Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Masculinity bad for you?

Every few years we get someone arguing that "masculinity is bad for you". This time it's the turn of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward.

She has told a men's health conference that the reason why men's health is worse than women's is because a traditional masculine identity makes men work too hard to support their families. Ms Goward is reported as claiming that,

if men spent more time with their children and did more housework, it would improve their physical and mental health, make them less likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour, and give them skills traditionally allocated to women.

Now, the first thing to realise here is that Ms Goward has a political agenda in making these claims. Feminists would dearly love men to lower their work commitments and to take over the traditional motherhood role of women.

Why? Two reasons, I think. First, feminists often believe that the reason men have more political and economic power is that men have organised improperly as a group to gain power and privilege at the expense of women, who are therefore oppressed as a group (patriarchy theory). Therefore, for feminists it is seen as a great triumph for women to increase their earnings relative to men. It's easier for women to do this if their husbands are at home with the kids rather than in paid work.

Second, feminists generally follow the liberal view that we shouldn't be limited in our individual will. This means that they like the idea of a fluid gender identity in which role reversal is possible, rather than individuals following traditional gender roles as a "biological destiny".

Anyway, here is one the major problems facing Ms Goward. Women do still want their husbands to work full-time. Women themselves prefer to work part-time or not at all. And men are happiest working full-time.

These are the findings of a major research project, managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research.

So it seems that men are not "oppressing" women by working hard, nor is it likely, given the preferences of both men and women, that we'll see a widespread role reversal any time soon.

A couple of additional points. It probably is unhealthy if men really do push themselves excessively at work. This is more likely to destroy masculinity in the long run. Interestingly, the research project mentioned earlier found that men's happiness started to decrease when working over 50 hours a week. The optimum was a 35 to 40 hour working week.

Second, it's an impoverishment of masculine identity if men see work and being a provider as the only expression of being a man. Traditional forms of masculinity incorporated other roles as well, including men helping to educate and socialise their own children (especially their sons).

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