Selling the New Job to Men

I read in the New York Times the other day that it is still hard to get men to do their share of the work at home and I want to think about that a little today.  Just to give you a sense of how this is going to line up, let me say that as a political scientist, I have studied power relations for many years.  Since “micropolitics” was just getting popular when I was just starting doctoral work, I studied a lot about power between persons.  Also, I have been attracted for some years now to gender studies.  The fact that some persons are men and some women makes a huge difference in how problems come up, how they are defined, and how they are resolved.

Now I want to start somewhere else.  Imagine that this is a “sermon” on power and gender and that I am going to start with three important texts. 

Text 1: Vaseline makes skin products for men and for women.  They are advertised separately to men and to women, which suggests to me that Unilever knows something about how products are chosen than ordinary mortals do.  The Vaseline products for women claim to make women’s skin soft.  The Vaseline products for men claim to make men’s skin strong.

Text 2:  John Gray has developed a special relationship with gender.  Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus was first published in 1992.  Today, nearly twenty years later, it’s hard to tell whether he is changing any minds any more or whether people who like the way he handles gender—different but complementary—eventually find his books.  In any case, Gray knows what Unilever knows.  Men buy products—and arguments—for different reasons than women do.  Not all kinds of arguments, probably, but arguments that bear on values or behaviors that are associated with being a man or being a woman.

Here’s Gray: “The instincts that sent warriors boldly into battle to defend themselves and protect their loved ones come into play when a modern man tries to listen to a modern woman.  To prevail, he must learn to duck and dodge.” [For context, the issue here is how men should respond when they are receiving blame and criticism from women.  In this setting, he probably has husbands and wives in mind.] “Instead of reacting to blame and criticism, a man learns to hear the correct loving message in her words and responds in ways that diminish friction and conflict.  Ducking and dodging allow a man to keep his cool and respond respectfully to a woman’s need to communicate.”[1]

Just to make this easier to visualize, picture the “blame and criticism” as a rolling pin.  The woman is beating on the man with the rolling pin—this is her blame and criticism”—but he is not getting hurt because he is ducking and dodging.  This is something evolution prepared him for, you see.  Going boldly into battle and surviving requires that you learn how to duck and dodge.  Nothing is said here about counterthrusts.  And if you duck and dodge successfully, you will “prevail” just as your warrior ancestors did.

Text 3:  Let me introduce the author first this time.  This is Peter N. Stearns, Heinz Professor of History at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1979, when this book was published.[2]  Here are the beginnings of several consecutive paragraphs.  “While men returned to the family in a real sense in the twentieth century, they did not return in traditional male style for several reasons.  It was obviously difficult to regain control over children who were substantially trained in school and lured by the company of their peers.”  And a few lines later: “A rethinking of paternal purpose was almost inevitable when the continuity in work between father and son was disrupted.  And in the larger setting it was easy to think of one’s sons, and daughters as well, as people to woo.”

“The renewal of familial interest among men inevitably encountered the entrenched position of women in the home.  Even women dissatisfied with their domestic role or those who had entered the workforce could attempt to exclude the husband from the day-to-day authority in the family—including, of course, authority over the children—that served as their power base and the most obvious source of their self-definition.”

Those are the texts: Unilever, Gray, and Stearns.  Let’s take as the problem to be solved, the problem Stearns describes.  In the modern era, the men “come home” from the previously exclusive focus on their jobs, and find that they don’t know what to do.[3]  The men are now “sharing the breadwinning function” in a sense.  He works at Nordstroms and she at Weiden and Kennedy.  And the women are now “sharing the homemaking and childrearing function” but this is at the same place.  One place.  The breadwinning business takes them apart, but the homemaking/childrearing business throws them together.  And on this field, the women are the home team, complete with loyal fans, and the men are the visitors.

The women aren’t any better prepared for the presence of the men than the men are to define themselves by their time at home.  At a retirement presentation, either mine or Bette’s—I’ve forgotten now—the speaker warned the women that when their husbands retired, they would have “twice as much husband and half as much kitchen.”  There was laughter throughout the crowd, but it wasn’t uproarious laughter.  The women’s first reaction is to be delighted to have the help.  The work is set up as it had been, the decisions are hers (as they had been) the standards to be used are hers (as they had been) and the manpower is doubled.  Does anything about that definition of the situation look unlikely to you?  No?  Then wonder whether it would look unlikely to a man who had spent his adulthood studying gender relations and the uses of power.

Two questions remain: what are the options and how can they be sold?

The question of options looks simple at the beginning.  If the question is about what work—from here on out, “work” will include both maintaining the house and raising the kids—is to done at home, then he decides or she decides or they decide.  It’s easy to look at that list and pick “they decide” as the best one, and it might be.  Even so, there are good decisions and bad ones and if “they” decide by compromising their separate standards, the result will be ugly.

You would think it wouldn’t be that hard, but each of these adults is used to making decisions.  And each comes from a history in which certain tasks were done in certain ways and belonged to certain roles within the family.  It doesn’t make any sense to think that will all go away, particularly if the two central options—the ones on the basis of which the compromise will be crafted—are my way and your way.

