Is Gender Equality Killing Women?

Women often experience an implicit (and sometimes even explicit) expectation from those around them to be both a full-time professional and an ever-present mom.

I consider myself a feminist, which means (to me at least) I support the elimination of barriers to access for all people, regardless of their gender. But in spite of that, the equality that follows such efforts comes with its own consequences for the culture, and sometimes even for the woman herself.

My wife, Amy, pastors a prominent church in downtown Portland. She has office hours, late-night meetings and weekend commitments that keep her away from home quite a bit, sometimes more often than she’d prefer. I work most days from home as a writer, which means I have greater flexibility in my schedule to take the kids, pick them up, and sometimes make dinner or even put the little guys to bed. It’s not often that Amy gets home after both kids are asleep, but it happens. And when it does, I see the pain on her face.

Zoe, our four-year-old, had a dad’s night at her preschool this past week, at which they presented us with the requisite finger paintings and other artifacts of her classroom time. But my favorite thing was a letter that she dictated to her teacher for me. The very first sentence in the letter was as follows:

“My dad loves taking me to school every morning.”

She’s right; I do. And I know sometimes Amy gets jealous when she has to kiss the kids on the head and dash out the door for an early meeting. Again, this is not a day-in, day-out thing, but it seems that when it happens, she struggles with it more than when I used to do it. For the first 10 years or so of our marriage, I was the office job guy, affording her the opportunity to go to graduate school, stay home with our newborns and eventually, start a new church in our home. But I do think that, because in our culture it’s still often “expected” than men will be the primary providers, there was less of a cultural bias for me to overcome in leaving the kids.

Amy has told me that, although she has found her place in the professional world, she experiences an implicit (and sometimes even explicit) expectation from those around her to be both a full-time professional and an ever-present mom. So in a way, hers has been a process of addition rather than adjustment or reallocation. And lest anyone thinks this is an isolated experience, I heard a woman in NPR being interviewed about this very thing some time back, so it must be true!

Overall, as women enter the full-time workplace in growing numbers, they’re experiencing more of the same side effects that men “enjoy” from overwork and related stress, including increased hypertension, heart disease and other risk factors related to eating on the run and missing out on exercise. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, but research is finding that, as women gain opportunities once enjoyed predominantly by men, they’re also suffering from the effects those opportunities can have too.

Phyllis Tickle

For a more stark example, the United States military lifted the restriction this week that barred women from holding combat positions. Though this is a win for gender parity, the implications of what this means for those women who put their lives at greater risk is sobering.

There’s plenty of friction among women discussing the issue as well. Theologian and author Phyllis Tickle talks publicly about turning points that have affected family dynamics and, secondarily, church community, such as access to birth control and workplace parity. Her point – or at least one of them – seems to be that when children don’t come home to a parent after school or take the time to gather intentionally around a table for a meal, the family identity suffers. Others, such as author and blogger Julie Clawson, push back on this notion, suggesting that unfair blame is being cast in women’s direction, and that such claims draw a false correlation.

Some suggest that such trends mean we’re headed down a dangerous path, and they use this as their basis for calling for what they call a return to “traditional family values.” Others place the blame on unrealistic expectations for working mothers to be superhuman, a social burden that is not equally shared by men in a similar position. Others point a finger at our economic system, blaming the need for families to depend on two full-time incomes in many cases to subsist in the American middle class. Still others argue that these trends are largely a confabulation, manufactured by a society wrestling with gender roles, norms and a sense of ground shifting beneath their feet.

I told Amy over dinner a few nights ago (we made it together) that I predicted we will see a shift back toward what some would call more traditional gender roles in our children’s adulthood. Without such barriers to access, there is likely to be more fluidity in more of a back-and-forth dynamic, as people search for the kind of balance of multiple roles they feel fit best for them and their loved ones. As for me, I can handle the “pastor’s wife” jokes and the “mister mom” pokes, especially when the payoff is a letter like the one I got from Zoe. There may come a day when the writing well runs dry and I find myself back in a corporate office. But for now, I consider myself to be a part of a sort of frontier of our own for male identity.

