Do Women Really Want Equality?

Image © Michael Maslin Condé Nast Collection

Do women really want equality? It’s a question I think every one of us needs to ask ourselves. Because frankly I don’t think many of us do, not real equality anyways.

Feminists would have us believe that life is so much worse for women than men, that we are weak and the “patriarchy” is against us, and therefore we deserve all sorts of programs and benefits just to be on a level playing field with men. But the plain fact is: here in the West, we have it pretty great. In many ways better than men. And if we really took a look at men’s lives, we might realize that.

Most of us don’t want to pay half the bill on dates, we don’t want to work dirty and dangerous jobs, we don’t want to be drafted if there was a war, we don’t have to prove to a court that our children need us after divorce, and we don’t want to serve as unpaid bodyguard or be the first one to go downstairs when we hear a strange noise… and luckily for us, we don’t have to!

Because men do these things. Voluntarily. Every day. They don’t ask for a “thank you” because it is so built-into them to give, to serve. And, although it may surprise some readers, men do these things because they love women. They are doing these things for us so we might love them back.

Should women get paid the same as men for doing the same work? Absolutely. But the supposed “pay gap” debate is full of misleading headlines and unfounded data. Men work longer hours than women do and choose specialties that require more responsibility. For example, more women are now attending medical school than men, but they gravitate towards areas such as pediatrics rather than cardiology and neurosurgery, which carry greater risks and responsibilities, have more demanding hours (see here and here), and as a consequence, pay more.

Institutions are trying to get more women to enter into these intense programs and are confused why they cannot raise their numbers. The reason is — women don’t have to, so we don’t! The gender divide is actually most pronounced in nations where women have the most freedom to pursue whatever profession they want. There are a greater percentage of female scientists in Russia or Turkey than in Canada or Germany, for example.

How many professional male organizations — if they could have them — would say work is about “the power to be you?”

Christina Hoff Sommers probably summed it up best when she said, “if employers could save 23 percent by hiring women, they’d fire all the men.”

Long-term studies reveal that women prefer more meaningful and connected jobs, which enhance their emotional advantages but “conflict with making lots of money and rising through the ranks,” as psychologist Susan Pinker discusses in The Sexual Paradox:

Intrinsic goals such as making a difference, or belonging to a community, are often in direct opposition to extrinsic goals like seeking financial rewards or status… women, on average, are motivated by intrinsic rewards at work… One of [the] findings was that the sway of intrinsic rewards and autonomy on the job rises with a woman’s level of education… highly educated women were also more interested in working part-time, thus fueling the opt-out phenomenon in two ways — through their search for inherent meaning at work, and via the amount of time they were willing to commit to their jobs.

And men take less time off from work after having kids — giving them more work experience and thus greater earning potential. In The Myth of Male Power Warren Farrell talks about the three options a mother considers when she has a baby:

1. Work full-time
2. Home full-time
3. Combination of the two: work part-time

Men, on the other hand, consider these three options:

1. Work full-time
2. Work full-time
3. Work full-time [work over-time could be another option!]

In general, he says, men learn to love their families by being away from the love of their families while women love their families by being with the love of their families.

Women talk about whether or not to “lean in” or “lean out” while men have never had the option to “lean out.” This gives men the financial advantage, but cuts them off from giving and receiving love.

In Father and Child Reunion Farrell writes:

Women provided an emotional womb, akin to love; men provided a financial womb, that took them away from their purpose — loving and supporting the family, in order to achieve their purpose — loving and supporting the family. Men loved the family by being disconnected: women loved the family by being connected. Traditionally, women’s role had the love advantage and the emotional advantage.

Would more women be willing to share their love advantages or share financial pressures with their husbands?

It is one consideration often missing from the pay gap debate — if it were acceptable for men to not have to work so intensely, women could choose jobs where they could make more money. However, that would only happen if women wanted real equality, because men would then have to be valued for more than just their wallets, just as women are.

Yet women largely still want to be with a man that makes more money than them, reinforcing the cycle where she must then take more time out of the workforce than him to care for their children.

