Where do kids learn to undervalue women? From their parents.

Darcy Lockman
Darcy Lockman

With good reason, much of the concern about misogyny and the subjugation of women is currently focused on the workplace. As the #MeToo testimonials have shown, the professional world all too frequently tasks women with silent endurance of morally unacceptable (or downright criminal) behavior. But even those of us who have avoided the most abusive workplaces live with malignant gender dynamics in our homes – and risk passing them on to our children.

Among heterosexual parents, fathers – even the youngest and most theoretically progressive among them – do not partake generously of the workload at home. Employed women partnered with employed men carry 65 percent of the family’s child-care responsibilities, a figure that has held steady since the turn of the century.

For the past year, I’ve been interviewing mothers who work outside the home. Too often, I hear some version of the story a woman in Portland, Oregon, told me: “He’s great with the kids, and from friends I talk to, my husband does a lot more. But he’s on his phone or computer while I’m running around like a crazy person getting the kids’ stuff, doing the laundry. He has his coffee in the morning reading his phone while I’m packing lunches, getting our daughter’s clothes out, helping our son with his homework. He doesn’t do it on purpose. He has no awareness of what’s happening around him.”

Research shows no domestic arrangement, not even when Mother works full time and Father is unemployed, results in child-care parity. The story we tell ourselves, the one about great leaps toward the achievement of gender equality between parents, is a glass-half-full kind of interpretation. But the reality is a half-empty glass: While modern men and women espouse egalitarian ideals, outcomes tend to favor fathers’ needs and goals much more than mothers’.

The result of this covert power imbalance is not a net zero. A growing body of research demonstrates that spousal equality promotes marital success and that inequality undermines it. And the disparity creates not only undue emotional, physical and financial strain on mothers, but also perpetuates attitudes about what is and should be acceptable – or even desirable – between a woman and a man, with children as their eager audience

Ideals are no substitute for behavior. What are kids to make of their father sitting on his phone reading Facebook while their mother scrambles to prepare them for the day? It’s not hard to predict which parent’s personhood those offspring will conclude is more valuable. Children are gender detectives, distinguishing between the sexes from as early as 18 months and using that information to guide their behavior. And family research shows that men’s attitudes about marital roles, not women’s, are ultimately internalized by both their daughters and their sons.

But therein, too, lies an opportunity, an answer for the men who are asking with great sincerity, “What can we do?” First, accept at least half the responsibility for this dynamic. Power issues are not often raised between couples, but when they are, studies show they’re most often framed not in terms of how husbands need to change but rather how wives do – you know, she needs to be more assertive. When juxtaposed against a discussion about rampant sexual harassment, it sounds like another tired version of “She should’ve worn a longer skirt.”

Second, commit – wholeheartedly and without being asked – to examining male privilege. Our culture’s devaluation of “women’s work” has left men with little incentive to shift into less-traditional roles at home, even as women have become ever more successful breadwinners.

With that in mind, up the ante. Men can pack backpacks and suitcases, they can search for child-care alternatives in preparation for upcoming school holidays. They can restock groceries, plan meals, purchase birthday presents, send thank you notes, schedule pediatrician appointments, check folders. Any husband can invite his wife to sit down and drink her coffee while he makes the family’s lunches.

College undergrads, not yet coupled, show mixed tolerance for the regressive patterns in daily life. These young men and women report hope for a future in which they will split breadwinning and caretaking equally with their spouses – what researchers call their Plan A. But when asked for a Plan B, the sexes divide. The men anticipate being primary breadwinners alongside wives who are primarily caretakers. The women anticipate divorce.

What we tolerate uneasily in the workplace needs to change. What we live with more complacently in the home does as well. Neither can do so in a vacuum. Only tiny steps toward the lived expression of equal worth in both worlds can foster the kind of progress that turns #MeToo from a hashtag into an anachronism.

Darcy Lockman, a psychologist in New York City, is at work on a book about the gendered division of labor in childcare.