It turns out that the elimination of gender barriers goes both ways. So far, I feel pretty fortunate to benefit from less traditional family values.

About Christian Piatt

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  1. I’m noticing in the comments people saying things to the effect “women are realizing that men didn’t have it better after all.” This is counterproductive, and respectfully, inaccurate. Feminists weren’t trying to prove that women were overworked and men lived in happy, floaty castles in the sky. The feminists in the 60’s had found that they were living desperate lives, lives in which they did 24/7 menial work which neither challenged nor excited them, and they resented society, their husbands, and even their kids because of it. They needed the freedom to be more. That was it. Let’s stop acting like the feminists were a bunch of naive women who had no idea what the “real world” was like, please?

  2. Scott Behson’s blog pointed me to this article, which speaks in much more depth and breadth about the complexities of workplace equality and toll it takes on women:

  3. I agree with so many of the comments already posted. There are a lot of factors at play. I guess the point I want to highlight is something the author mentioned briefly: the detrimental toll our economic system takes on *all* of us. Productivity and profit and progress are all paramount. So working women are facing the same ill effects as working men – this sounds like an indictment of our working conditions more than any gender equality issue. There just isn’t enough room for people to maintain wholeness in their lives – rest, relaxation, family, hobbies, faith, art, silence! – all the things that are part of a *healthy* and balanced life are squeezed in between unrealistic expectations of work and unrealistic expectations of parenting. It’s not healthy for anyone – men, women, or children.

  4. I don’t have children so maybe I’m not qualified to comment, but…. Don’t women largely put these unrealistic expectations on themselves? It’s not “society” telling women they must succeed at work and also be a super mom. It’s individual women believing they are supposed to do that. The pressure is internal, not external. Of course, yes, other people have expectations like, if you have this job you need to meet deadlines because otherwise it will cost the company millions of dollars. Or, your kids need to be fed and get to school on time. But no one is forcing women to be superpeople. You can find a less demanding job. You don’t have to enroll the kids in scheduled activities 7 days a week. My mom had a rule when we were growing up: we could only have 1 extracurricular activity that she was required to drive us to. If we wanted more than that, we had to find a friend’s parent for transportation or ride our bikes. I watch parents around me and they are a thousand times more involved in their kids’ lives than my parents were. Personally it doesn’t seem necessary to me,

    • wellokaythen says:

      “Don’t women largely put these unrealistic expectations on themselves? It’s not “society” telling women they must succeed at work and also be a super mom. It’s individual women believing they are supposed to do that. The pressure is internal, not external.”

      Hell, yes. I would add something even more taboo to say out loud: a woman who becomes a mother has chosen to become a mother. She has made a hundred decisions that result in a baby in her arms. You don’t just “have kids” or “wind up with a family” or “expect your baby’s arrival.” You don’t just have a family to take care of; you chose to have children. I’d like to hear more accountability and more people owning their choices. That doesn’t mean they are totally responsible for all of their challenges, but we need to start with the basic facts of who chose what.

      • wellokaythen says:

        P.S. I remember my parents telling me to go out and play and come back before it gets too dark. (And look how I turned out…. : – ) )

    • Largely it’s women putting pressure on themselves and other women to be supermum, I’d say more men prefer their women to be a stay at home parent based of society’s views but women are pushing each other to work and be mum and be perfect and judge each other. It’s like the beauty game, I hear women judging each others beauty far far far more than men do. If women stopped listening so much to other women stopping their silly pissing contests on who is the best mother, worker, wife, threw away the women’s magazines they’d probably be much less stressed.

    • Lisa Marie says:

      We had the same “one extracurricular activity” rule at my house, too. At age six, I was also expected to help my parents out with the household chores, including cleaning up after dinner — and then I was expected to do my homework with no one looking over my shoulder. Parenting has drastically changed. My girl friends always seem to be in their cars, driving, driving, driving, taking their kids from one place to the next, planning birthday parties, sleepovers, special camps. It’s only as hard as you make it, folks!

