The struggle for gender equality has evolved during the last 100 years and many victories were won in the public policy realm. However, the biggest battle for gender pay equality remains in the private domestic setting. While many men are supportive of gender equality in theory, very few understand what it means in practice. As explained by R. Connell, in a society dominated by patriarchal values, the word ‘support’ can be easily confused with a request for approval for a woman to act ‘out of character’. It is true that many men may not have any particular objection to this kind of support for gender equality, because they are willing to support their partner in going back to school or work after having children. In this case male support is expressed as: ‘I will not oppose, so long as nothing else changes‘, and this is the main confusion that perpetuates women’s oppression and confinement to low paid wages, diminished life time earnings and an overall higher rate of poverty after retirement. In order to close the gender pay gap, the battle of the gendered division of labor imposed on women has to be redistributed equally. The double burden of work (economic + domestic unpaid labor) still falls disproportionately under the realm of women’s responsibilities, deriving from two main misconceptions about ‘gender roles’ and ‘work’:
1- Domestic work is not perceived as real work because it is not remunerated. However, this work is necessary for capitalism to exist, without it, the concept of family which is the basis of social organization, falls apart.
2- Child care and caring in general falls under the responsibility of women because it is ‘natural’ for them to be caregivers. If something is ‘natural’ is implied that it is done with very little effort; Further solidifying that it should not be paid, it does not take time and implying that there is a ‘natural order of gender roles’
Therefore, since there is such a ‘natural’ order of things (rooted on essentialist theories of ascribed characteristics for each gender), disrupting it could be perceived as somewhat unnatural for both men and women, making existing policies completely inefficient in closing the gender pay gap. Sociology defines work as any effort physical or mental (inputs) that are used to create certain results (outputs). Based solely on this definition, women spend a lot of time creating outputs (meals, laundry, cleaning, caring) that are important for the adequate functioning of the family unit. This being said, and leaving roles aside, domestic work is real work, regardless of which gender this burden falls under. Time is a limited commodity and it imposes limits on the types of work women can take and for how long it can be performed outside the house. This inevitably has an impact on women’s short term and long term income creating an economic gap. There are only so many hours and types of work a woman can sustain for long periods of time when she has basically 2 jobs, one paid and another unpaid. We see this reflected in the gender pay gap over the life course, part time work is paid less (women are disproportionately clustered on these jobs) while women working only 40 hrs a week have a harder time being promoted than their male counterparts who work 50-60 hours a week. Curiously enough, the values setting expectations and rewards of paid labor in the corporate world are also highly dominated by masculine discourse. Values that are also deeply connected with the gender order and patriarchal dividends embedded in all institutions of society (R. Connell “Masculinities and the Gender World Order”).
The idea that women are ‘acting out of character’ when demanding equality, comes from a long tradition of functionalist thinking. This discourse suggests that if a woman is not ready to fulfill her ‘natural’ responsibilities as a mother she should not become one. Therefore, women leaving the domestic setting to perform paid work or continue studies is seen as a betrayal of what should be their instincts for ‘caring.’ This discourse that claims the existence of ‘natural’ roles reinforces the thought that she is doing something ‘wrong’, while mistakenly leading the spouse who ‘allows’ this, to believe that he is being kind and ‘supportive’ of gender equality. Unfortunately, being ‘supportive’ of women spending more time out the house is not something men associate with work that will be left undone, because let us not forget, that domestic work is not perceived as real work by society. Furthermore, patriarchal gender order discourse fails to mention that for parents living together, having a child, is often a joint decision. So why should a joint decision lead to a double standard such as making a distinction between caring and working? As a matter of fact, before the rise of the industrial era where work hours were performed outside the domestic realm, the division of labor in the household was based on opportunity cost. Every member of the family participated in tasks that had to do with tending animals, cleaning chores and work for hire. They based the tasks on how good family members were at getting things done, not necessarily on their gender.There is no biologic evidence indicating that women or men are naturals at specific tasks, and that is precisely what work is, merely tasks done with a purpose. These type of misconceptions continue to perpetuate gender inequality and keeps people in unhealthy gender stereotypes even creating tension between spouses who develop unhealthy expectations about each other. It prevents partners from communicating their real needs, it hurts families prospects of healthy relationships and puts men in the uncomfortable position of suppressing their feelings and replicating certain unhealthy habits (behaving like ‘real men’) in order to maintain their position of privilege in society.
Gender equality is not about women getting approval to ‘act out of character’ but an offer to alleviate the burden of the male role as a the main bread winner, thus improving the economic status and opportunities for the whole family. Gender equality requires men understanding that support for gender equality means recognizing that ‘caring’ is also work, that they too have a responsibility to care based on their joint decision to start a family. That by doing so they are not only helping themselves, but also their families to attain better incomes and education. Until this shift takes place in the domestic realm, the policies for gender equality will remain as a facade for a society that pretends to have modern values but can’t break free from a thousand year old rhetoric.