In “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter suggested men don’t have to make the kind of sacrifices and compromises women make, that the hypothesis that women can have high-powered careers if men are willing to share the parenting load equally “assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them.”

In her follow up book, Unfinished Business, she explains, “women also face much more cultural responsibility to be caregivers, and perfect ones at that, than men do. Even in the twenty-first century, America looks askance at any woman who doesn’t appear to put her children’s care above her professional life.”

But who is putting the pressure on whom?

What appears to be a man choosing work over family is more often a man sacrificing his wishes to be with his family for the benefit of his family.

Where a woman may feel she is being selfish by spending time away from her children, a man may feel the opposite — since he is expected to earn more he feels it would be selfish for him to work less hours to spend more time with his kids because he would be taking away financial security from his family.

The average man makes more money than the average woman, but the average man works more hours and is willing to do so because he hopes to be rewarded with love when he picks up the tab.

Meanwhile women are rewarded with love when they reduce their hours or drop out of the workforce after having children.

Affordable childcare would allow more women to stay in the workforce if they choose to, ensuring less of a pay gap due to work experience. But there is evidence this might not even be enough, or the right solution. Even in Sweden, a country with some of the most generous parental leave benefits, women still choose to take four times as much time off from work as men, and some who initially thought they wanted the father to help raise their baby now find themselves “coveting more time at home.”

Another concern is how the merging of more traditionally feminine and masculine roles in women and men will affect gender identity and relationship success. The question remains whether or not women would still find their stay-at-home partner as attractive than if he were their stay-at-work partner.

Thus far, it appears this kind of man, often referred to as a “beta male,” turns women off. For example, psychologist Lori Gottlieb found the risk of divorce is lowest when the husband earns 60 percent of the income and the wife does 60 percent of the housework, and women report higher levels of sexual satisfaction when there is a more traditional division of chores.

In other words, equal opportunity does not necessarily produce equal results, and economic shifts and socially prescribed relationship changes towards “sameness” do not necessarily result in sexual attraction and relationship success, which cannot be forced.

Being a man and a stay-at-home partner is not seen as valuable and does not communicate alpha male behavior, which many women are attracted to. Indeed, even as women become more financially independent, they want an older and wealthier male partner (see here, here and here).

The stakes have been raised, not equalized, by the women’s movement, at least for men. And men will carry whatever currency women are accepting — meaning they will adapt to whatever system rewards them.

Children get these messages about reward and the value of a father’s love in subtle ways. For example, in the Harry Potter book series, despite both James and Lily (Harry’s parents) giving their life to save his, only his mother gets the credit.

When Harry is an infant, the evil wizard Lord Voldemort descends on the family’s hiding place because of a prophecy that Harry will grow up to destroy him. James yells at Lily to take Harry and flee, so he can hold Voldemort off. He dies protecting them, and then Lily dies protecting Harry, but because of her love, Voldemort’s killing curse backfires and irreparably damages him, leaving Harry with the famous lightening bolt shaped scar on his forehead.

The primary message is that love is stronger than hate. The secondary message is a mother’s love is more powerful than a father’s, and a mother’s death more profound.

Nobody talks about the secondary message because it is so ingrained. What is surprising is given the popularity of the series, few readers took issue with the fact that James and Lily’s actions had the same consequence yet her sacrifice was worth more. It is just one of many instances of a male’s purpose being seen as secondary to the mother-child connection.

The message boys are still getting is that they must provide financially in order to remain relevant. On some level boys know that a man with little earning potential is less likely to find a desirable partner and is more likely to get divorced; they know that a significant portion of their value and desirability is directly linked to their earnings potential (see here and here).

Boys also catch on to the stigma against stay-at-home fathers — a recent Pew Research survey revealed that 51 percent of people say children are better off if their mother stays at home while just 8 percent feel the same way about fathers.

That is probably why women comprise the majority of college graduates yet men are still the majority of STEM majors.

Based on the proportions and differences in earnings, at first glance it could look like discrimination against women, yet both sexes knew beforehand that going the STEM route would most likely lead to a higher income.