      Oh, and my mom and dad *both* had very demanding careers. When my dad fell chronically ill, it was my mother’s job that kept us from losing everything. I don’t for one minute discount everything she did for her family, and in fact, I appreciate her all the more for being a good role model for me. I learned how to be self-sufficient at a very early age, and this trait has served me well.

  5. now you women know how we feels right? exhausted? like we men never exhausted?

  6. wellokaythen says:

    Based on what the article says, there’s a good argument to be made that women are not actually experiencing gender equality, if we include equality of expectations. If the expectations on women are not equal to the expectations on men, then there is not really gender equality, so we can’t really blame gender equality for how these women feel. That’s blaming equality when it’s actually the fault of inequality.

    One origin of this inequality in family expectations is that men’s role as fathers still needs more respect. Part of the expectation for mothers to be full-time mothers is that society still tends to assume that 1) moms are more important for raising children than dads, 2) you can’t really trust men to be full-time parents, so 3) women should feel guilty for leaving their children in the care of men.

    I suspect another part of the problem is that the expectations of parenthood today have skyrocketed over the past two generations. You have to supervise your kids every minute of every day, hover over them like helicopters, plan out all activities down to the minute, research every toy on the market, organize play dates with precisely the correct offering of nutritious organic free range snacks, etc. As a result, being a full-time parent requires more energy today than it did even 20 years ago. A lot of mothers feel increasingly exhausted even if they don’t work outside the home, so just imagine adding a full-time job in addition.

    There are already unrealistic expectations on stay-at-home moms, not just “working moms.”

    • “You have to supervise your kids every minute of every day, hover over them like helicopters, plan out all activities down to the minute, research every toy on the market, organize play dates with precisely the correct offering of nutritious organic free range snacks, etc. As a result, being a full-time parent requires more energy today than it did even 20 years ago. A lot of mothers feel increasingly exhausted even if they don’t work outside the home, so just imagine adding a full-time job in addition.”

      You don’t HAVE to do that, and people who tell you they MUST are either in a control situation by someone else (ie being forced), or using false-consciousness and “But but but what will they think???” as a reason to do/not do something. Care about the right stuff. Analyze every thing, if its worth caring about in the end, objectively, then do so. If it’s just gonna piss off some people, but is utterly unimportant, then they can piss off.

      Having “healthy” snacks that is marked on the package and verified 5000x is NOT NECESSARY. The snacks I ate as a kid WERE FINE. Even if they have artificial flavor and whatever else. I didn’t die or get sick. And let the kids plan out their stuff unless they themselves ask for tight planning. At best propose it to them. As a kid I was left to my own devices. I had to do my homework, then I was free to go play outside, watch TV, play videogames, read books, play Lego. I didn’t need piano lessons and 50 other planned-out things that most people can’t afford on a regular basis for themselves.

  7. “Unrealistic expectations for working mothers to be superhuman…”

    Yup yup yup… I used to work 5-6 days a week and when big holiday dinners rolled around, I would stay up all night prepping and cooking in anticipation of big turkey day…Guess what? There is no big award for all that extra effort in being a Martha Stewart super-mom…! (Costco makes great frozen side dishes and soups that can be heated up in the microwave in minutes BTW!)…I still got criticism from many different people, some of them whose own marriages have since dissipated or are on the rocks….Look hard at the people who aim nasty comments your way….they may be quite depressed or have problems in their own home….

  8. John Schtoll says:

    Hmm, sounds to me like “The grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence” after all.

    Women in greater numbers are finally getting to see how “MUCH PRIVILEGE” it is to work 60+ hours a week at a job with a boss , deadlines and the ever present threat of losing it on the whim of some company who doesn’t go a rats behind about you. Yup, those men of old sure had it some good didn’t they. Now wait till women start dieing on the job at near 50/50 rates, unlike the 90/10 rate that men “ENJOY” right now.

    I feel for the people in the comments who are doing this , but folks, this is what equality looks like. All the responsibilities with all the rights, instead of almost no responsibilities with a few rights.

