Have we got it backwards?

Male & femaleFirst published on my old blog in October 2013.

Something unexpected happened after I published this post. [It discussed why there seemed to be few women at the top of the translation profession even though a majority of translators are women.] It sparked quite a debate, especially on Facebook. Some people agreed with me about there being surprisingly small numbers of women at the top of our profession, others disagreed. But the comments I found most interesting – and unexpected – were those made by men pointing out that society puts pressure on the stronger sex, too. Never having been a man, I’m afraid I hadn’t thought much about this before. In the debate that followed my blog post, male colleagues talked about wishing they could spend more time with their children, regretting missing their small children’s big moments, the fact that society defines men by their professional status more than it does women, and that women tend to be more attracted to men with plenty of status and money. “[M]y main motivation to work hard and make money is…to be able to attract and keep a woman,” said one. “There, I said it.”

By coincidence, Giles Coren wrote about this in The Times a fortnight ago. The article is here, but because it’s behind a paywall you won’t be able to access it unless you’re a subscriber. He talks about feeling a “sadness” for his baby son that he’s never felt for the baby’s older sister. His son’s future profession, he writes, “will determine his social rank, where he lives, whom he marries, where he goes on holiday”. He also mentions his own regret at having recently accepted a high-powered job that means he’ll now see less of his family: “I’ll make a hatful of loot … But I won’t see my family for weeks at a time and my interior life will just rot away”. He asks why we think that women are doing worse if fewer of them have high-powered, time-consuming jobs. “So women are not turning their anthropology degrees into jobs in finance – Jesus, you call that failure?”

So have we got it all wrong? Was I barking up the wrong tree when I worried that women seemed under-represented at the top? Instead of wondering whether women are coping with the pressures put on them by society and achieving their potential, should we actually be concerned about whether men are coping with the pressures on them and achieving rounded lives?

I think there really is an issue here. Although most of the ideas colleagues pointed out were new to me, I had noticed – from observing friends and colleagues and their families – that a man with a young family often has to work 40+ hours and then put in more time with his family, while his wife works because she wants to, when she wants to, and sometimes even if it reduces the family’s net income (although there are many other families in which both parents work because the income is necessary). Now, yes, I do know that looking after small children is a full-time job in itself, and that it’s harder than most jobs, but I also know that parenthood brings a huge amount of joy, not just a huge amount of boredom and exhaustion.

On the other hand, let’s not get carried away. The fact is that historically, men have not been the repressed sex. Women genuinely were treated as inferior, in society and in law, until shockingly recently. Women genuinely were considered less intelligent than men and so unsuitable for most types of paid work. Women genuinely were prevented from achieving their full intellectual potential and from having financial independence (the latter sometimes leaving them no choice but to put up with abusive husbands). Women genuinely were considered best suited to housework, childcare and other activities that were considered beneath the dignity of men. So historically the question of which sex has been treated worse is a no-brainer, and in many countries this is still the case today.

However, you do not tackle unfairness towards one group by being unfair towards another. Neither do you blame people who are around today for the actions of previous generations committed before they were born. So these historical facts do not rule out the idea that some men may be worse off than some women today. Historically, women have been badly treated. Today, many men have it tough. Those two assertions are not mutually exclusive – they don’t contradict each other. So they must be considered independently of each other.

Some of the biggest concerns in modern societies are the difficulty of achieving a good work–life balance, and people trying to have it all without burning out or dissolving in their own stress hormones. In that context, perhaps we should after all be thinking a bit more about the pressures on men as well as the pressures on women. I stand well and truly corrected. What do you think?

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