Friday, March 16, 2007

Men May Be Swine, But Not Necessarily Ambitious Swine

Over at The American Prospect, Linda Hirshman fuels the ongoing debate about male/female equality by bashing (a) insincere men for paying lip service to the notion of fairness and (b) weak-kneed women for letting men slide by on good intentions. Her complaint is that, despite years of empty promises about giving more time and energy to caring for kids and the home, most men still devote the lions' share of their physical and mental resources to careers instead. And while she acknowledges that unfair corporate and government policies play a role in this imbalance, she thinks women need to do more to pressure men to change their choices.

Hirshman sums up her argument this way:

Why won't the men sacrifice their own ambitions, independence, earning power, and success in the interest of equal treatment for the women they purport to love? Because they understand the value of their work prospects. No opt-out revolution there. But the Council on Contemporary Families seems to think that the men who run the institutions of government and the market economy are going to limit their success and earn less money by increasing the cost of their labor force through paid parental leave, increased training time for shorter term workers, on-site day care, and the rest. These men are not going to do this out of the goodness of their hearts when they won't even do it for the women they love. . . .

Until women refuse to participate in the unjust world the men embrace, there will be no forward progress.

As a man, I am fully aware of my sex's capacity for laziness, self-dealing, and hypocrisy. (I have long noted these tendencies--and not solely in other men.) But I think Hirshman's diary is slightly unfair. She seems to assume that all men are basically careerists--"guys willing to run from equal fatherhood as soon as it pose[s] a threat to their prospects at work," as she puts it elsewhere in her column. And she also assumes that their careerism is fundamentally selfish, driven by "their own ambitions, independence, earning power, and success," to quote her litany.

This is off base, I think. Those motives certainly exist and I'm sure they drive many men. But for some of us, careers aren't just about ambition. They are also about being able to afford a house with enough bedrooms; private school tuition or a neighborhood with good schools; car repairs; dental bills; and a family vacation once or twice a year.

So when a man chooses to focus his energies on success at work, he may well be motivated, at least in part, by his family's needs and wants, not just his own desire to flee from "equal fatherhood." And if a man were to decide to accept diminished career prospects and a reduced income in exchange for more time at home with his children, would that necessarily improve life for his female partner, as Hirshman seems to assume? I'm not so sure that every couple would agree.

Hey, I realize that the "unjust world" we live in was shaped over the millennia mainly by men. But that doesn't mean that every man of today "embraces" that world, as Hirshman says. Many of us deplore and resent the constrained choices we face, even as we try to work the system as best we can to benefit ourselves and the people we care for.

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