    • Exactly, but with one enormous difference. Women are only experiencing what it is to have the work conditions, the work content and the salaries that we have today. Interesting jobs where you work in comfortable offices instead of digging in mines, being a soldier or sailing around the world in a sailboat, with a violent crew of roughnecks and a dictatorial captain for 3 year stretches away from your family for a salary that can barely keep them alive. A huge percentage of sailors died and they lived with that fear constantly.

      And women still know that their salary is not expected to be the breadwinner salary. Women are no where close to feeling what it really feels like to be the one that is truly expected to pull the weight financially no matter what. Still something like 60% of american women say they would like to be at home with the kids if they could afford it and a large percentage of those who can not say they resent their husband for not making enough for that to happen. Studies show mens salaries play a huge part in their wives attraction for them and the mens abilities on the remarriage market while for women it is still mostly irrelevant. Women still feel that their salary is more of an extra even when they are working full time. Even if they make more than they husband they still feel that should have been his job and he feels it to. Women do not in any way feel the same pressure from spouses, society, themselves and front heir future dating possibilities in the case of divorce to make good money.

      This way men by doing more at home are doing a double shift. Still left with the provider responsibility and more burdens at home. I find it astonishing that feminist can not see that and still frame things only as extra work for women. Women never did more work than men. Studies of time spent show equal time used on work and household chores combined add up to the same for both sexes. Though the studies rarely count a multitude of male chores such as fixing the boat and the cottage and doing refurnishing work etc. So if anyone works and has worked a double shift it has been men.

      • Joanna Schroeder says:

        I find the “so-and-so has it worse” way of thinking really pointless.

        First thing most marriage therapists will tell you is that the moment you try to say who has it harder, or who is working hardest, you are setting yourself up for failure.

        I can say that as we women get more “liberated” we also have a ton more responsibilities. Men also have more responsibilities. My husband rushes home to read to the kids every night. Then he often helps me cook dinner or cooks dinner FOR me (he is so damn picky, he likes to do it “just right”!). In the old days, he would’ve come home, sat in a chair and smoked his pipe. Now he’s working all weekend taking care of the kids WITH me, side by side. We both try to relax a bit on the weekend, but we parent equally at that time. That wouldn’t have happened in 1952.

        • I wonder if either gender is getting enough time to themselves to reset n rest? I’ve heard a lot about men especially needing a certain amount of time to unwind their mind per day, sitting in front of a tv thinking about nothing. It takes me hours to let my brain turn off basically otherwise I get all jittery as hell n stressed, that’s probably why men came home to smoke the pipe. Although in those days the men probably did long hard hours on their jobsite and used far more energy than their wives at home did, it all depends on an individuals health, stress, energy usage, etc. No one could expect a roofer to come home to do a bunch of chores if they’re physically drained unless you want them in hospital for instance. My cousin’s partner works underground in mines in shifts and for 3 days comes home dehydrated and exhausted, she is happy to do more of the housework because if he had to his body would simply fail since it needs 3-5days to regrow damaged tissue, increase electrolytes n water levels to normal, repair itself.

  9. YES Joanna, I am Exhausted. I work a full-time office job 7am to 5pm, then go for evening classes from 5pm to 9pm. I get home at around 10pm or 10.30pm, find everyone sitting quietly and very sleepy waiting for me so that we can have dinner together. After that I bathe my boy (it’s the only time in the world that I have to spend with him) and play a bit with him until he goes to sleep. Then I do my homework, sleep and get up at 4.30am. I have a nanny to help in between, but my husband is self-employed and gets to leave the house late or come back home early, so he spends immense time bonding with the baby. I am terribly guilty for ‘leaving’ my boy when he is so little and this being the stage in his life he needs me the most. I often break when I come home late and find him struggling to stay awake because he can’t fall asleep until he sees me.
    But on the flipside, I feel like I’m making a worthwhile sacrifice for the future. Nowadays most marriages I know are breaking because of finances, a single income unable to support everyone. There’s also the issue of disrespect which comes up when only one spouse is working and the other is doing the ‘dirty job’ at home. And there’s the issue of divorce which springs up on a woman who has no career, no job, no income, no means. Most women I know would love to be housewives and dedicate their time in building their homes. But they are too afraid because their working men are constantly exposed to sexy, independent, self-assured women; they end up cheating, the marriage breaks and the woman is left without options and with financial responsibilities (ie kids) on them. It’s a catch 22, essentially, and I’ve decided to play it safe too, though I can assure you, with no hesitation, that I AM EXHAUSTED!.

