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Men need to care about caregiving so the entire labor force can benefit

A psychology professor at USC proposes that the new administration appoint a male care czar to concentrate on overturning both institutional and cultural barriers to men’s participation in care.

Men need to care about caregiving so the entire labor force can benefit
[Source photos: OSTILL/iStock; Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash]
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If it wasn’t already blindingly obvious that the pandemic has crushed women’s workforce participation, the December jobs report brought sobering news. The U.S. economy shed 140,000 jobs, and women accounted for not some, not most, but all of those losses. School closures were a double whammy: Not only did the lack of childcare create an impossible balancing act for working mothers, but the female-dominated education and childcare sectors were among the hardest hit.

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As a result, we are witnessing a major economic reallocation as care labor falls off the balance sheet from paid to unpaid. The sick, the old, and the tiny still need tending. But, as shuttered daycares, preschools, schools, group homes, and long-term care facilities confront an already-weak care infrastructure and a fraying public safety net, human care has gone further underground and uncompensated.

Over the last few decades, a big-dollar effort has sought to interest girls in science. Starting in 2001, the National Science Foundation committed over $270 million to boosting women’s participation in STEM, joining other organizations, from the Girl Scouts to Goldman Sachs, launching high-profile campaigns encouraging girls to code, hack, and engineer. And that’s a good thing.

But there has been much less clamor about the underrepresentation of men within HEED (healthcare, early education, and domestic) fields, which are actually more skewed. Fewer than 3% of preschool and kindergarten teachers are male, and fewer men enroll in graduate programs for education, social work, human resources, and nursing than women pursue mathematics and computer science. In my field, clinical psychology, all-female doctoral cohorts have become the norm rather than the exception. And although more men than ever are stay-at-home fathers, they are still outnumbered 9 to 1 by stay-at-home mothers. In a study in which participants designed an imaginary state education budget, NYU researcher Kate Block found they were willing to commit $9 million more to promote gender balance in male-dominated STEM fields than in female-dominated HEED fields.

One argument for pushing girls toward STEM is that these careers pay well. But do they pay better because they are more male-dominated? Studies of “occupational feminization” have documented that when women enter a profession en masse, its prestige and salaries decline. Teaching, psychotherapy, public relations, social work, and human resources—all have dropped in pay as their female ranks have grown. In contrast, computer science, a field dominated by women in its early days, was once considered akin to secretarial work and acquired significant cachet only after it had already skewed male.

So, here’s a modest proposal: Let’s celebrate human care like we do computer science.

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Why are pink chemistry sets and astrophysicist Barbies easier to find at toy stores than baby dolls marketed to boys? If we can encourage girls to code, we can also get boys to care. And if men participate more in care labor, society may actually start to value it. According to division-of-household-labor guru Eve Rodsky, we view women’s time like sand—worthless and limitless—whereas men’s time is seen as scarce and precious, like diamonds. If men sprinkled some diamonds on care, the Wages for Housework campaign might get traction, and the childcare industry could see another Lanham Act.

Role models

How do we encourage men to care? The girls-in-STEM movement means that my kids’ elementary school is lined with posters of women in space suits and lab goggles. But where are our role models for boys? As Trump ignominiously exits the presidential stage to the tune of “Macho Man,” his campaign press secretary claims he is “the most masculine person to ever hold the White House.” But Trump, who has never changed a diaper, offers a brittle version of masculinity, elevating grievance and hostility above empathy and care. The incoming executive branch offers new models: Joe Biden, who became a single father while serving in the Senate and has urged his staff to prioritize their family obligations above all else, and Doug Emhoff, a blended-family dad whose clear admiration for his wife’s accomplishments befits his Second Gentleman role.

Beneficial policies

Care-promoting policies can benefit men. Worldwide, 92 countries offer paid paternity leave, and many have developed incentives to encourage men’s participation. Norway, for example, has a use-it-or-lose-it model that sets aside four weeks of family leave specifically for fathers; after it was introduced in 1993, men’s rates of leave-taking surged from 3% to 90%. A similar “daddy quota” in Canada not only boosted men’s participation in childcare but also led to a drop in the national divorce rate.

In contrast, not only does the U.S. lack any federal paid family leave, but only 9% of U.S. workers are employed at companies, such as Netflix and Microsoft, that offer paid paternity leave to all of its workers. In fact, many fathers in the U.S. continue to confront a pernicious workplace stigma around taking family leave.

A care czar

The new administration could appoint a male care czar (might I suggest Emhoff?) to concentrate on overturning both institutional and cultural barriers to men’s participation in care. In addition to supporting fatherhood, efforts to support the larger care economy can promote the economic viability of care labor and attract men to HEED professions.

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A care czar could also highlight the emerging scientific evidence on care. Many men feel that caregiving doesn’t come naturally because they are not biologically equipped for it. A small but growing body of studies, including research from my lab, is starting to rewrite that essentialist narrative and illuminate the plasticity of the caregiving brain and body. We find that caregivers are made, not born: Parenting experience can remodel men’s brains and hormones. And exposure to male teachers and caregivers benefits kids as well.

Women also gain from men’s investment in the household. Our research has found that when fathers take paid paternity leave, new mothers are buffered from stress and depression across the transition to parenthood.

Times of crisis offer new opportunities for realignment. The pandemic has prompted many fathers to step up their everyday participation in housework and childcare. A Harvard report found that, just after the onset of the pandemic, 68% of fathers felt emotionally closer to their children.

As we have lived through 10 months of a pandemic with care supports stripped away, there is a new recognition of the value of care. Now, it’s time to integrate this value into our collective values, with the acknowledgment that taking care of each other is not just a women’s issue but a human necessity.


Darby Saxbe is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, where she studies stress within families and directs USC’s Center for the Changing Family.

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