Fortunately, there is another kind of compromise.  The man and woman can set aside their own ways, as best they can.  It won’t be very good.  Then they can devise a problem that needs to be addressed.  The crucial characteristic of the problem is that it is over there.  We are here and “it” is there.  The problem no longer lies between us, as if the game were tug-of-war.  It is now a problem of our devising and we will succeed together or fail together.

So that’s how to decide it.  The remaining question is how to sell it.  At this point, I’m going to collapse the question and deal with only one side.  Since the original question had to do with housework, I’m going to say that the man is the one it is going to have to be sold to.  Part of the work has already been done.  Women who are eager to have their husbands share the work must be willing to share the power.

Let’s say the question involves cleaning up the kitchen.  I pick that one because Bette and I have had some conversations about it.  The questions that follow haven’t been culled from any transcript of our conversations; they are just things I thought of at the time.  By when does the kitchen need to be clean?  Within half an hour of the end of the meal?  Before we go to bed?  Is tomorrow morning good enough?  What is the value of clear counters as opposed to clean counters when only one can be done?  How clean is “clean?”  What products are going to be used to get the job done?

Sharing the power and sharing the work are two aspects of the same transaction.

The gender problem Stearns addressed has these elements: men respond to the new definitions (new since the end of the Industrial Revolution) of work and domesticity by coming home to a setting they don’t understand and with highly suspect skill levels.  The children have nothing to learn from him so the traditional power base is gone.  There are “peer groups” now.  He is going to have to sell himself to his own children as a “good guy” and hope they like him.  He is going to have to either negotiate a power sharing with his wife or withdraw from the work at home so he won’t have to be dictated to.

What does Unilever know that would help us?  They know that men, by and large, will not buy a product that promises them softer skin.  They are hanging on to their masculinity with one hand already; they don’t need softer skin.  Stronger skin, now, is another matter.[4]  It’s not too hard to persuade a man that being strong is a good idea.  Nor would it be that hard to define any number of tasks by the strength they take rather than by the skill they take.  I remember when men started carrying babies in “backpacks” as if they were burdens.  Men are all over bearing burdens.  It might be the woman’s job to “carry the child” but it is the man’s job to “bear the burden.”  I expected any day to see a baby carrier with racing stripes.

What does John Gray know that would help us?  The same thing, really.  The reason I treasure Gray’s picture of the husband/warrior ducking and dodging so that he is still in the fight when his wife has worn herself out with the rolling pin is that it is so terminally silly.  Men need to be smart enough and strong enough to absorb whatever punishment their wives are going to dish out in the first fifteen minutes.  Knowing that accepting it without hostility and without retaliation will allow their wives to say what they really want to say, makes it worth doing.  This woman has important things to say, she just isn’t able to say them first and if her husband goes away or turns it into a contest, she will never get it said and he will never hear it.

Listening to her long enough to hear what she has on her mind is the smart thing to do and the loving thing to do.  What Gray has decided is that smart and loving aren’t enough; it has to be “the manly thing to do” also and if it is the manly thing, a lot of husbands will do it who would not do it otherwise.  The warrior/husband seems way too much to me, but I would be a fool to put my notions of what will sell the product up against Gray, who has, after all, sold a lot of product.

[1] Mars and Venus, Together Forever, page 95.

[2] Be a Man!,  pp. 149—151.  Despite the rousing title, and the exclamation point, which is part of the title, this is not a masulinist manifesto.  It is a study of the disordering of male/female relationships brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the variety of attempts in the modern era to recover our balance.

[3] The first title of Gray’s book Together Forever was What Your Mother Couldn’t Tell you and Your Father Didn’t Know.  I think that is the dilemma Stearns has in mind.

[4] And it is perfectly alright if the same product makes the skin both softer and stronger.  The question is which handle the marketing department wants to pick up.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to Selling the New Job to Men

  1. Doug Hess says:

    Boy, you and Gray ask a lot of men. I’d like to think that my reaction to being “attacked” would be to let her get it out and gleen from a rant what I could do to resolve the problem, but that is sooo not normal. It’s just unnatural. Does Gray suggest similar strategies for women?


    P.S. I absolutely love the way you break things down. Your comment about getting help in the kitchen was spot-on and laid bare a problem most people wouldn’t see coming.

    • hessd says:

      Gray suggests “similar strategies” for women in the sense that there is a Gray solution at the place in the woman’s emotional ecology like this place in the man’s emotional ecology. They aren’t ever “similar” in the “do this” sense. In the classic “opening the car door” situation, the man’s job is to open and close the door and the woman’s job is to look happy about it. The two solutions are “functionally appropriate” to the roles being played, but they are never the same in the sense of being similar. It’s one of the things I like about Gray even when I don’t like the specific choices.

      If you meant to ask what the woman’s job is in this precise situation, I know that there is one and I’d be glad to go look it up if you like.

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