One reason why men and women differ in major choice is because they simply have different preferences. For example, men would rather work with inorganic materials while women prefer to work with living things and mathematically gifted women are more likely than mathematically gifted men to have strong verbal abilities, giving them a wider range of career choices.

Another reason men and women differ is because more often men have to pay their own way. The trend of parents spending more on their sons’ education in the 1970s not only equalized in the 1990s, but was reversed by the late 2000s; parents now spend about 25 percent more money on their daughter’s education than their son’s.

In addition, there are plenty of scholarships offered to people of all sexes and ethnicities, but more scholarships — both academic and athletic — are offered exclusively to women than to men. For example, on scholarships.com — one of the most popular sites on which to find and apply for scholarships in the US — women’s scholarships outnumbered men’s four to one.

When I asked men who had paid their own way if doing so had any effect on their success, they said it made them hungrier to achieve. They chose to major in subjects that would result in well-paying jobs, and they planned out their lives so they could rise to the top, because they knew no one would care if they failed.

Women have other advantages when it comes to health and well-being. All around the world women outlive men. Slightly more men are diagnosed with prostate cancer than women are diagnosed with breast cancer, yet breast cancer research is supported by federal spending over prostate cancer at a ratio of nearly two to one (see here and here). Men die at higher rates from nearly all the top fifteen causes of death; the largest differences are in diseases of the heart, suicide and fatal injuries sustained from unintentional accidents. Men also outnumber women in dangerous jobs. Ninety-two percent of work fatalities in America were men. Construction accounted for the most fatalities, with the majority of accidents occurring from falls and slips.

Women are more likely to have suicidal thoughts than men, but suicide is four times higher among men, representing four out of five suicides in the US. In fact a half million male suicides could have been prevented in the last 15 years — about the same amount of people that have died in the US AIDS epidemic to date. And men account for both the majority of the sheltered and unsheltered homeless. This includes male veterans, who make up a sizeable portion US homeless population.

In other words, many men are invisible. When men are not actively contributing to the system, the system forgets about them. The “patriarchy” then, doesn’t care about men either. As psychologist Roy Baumeister said, “What seems to have worked best for cultures is to play off the men against each other, competing for respect and other rewards that end up distributed very unequally.” Whereas women get rewarded for “being” men get rewarded for “doing” — “Men have to prove themselves by producing things the society values… That basic social insecurity of manhood is stressful for men… but that insecurity is useful and productive for the culture, the system.”

Women live in a much friendlier, much less cutthroat world. As a woman, when I walk down the street, I can smile at people and they will smile back. I can smile at children, and no one thinks I’m a pedophile. If I cry people will comfort me. If I feel discriminated against people will help me. If I get sexually assaulted people will believe me — unless evidence proves otherwise. Men cannot say the same thing.

…any male with a child is immediately suspect

You know what’s worse than catcalling? No one ever asking you out. Never feeling desirable. Always having to take the initiative sexually and getting rejected most of the time. One of the luxuries of being a woman is that we don’t have to ask for affirmative consent because we don’t have to take the initiative and therefore are not held responsible or accountable for anything that happens. Sure I am smaller and more physically vulnerable, but at any point I can accuse any man of saying something sexist or touching me in an inappropriate way and he could lose his job and family. He is guilty until proven innocent. Even if he’s found innocent, I would face no repercussions.

Ultimately, if we actually wanted equality we would be asking men what life is really like for them. Because as long as male roles are limited, female roles will be limited, too. If we actually wanted equality, we would be talking about equal responsibilities alongside equal rights; we would be having honest conversations around biological differences and attraction. Until we do these things, we will find ourselves in a continual gridlock, complaining about such trivial things as manspreading and wondering why we can’t have it all while mistakenly believing men do.


Nikita is a writer and artist who co-authored Man Interrupted with social psychologist Philip Zimbardo. Passionate about understanding human nature, she co-founded the sex ed blog, BetterSexEd.org.

TL;DR: Men and women both get a mixed bag of pros and cons; everything has trade-offs.