Tuesday, October 4

They're not "Women's Issues"


The confirmation hearings of John G. Roberts Jr. certainly raised their share of contentious issues, from privacy rights to the limits of executive-branch powers. When the subject turned to the rights of working women, however, the conversation harked predictably back to a bygone era.

In response to questions from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Roberts defended his record of supporting working women. He proudly told Feinstein that he often gave woman lawyers on his staff flexible hours and time off to care for children and handle household needs. But like so many men in senior executive positions, Roberts just doesn't get it. In proclaiming how pro-working-woman he is, Roberts rattled off the best practices of the 80s. He acted as if he were doing women a favor by giving them time off from their job to raise the next generation or handle the daily chores necessary in every household. It was clear Roberts believes domestic duties remain a woman's job, and that enlightened men can help by giving women time off to do their jobs at home. "Giving" women time for child care and household needs is nice, but rests on the assumption that all such work is women's work. Roberts missed the chance to encourage men on his staff to share equally in those tasks, thereby creating a more level playing field both at work and at home.

His statements were reminiscent of the controversy earlier this year over Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers's remarks about women, science, and careers. Under fire for his remarks, Summers appointed two task forces on women and diversity that delivered many recommendations, such as the need for better maternity-leave policies and a senior diversity position at the university.

Upon releasing the findings in mid-May, Summers told reporters: "Universities like Harvard were designed a long time ago by men and for men." No kidding! Most of the major institutions in our country, from Harvard to the U.S. Senate, can make that same observation. That's why it is so discouraging to see men in top positions avoid a much larger point about the nature of traditional relationships in male-and-female couples that keeps holding women back in higher education and elsewhere.

The issue is division of labor. It certainly isn't the only problem stifling women's progress, but it's a big one. Somehow we expect women in traditional marriages and domestic partnerships to make serious career progress while doing most of the work raising our children, running our homes, and making connections in our neighborhoods. When you clear through the smoke screens of endless reports and apologies, it is apparent is that the continued imbalance in too many family relationships is one reason why our wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters, as well as female friends, neighbors, and employees, are being held back in their careers.

It doesn't take another task force to figure out the solution. What it will take, however, is men's strength and personal integrity, to deal with an issue that most of them would rather avoid. It's called equal partnership, and it starts at home. How's that for family values?

American men spend no more time on housework today than they did in 1985, and only four more hours of housework per week than they did 40 years ago, according to a 2002 report from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

When men "help" by doing only a fraction of the work at home, they send a powerful message to women and their daughters: Your paycheck is welcome, but your status as equals is not. Why do we continue to accept this injustice when society so desperately needs the intellectual abilities, values, and leadership that women provide? As men, we should be asking what each of us can do personally to confront this problem.

The plain truth is that more men should be doing their fair share of the work at home. The silence of so many men on this subject is appalling. Their silence and passive-aggressive behavior are two clear reasons why women are not further along than they are.

Some will say women have come a long way since the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 calling for women's right to vote and marking the beginning of the women's-rights movement. But it took the suffrage movement so long to earn women the right to vote, in 1920. Nearly 80 years! As a nation, we're certainly justified in scolding other nations that deny women the right to vote today. However, it took 144 years to include women in our own democracy, and women -- not men -- fought the battle for inclusion.

And when will a woman become president of the United States? That goal seems more elusive today than it did in 1984, when Walter F. Mondale asked Geraldine A. Ferraro to be his running mate. Sadly, of the roughly 1,000 candidates for Congress in 2004, only 151 were women.

No woman has led our nation in 229 years of sovereignty. In stark contrast, women have led nations as diverse as Canada, Finland, Great Britain, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Turkey.

We debate today whether Hillary Rodham Clinton is electable for any number of reasons. Meanwhile, the White House Project, the Committee of 200, and other women's leadership organizations ask, Where are our woman candidates? The question also applies to Fortune 500 corporations, with women leading fewer than 10 of them today. What a pathetic report card for the United States of America in 2005.

Too many women have full-time jobs at home and full-time jobs at the office. It's not fair, and it's one reason why women face obstacles in their careers that most men never have to confront. And it's probably why many women never even seek leadership roles they are capable of filling.

As president of a small university that includes an undergraduate women's college, I can say without equivocation that women are ready, willing, and able to compete and lead in the sciences and every other field. Many already do.

But they will not do so in appropriate numbers until men start sharing more of the workload at home.

Yes, women face other challenges. But this is a big one with an honest and relatively easy solution.

Neither Harvard nor America needed another task force to "help women succeed." We've been looking at this as a problem of women, which is disturbingly reminiscent of how child care, single motherhood, women's health, and domestic abuse are routinely dubbed "women's issues." These issues belong to all of us.

Guys, it's time we get over ourselves. Women aren't the problem. At Harvard or anywhere else these days, the problem and the solution are staring at us in the mirror. One simple, powerful place to start is at home. Yes, real men do housework!

Daniel S. Cheever Jr. is president of Simmons College.