the media and the public and suggested that this work was indeed much needed and long overdue.

It was perhaps coincidental or maybe one of those times when you focus on something and then it seems to be everywhere you look, but the changing roles of women and men in families (and in society) really seemed to become a major topic of conversation. But I wasn't sure I liked much of what I was seeing and reading. Beginning with Michael Kimmel's Guyland, which painted young adult males as sexist, drinking, bullying homophobes and most recently with Hanna Rosin's The End of Men, with its view of men in decline (and more graphic details about "hooking up" than any parent of teenagers should ever know), the picture seemed altogether pessimistic about the male gender. I have great respect for Professor Kimmel and Ms. Rosin, but wondered (and worried) if their assertions were accurate? Suddenly my occasional visits to my son's fifth grade classroom, where the girls sat politely working and the boys seemed unfocused and chaotic, were just further "hard evidence" that the world of males was on a steep downward decline.

In my more reflective moments, these hyped-up views of males didn't mesh with the research we were doing on fatherhood. Nor did it match my experience teaching hundreds of young men career-life courses in our MBA program at Boston College. These men were taking work-family issues seriously and were sincerely looking for a way to have it all. But if they couldn't have it all they were clear that their families would not be the ones that paid the price. While I recognize these somewhat privileged graduate students were not a nationally representative sample, their experiences gelled more with my perceptions than the more stark views I was reading in the press.

Finally, last weekend, Professor Stephanie Coontz, a researcher who speaks from a strong, evidence-based position, published The Myth of Male Decline in Sunday's New York Times. In it she offered a well-grounded, balanced view that gave credence to unmistakable gender trends that are emerging in the U.S., but which seemed to sort fact from fiction. (It's a good read and provides excellent information on careers and family from both genders' perspectives.)

While my male MBAs may not be a representative sample of men, according to Coontz, "among dual-earner couples, husbands with the least education do as much or more housework than their educated counterparts" (which, of course, is still less than their female partners). She also points out that there are some positive statistics regarding male behavior and misbehavior that are worth noting. Since 1993, domestic violence is down 50 percent and rapes and sexual assaults are down by 70 percent. And in discussing men's less egregious but nonetheless problematic tendencies, she asserts:

"What's different today is that it's harder for men to get away with [bad] behavior in long-term relationships. Women no longer feel compelled to put up with it and the legal system no longer condones it. The result is many guys who would have been obnoxious husbands, behaving badly behind closed doors, are now obnoxious singles, trumpeting their bad behavior on YouTube."

Or if you're Arnold Schwarzenegger on 60 Minutes.

In spite of all the warnings, my research suggests that we are more likely at the dawn of men than the end. Difficult economic circumstances, less-than-stellar academic performance, and growing equality for women may have all conspired to lessen men's advantage at work, but "success" in the workplace is not the only or ultimate measure of a life well-lived. Perhaps less career advantage and greater opportunity to embrace all that life offers will yield a new and improved definition of what it means to be a successful man today.

While some may be making hay (and selling books) by heralding the end of men, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I believe reports of our demise may be greatly exaggerated. At the risk of spending any more time than I'd like on the Governator, he may have spoken for all men when he uttered his cinematic line for the ages, "I'll be back."

Brad Harrington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and lead author of "The New Dad" study on fatherhood. This entry if part of the National Work and Family Month Blogfest.