  10. Oh, I can tell you that I’m exhausted. I sometimes feel like a whiner when I say it, but it’s true. My husband stays at home with the kids, we’re barely making ends meet with my income alone. I’m required to not only put in a 40+ hour week in management, but also to serve on various community boards. Currently I hold positions on our local Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Development Authority (a division of the city), and on a larger local non-profit agency’s board of directors. I’m taking online classes to complete a new degree, 3 of my 5 young children are active in different extra-curricular activities, my work meetings are all over the place and we live in a very rural area with only one car. I cook many of our meals from scratch, I do laundry, I help with homework before I do my own homework, and it just never ends. Don’t misunderstand me – I enjoy what I do and I don’t know that I would be able to duplicate the quality of work my husband does in the home – but at the same time there is this guilt that creeps up on me every once in a while. Am I really *here* for my kids? I read to them, I play with them, but am I really taking the time to connect with all of them in a meaningful way? I’m not so sure. They get dragged along to community events, they volunteer with me on occasion, they do get to spend time with the home and corporate Mom. My husband is a trooper. Dealing with all of my craziness and the household nuttiness is no small task and he really enjoys spending time taking care of the kids, taking them to school, building lego castles with them, doing artwork and practicing math. It’s interesting to think about how our lives would be different if our roles were reversed back to the old “normal”.

  11. Joanna Schroeder says:

    I can tell you that, as a working mom with a husband who works 60 hours a week most weeks, I’m EXHAUSTED. I do not stop, ever. I mean EVER. At 2:30 the laptop closes, and I’m off to get them. I need to be a present mom, so I do my best to play with them, read with them, go to the playground or library, I always do homework with them, cook for them, sit with them while they take their baths (they’re still young), read to them for 20 minutes before bed, etc. Then I pick up the computer and work until my husband gets home around 9 pm. Then we watch TV or eat our dinner together, then he goes to bed and I work until midnight.

    Then I get up and do it again. Work when I wake up, then make them lunches, take them to school, grab a coffee, and work until 2:30.

    I don’t think men have it harder, but I can tell you that I’m EXHAUSTED. Are we all exhausted?

    • I’d say men have it different, varying rates of mental and physical exhaustion, varying rates of risk of death (eg miners underground vs someone at home). Men have more danger on the job, women get more mental illness (although recent studies may change this as we’re finding men are very good at hiding it and may even be more depressed than women!). Seeing as our bodies handle illness n stress differently I don’t think it’s even a good idea to compare who gets it worse, I’ve heard women are better at handling stress and oesterogen protects them more from illness (it’s why men get hit harder by cold/flu), but women also have issues such as period pains for some that are crippling, risks during child birth, etc.

      Men’s overall health though is probably still worse but part of that is macho attitudes and society’s attitude to men having to harden up, partly the lack of protective oesterogen and maybe even sexism with regard to lack of resources but I think in Australia at least it’s starting to get better (breast vs prostate cancer awareness, etc). I don’t want women to follow suit there, I want men to be more like women and get checked out vs trying to be stoic. I was being stoic with the lump on my neck but mummabear told me to get it checked, at first they found nothing but I decided to have it removed and they found cancer on it so the next surgery was goodbye thyroid. If mummabear didn’t pretty much force me to go I probably wouldn’t have bothered until much later when it may have spread. I’ve noticed women tend to get more social support when they are sick, depressed, etc, whilst men tend to tough it out alone more. I notice I still feel guilty at times reaching for painkillers, I didn’t goto hospital with a major back spasm or my kidneystone attack when I was screaming obscenities in pain because I was a stubborn stoic mule. Next time I think I will just go.

