December 20 2013

Misunderstanding the Debate About the Roles of Women and Men

Carrie L. Lukas

On Townhall, Cathy Reisenwitz seeks to critique current discussions about work family balance, and offer a new solution.

There’s a lot to react to in her piece, but I’m starting with what’s missing in her portrayal of the current debate about men and women’s roles in families and in the economy.  She first critiques what she calls the “Women Love Being Homemakers” explanation.  She quotes IWF’s Sabrina, who cites research that most women with children would prefer not to work full-time, but then writes:

The problem here is that it’s a solution which relies on but does not critique the role of pernicious gender-based expectations in shaping what women "are suited to" and "want."

Yet this is far from a new revelation or uncovered debate on whether nature or nurture explains why—across the globe, in essentially every culture ever in history—women have disproportionately taken on childrearing responsibilities.  Sabrina has written about it, and all the rest of us at IWF have too, many, many times

Those who want to get up to speed on some of the evidence that biology at least plays a role in this debate should start with Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, which discuss the science of men and women’s different reactions to babies, and Dr. Stephen Rhoads Taking Sex Differences Seriously.

If you aren’t in to reading, go visit any family that has both male and female children.  Even parents who are firmly committed to an un-gendered household often admit that their sons and daughters instinctively behave differently.  I know my story is suspect as a self-admitted believer in sex differences, but I know from experience that my boy—who with two older sisters grew up surrounded by dolls—was never remotely interested in them, and it was love at first sight when he found his first toy gun at a friend’s house.

This isn’t to dismiss socializations role:  The fact that girls see more women in the full-time parenting roles undoubtedly influences our expectations for the future.  Yet surely the biology behind it, and the fact that no matter how hard societies try to push women and men to act the same, these gender roles persist, also plays a role.

Moreover, the debate here isn’t about whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing if women or men choose to do most of the parenting.  The problem is that many who blame society, rather than acknowledge the role of personal preferences and innate factors, then seek to solve that problem through government coercion.  I imagine Cathy agrees that that’s not the way to go, but it’s unhelpful to mischaracterize those of us who acknowledge sex difference as somehow pushing women back into the kitchen and oppose women working and succeeding in the economy.

Also, there is something a little insulting about those who dismiss studies and polls reporting women’s preferences as solely evidence that women are all still victims of the patriarchy and are too dense don’t know what would truly make them happy.  Does Cathy really think that all the women who graduate from the feminist-dominated Ivy League and eventually step back to spend time with kids haven’t heard any of this before and aren’t able to make sense of what’s best for them?

Finally, here’s Cathy’s solutions:

Who should handle raising the kids and taking care of the house? Simply put, it should be whoever’s opportunity cost is lowest.

Besides being a hindrance to women, gendered expectations actually inhibit economic growth by distorting labor markets….

But where does that leave men? Simply put, high-earning women who want to unlock their potential should wife uneducated men. 

The first solution, that couples should do the math and figure out how to maximize economic output, seems like a rather limited version of life.  Most people aren’t solely interested in maximizing earnings.  People seek situations—both in their careers and in their family lives—that give them personal fulfillment.  Yes, money and success can be a part of that.  But so can raising children and building a family. 

Talk to someone who is close to the end of life:  I bet very few will tell you “boy, I wish I more efficiently allocated my time to maximize my economic output.” But I bet you’ll find a lot who say they wish they’d focused more on their families. 

I’m struggling more to tackle why the second explanation—that women ought to marry uneducated men—is foolish, because it seems so self-evidently ridiculous.  Certainly, men and women ought to follow their hearts and not merely judge others based on their resume.  But it is also crazy to look for a life-partner based on who will best completely your household chores.  Hire a nanny and a housekeeper, but for heaven sakes don’t choose your husband for his cleaning skills!

If Cathy’s first argument is meant to not just be economic—if couples are also supposed to factor in things like happiness and personal preferences—then isn’t that what couples are already doing?  Yes, stay-at-home dads have a tougher time finding a social support network than do stay-at-home moms.  That’s presumably getting better.  But really, men and women are already having these conversations and making educated decisions based on what makes sense for them.  Cathy should give men and women both more credit for knowing what makes sense for them. 

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