Unpacking gender convergence

I’ve been having several discussions recently about reverse convergence.  This is the rather unwieldy term I used in the PP to refer to the need for more men to follow working/career patterns that have traditionally been seen as female, in order to balance the convergence that women are increasingly showing on male patterns–full-time employment, with assumptions that a ‘career’ must involve continuous upward movement.

In another life I was secretary of the Association for the Social Study of Time, yet another of the myriad organisations set up by the prolific Michael Young.  Michael and I were interested in the ‘rhythms of society’ – what forms the daily, weekly, termly and annual cycles of social life took, what shaped them and so on.  Jonathan Gershuny was already then pioneering large-scale data gathering on how people actually spend their time, and gave several illuminating presentations to ASST conferences back in the 1980s.

Now he has published What We Really Do All Day, with co-author Oriel Sullivan. The book has masses of interesting insights on how our collective behaviour has changed over the last 50 or more  years, with graphs and charts galore (note to publisher: a pity they aren’t easier to read….). 

I was particularly interested in the findings on convergence between men and women. For example, WDWRD shows:

– convergence- in fact crossover- on aggregate levels of paid-plus-unpaid work. In1961 men averaged 573  minutes of paid and unpaid work a week, compared with women’s 511. By 2016, men had reduced their time by 90 minutes but women by only 17 – so women are now spending more time than men on work;

-both M and W have shifting towards each other on unpaid work, by similar amounts, though W are still doing more;

–  W are converging on M in the amount of time they spend on sport and exercise, and have almost closed the gap in the time they spend eating out;

and so on.  

These are intriguing, if highly aggregated, figures. But it seems to me important to differentiate between different types of convergence.  In particular we need to have a very clear sense of which direction the movement has been; and if both genders are moving towards each other (rather than just one converging on the other), then how far has the gap closed.

This led me to propose the following ‘convergence typology’ :

1)  unidirectional M> F

2)  unidirectional F> M

3)  bidirectional, ie both moving towards each other, but still unequal

4)  bidirectional, to (rough) equality.

And along comes another piece of evidence about the importance of looking at both sides – in fact, of paying much more attention to what is or isn’t happening with men.  The Economist reported recently on research by Kate Weisshaar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We’ve known for ages that parenthood carries a career penalty for mothers, whilst men actually do better in their careers if they become fathers – a very significant divergence.  In her research  Prof Weisshaar sent fictitious applications to real jobs in 50 American cities.  The cvs in the applications were all the same; the applications differed only in work history, and specifically in whether they had been a stay-at-home parent.  

The conclusion:

      ” These findings support the fatherhood penalty for opting out hypothesis: in competitive markets, fathers who violate ideal worker norms, by opting out incur greater penalties than do mothers.”

In other words, men who took time out to look after children were more likely to be rejected than women.  This fits completely with the conclusion I reached in the Paula Principle, that it is harder for men to deviate from the standard career model and still be seen as seriously committed to their ‘career’.

If we want women’s careers to improve, and for their competences to be properly recognised, then – maybe ironically –  we need to pay real attention to what happens to men who deviate.  And we need to unpack further the notion of ‘convergence’.

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