Andrea Doucet, Canada Research Chair in Gender, Work and Care and professor of sociology at Brock University in Ontario, has devoted most of her career to studying how men and women divide up their work and family lives. In recent years, she has spent a lot of time interviewing families with women in primary breadwinning roles, and this research has led her to ask some very interesting questions.
What does it mean, for example — and is it socially and personally acceptable — for a woman who’s at home far less than her husband to inhabit the role of secondary caretaker for their children?
We’ve always defined equality in the home as a 50-50 equal sharing of parenting and housework, Doucet mused at an academic conference on motherhood I attended last month in Toronto. But in an era when, in the U.S. at least, more than one-fifth of wives earn more than their husbands, and more men are having to — and wanting to — spend more time taking care of their children, does it still make sense to do the mental math in quite the same way?
“With women shifting into primary breadwinning roles, should we tell women they should be doing more?” she reflected to me. “If men want to do more care work than their partners, do we tell them to do less? That’s where we get to, if we’re arguing for some version of 50-50. It feels different, now that women are coming in from a long day’s work.”
It feels uncomfortable, in fact. And that discomfort has led Doucet to an intriguing new way of thinking about men’s and women’s roles in the home that moves away from our decades-old fixation on pure 50-50 equality (measured through what he does vs. what she does, for how many hours and how often).
It takes us, she believes, toward something more like fairness – or like “symmetry,” as she puts it. “Equality introduces the idea that you have to measure it, so then you need measurable units. And then you get into an area that’s problematic: Can we really measure care? Care is intrinsically relational. Highly subjective. How do you measure responsibility for nurturing, emotional responsibility, moral responsibility?”
For decades now, activists, even governments, striving to guarantee men and women the greatest possible measure of equality have assumed that equal status would come once both genders started living lives that were basically the same: the same number of work hours, the same amount of childrearing time and time running errands and doing housework. Some countries have actually put into place policies to try to make this sameness-based vision work, such as gender-neutral parental leave.
But social planners hadn’t really reckoned upon the cost to families, viewed as an economic unit, of having mothers and fathers attempt to live lives of sameness. Considering that things are tough all over, how many families can really afford to potentially weaken — or jeopardize outright — the earning power of the person bringing home most of the bacon, who, the vast majority of the time, around the world, is a man? A second problem is that not all at-home tasks are equally onerous; time spent doing them can’t be tallied or quantified the way out-of-home work can be. Some of it — like (most) time with children — is inherently rewarding; other parts are inherently stultifying.
Should we, then, instead of holding up some abstract notion of equal parenting as our ultimate goal in the quest for gender equality, be thinking instead of equal access to, say, advantageous and disadvantageous forms of activity? The definitions of which might vary considerably from one couple to another because of differing levels of earning power, attachment to career or even enjoyment of homemaking activities like cooking, which vary greatly from person to person regardless of gender?
It’s something of a “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” formulation, one that might, for once, just possibly work. Sharing, as opposed to equality. “My overall aim is for gender equality … but it always bothers me when the measures we use are not quite in sync with how people live their lives,” says Doucet. “Maybe what we need to change then is that larger set of conditions that allow people to make choices that work.”