Feminism of the Future Relies on Men
By KATRIN BENNHOLD
June 22, 2010
In 1965, my mother was the only female engineering student in her class in Germany. There were no ladies' toilets except in the basement, where the cleaners had their lockers, and her professor urged her to find a husband quickly so she wouldn't fail the exams.
Feminism in those days was pretty clear-cut: It was about women closing ranks to battle blatant sexism, get an education and go to work. It was, as my mother said recently, "about women pushing into the world of men."
The feminism of the future is shaping up to be about pulling men into women's universe — as involved dads, equal partners at home and ambassadors for gender equality from the cabinet office to the boardroom.
In the early 21st century, women in the developed world find themselves in a peculiar place. With boys failing in school and working-class men losing their jobs to the economic crisis, pundits predict not just The Death of Macho (Foreign Policy, September 2009) but The End of Men (The Atlantic, July/August 2010).
Reality is more nuanced. Women earn more doctorates, but less money. They are overtaking men in the work force, but still do most housework. They make the consumer decisions but run only 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies.
"In theory, we now have equal rights," sighed one senior female executive at a French multinational, who tellingly requested anonymity for fear of riling the men at her company. "In practice, we still have babies."
In the Western world, motherhood remains the barrier to gender equality. Until they have children, young women now earn nearly the same as men and climb the career ladder at a similar pace. With the babies often come career breaks, part-time work and a rushed two-shift existence that means sacrificing informal networks like the after hours beer-and-bonding experience often crucial at promotion time.
So far, the instinct of politicians, companies and women themselves has generally been to sharpen their focus on, well, women.
Many Western countries protect female jobs during maternity leave, and several offer mothers a right to cut back their hours. In the corporate world, (female) human resource officers lobby for flexible work time, and (female) diversity officers organize female mentoring programs. Female executive networks where the ladies can bond are booming. At countless women's conferences, women debate with women about women and bond some more.
At best, those initiatives are good for tips and morale. At worst, they trap women in their role as primary carers. What they're not doing is getting more women into leadership positions.
"We've got to wake up," said Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, chief executive of 20-first, a gender management consultancy. "We've got to start focusing on the guys."
The only thing that can level the playing field at work is a level playing field at home. And that requires a major shift in public policy and corporate culture.
In the few countries where fathers take paternity leave on a significant scale, that leave is highly paid and not transferable to the mother. Predictably, the Nordics have led the way. Iceland, which comes closest to reaching gender equality according to the World Economic Forum's gender gap index, has gone furthest, reserving three months — a full third — of its leave for fathers. Nine in 10 Icelandic men take time off with their babies. A lawmaker, Drifa Hjartardottir, described the 2000 law as "one of the biggest and most important steps taken towards gender equality since women's right to vote."
It took a male prime minister to sell the legislation to the country, and it took male leaders in Sweden and Norway to pass similar laws. It was a man who championed Norway's boardroom quota obliging companies to fill at least 40 percent of the seats with women.
Would a female Spanish prime minister have been able to appoint a cabinet that is 50 percent female in 2004?
Unlikely, thinks Celia de Anca, of IE Business School in Madrid. "When you want to change a culture," she said, "it's easier for a representative of that culture to sell the change."
Basically, guys are the more effective feminists because other guys are more likely to listen to them.
That's also true in business. Role models of female leaders matter, Ms. de Anca said. But male role models who take time off with their children, leave the office at a decent time, promote women and spread the word with male colleagues matter perhaps even more.
The message is filtering through.
In France, for example, the Institut d'Études Politiques is making gender studies part of the core curriculum for all students from 2011. Deloitte France is starting an initiative this month to educate men on staff about gender diversity. A handful of companies, including the nuclear giant Areva (run by a woman) have put men in charge of gender.
Jean-Michel Monnot, head of the European diversity program at the food service company Sodexo, says his gender is his greatest asset in convincing male colleagues of the business case for promoting women: "You need to speak the language of the guys."
Few men are overtly sexist these days, he said. But they don't think twice about scheduling late meetings. Some who give the promotion to the guy instead of the recent mother think of themselves as considerate.
Mr. Monnot, who until 2007 managed 60 production sites, speaks from experience. It took a man and fellow sports fan to bring home the issue to him when he explained at the bar counter one day why he liked a good gender mix in his teams. It improved the atmosphere, gave rise to new ideas and was more in line with Sodexo's clients.
"Until then, I didn't think there was a problem, and I certainly didn't think of myself as the problem," Mr. Monnot said. Now he travels his company's sites encouraging managers to shut their offices at 7 p.m. and recent fathers to go part-time "to set an example."
Giving the next generation strong father figures would not only help explode the glass ceiling, it might also be the best hope for those failing boys in school who lack male role models.
Men have a lot to gain from the rise of women, said Joanne Dreyfus, an audit associate at Deloitte in Paris, pointing out that at the moment three-quarters of those taking advantage of the company's flex-time scheme are women.
Put another way: The last frontier of women's liberation may well be men's liberation.
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