In a paper prepared for the workshop “Gender, Equality and Intimacy: (Un)comfortable Bedfellows?”  at the Institute of Education today – Cambridge scholar Monica Wirz explores how couples, whose gender roles have been reversed, deal with work-life balance, equality, intimacy and their sense of identity.

The implicit assumption is of a family with two husbands: two incomes, paid work coming before private time.

Monica Wirz

The workplace of the 21st century is marked by fast change and diversity.  Baby boomers, generations X and Y all working together under one roof.  Or under no roof, thanks to new technologies. In the Western world, women’s increasing levels of human capital and participation in the workforce has moved the plight of gender equality to a new level: upwards for women who try to climb the corporate ladder and sideways for men who try to carve more time with their families. Yet, for the few couples breaking away from conventional gender roles an even more complex picture seems to be emerging.

During my recent study into the gendered process of leadership selection a new model – still rare but with distinctive characteristics – emerged as worthy of scrutiny: that in which the woman was in a high-flying position at whereas her male partner took over the role of primary carer in the family.

Despite recent moves towards more flexible and unconventional arrangements, rather than leading to more equality, workplace cultures and intimate relationships are still deeply embedded in traditional gendered schemas. These are as much at the foundation of the man as leader bias, which blocks women’s ascendance through the corporate ladder, as they are to men’s attempts to take a more participative role at home:

“When I speak to my colleagues at work it never ceases to amaze me how clueless they are about the complexity of running a household. Things are getting better with the younger generations, you see much more cooperation. But among my peer group attitudes have not changed much.  Men especially. […] They probably talk behind my back, although they would not dare to say anything to my face.  But I can see how they look down at Mark for having put his career on hold when mine was taking off. Almost as if he was a loser. […]  If I were a man, I am not sure I could have done that. It’s easier for women. (Female executive director, 45-55 years of age)

Describing their life trajectories as “unchartered waters”, couples deviating from traditional gender roles find themselves at the margins. Limited legal support still makes it harder for men to take the step towards being an equal carer. The shared parental leave being introduced in the UK in 2015 is a step in the direction of normalising gender balance. 

Out-dated corporate policies and cultures still stigmatise those who do not demonstrate full commitment (measured in availability); men seeking flexible work arrangements are seen in even harsher terms than their female counterparts. Outside of work, isolation marks men’s experiences, in the shape of older family members’ lack of acceptance, (ex-)work colleagues’ silent contempt, or stay-at-home mothers’ veiled suspicion at school gates or playgrounds. Home life is none the easier. Women feel divided between guilt for their absence and ambiguity towards their partner.

The latter varies from an over-elaboration of the importance and complexity of their partners’ job (often accompanied by a depreciation of their own) to a difficulty to deal with a position of perceived emasculation in their or others’ eyes. Whereas less vocal of the difficulties faced, men who were staying at home did nonetheless remark how “the world was lagging behind”.

Defying convention requires a series of intricate negotiations at an intimate level. What on the surface appears to be a balanced and progressive relationship often rests on a thin veneer of equality. Being gender a-prototypical is as difficult for a woman struggling to be seen as “board material” as for a man out in the playground with his children. For the professional-managerial classes legitimation of the self derives almost solely from the public sphere.

Whereas the challenge for women is to successfully combine career, the management of family life and the care of the self, the margin for manoeuvre for men leaves little scope for a full life outside of their work personas. Even if at first sight taking part in family life might mark men as progressive, the presupposition nonetheless is that they should be, first and foremost, successful in their careers. The price for not doing gender adequately is not to be trusted or respected, as well as, implicitly, have their masculinity questioned.

In a final analysis, despite all the rhetoric about work-life balance, the pull towards the public sphere is disproportionally higher than towards family life. For this social group, the implicit assumption is of a family with two husbands: two incomes, paid work coming before private time, as well as the outsourcing of logistical and often emotional needs of their family.

Couples who deviate from expected gender roles pay a high price both in terms of individual identity and in managing their intimate lives. At the forefront of social change, these couples are pushing boundaries and exploring new frontiers. Much rests on the work of social researchers to help them chart this new territory.

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