      Seems everyone is trying to work work work soooo much and I bet a lot of health issues arise from that. Humans weren’t made for a 24/7 lifestyle, there are big issues with light at night screwing up the body clock for instance so people aren’t resting enough. Both genders will work themselves into early graves at this rate and that is scary. The other scary thing is the expectation to work when you are sick, and also to go into work WHEN you are sick (don’t do that people, your shitty productivity for the day just makes everyone else get sick and ruin theirs).

      I thought they said computers was supposed to make people work less?:P People shouldn’t be working so damn much! It’s not healthy.

    • Christian, you said “Overall, as women enter the full-time workplace in growing numbers, they’re experiencing more of the same side effects that men “enjoy” from overwork and related stress, including increased hypertension, heart disease and other risk factors related to eating on the run and missing out on exercise. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, but research is finding that, as women gain opportunities once enjoyed predominantly by men, they’re also suffering from the effects those opportunities can have too.”

      I expected this happening for a very long time. Let’s be honest, what early feminists of the 50’ and 60’s portrayed as privileged men’s lives wasn’t at all realistic. The majority of men in this country were not corporate executives, most were hard working laborers who worked long hours and maintained poor health. Historically, men have suffered from these health risks.

      The feminist view of equal employment was great and their fighting for it was justly needed. But the idea was that women who make a business career choice should be on a level playing field as men. What appears to have been lost through the years was the “career” choice and something a feminist once said made a lot of sense to me …. the movement wasn’t intended to have women do it all, i.e. be the full time mom and have a career. Women could make the choice between being home with the kids or a business career.

      There is a difference between economic need for and wanting to do it all. I would venture to say that if you were to speak to a lot of women, many would say that if they could afford it, they wouldn’t work and would be home with their kids.

    • @Joanna … At what point are you going to say “enough is enough?” When a doctor is standing over you in a hospital bed, telling you that you’re scheduled for open heart in the morning, as it happen to me?

      You appear to have fallen into the trap that many men have through the years and that is we don’t know when to stop? Truth is that you can make a choice to change your life style of chaos and sleep deprivation. What I’m saying to you is what I say to men as well, life goes fast and before you know it, you have far more time behind you then in front of you. My dad died within the first year of his retirement, as did several of his male friends. I didn’t want to end up that way and wait until retirement to relax.

      • Joanna Schroeder says:

        The truth is that we have to push ourselves in order to really build a career. Though I know you’re right. I MUST prioritize exercise every day. It’s so important.

        Heart Disease is, after all, the number 1 killer of women!

        • @Joanna, I understand what you’re saying and what compounds the problem is that many of us truly enjoy the career we have. It makes it far more difficult to pull back when it’s something we enjoy. Although the stress of the corporate career was constant, I really enjoyed it. The hustle and bustle, constantly on the move but it wears your body out.

          I would highly suggest some sort of relaxation programs that you can zone out into another world. I came across a couple of CD’s that teach relaxation and they are amazing. Get a massage… make time for a massage!

          Ever think that you’re working less effectively because you’re wearing yourself out? That the too much time thinking and doing can actually be affecting your effectiveness? It’s something to think about. Personally, one of my favorite things is a silent retreats. Two days of contemplation, relaxation and prayer and very little conversation with others. It allows me to re-center myself.

          Just food for thought. Take care

          And by the way, the same advise for your hubby ….

  12. Well I do believe we’re also seeing female crime on the rise, stress from jobs, military deaths, and also with women accessing more traditional men’s jobs (logging, mining, etc) we will see an increasing number of women dying to catch up to the men. I wonder if they will also inherit male violence risk, men die 4-6x more from violence worldwide.

  13. The old world has been destroyed; we are free of its problems but we have also lost its virtues. There is no going back.

    I must admit I find the current required terms like “eliminating gender barriers” to be too bland and flabby.They are required PC language, and they are intentionally devoid of deeper meaning and reference to any objective standard of truth – and thus perfectly suited to a materialistic and dying culture. I can only hope they will one day give way to words that contain truth.

    But I doubt that it will happen

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