Boys “In Crisis” and Biological Imperatives

Kelly Coyle DiNorcia uses her degrees in neuroscience and education to out-maneuver two small children, care for an astonishing variety of animals, and run an ice hockey organization with her husband. She thinks “work life balance” is a lie and spends  her time careening from one extreme to the other.

If you read books like The Wonder of Boys and Raising Cain, you will learn that today’s American boys are in crisis.  As schools become more heavily focused on academic achievement and test scores, children are expected to spend more time seated quietly at their desks while physical education and recess are being squeezed out of their schedules.  The crunch is on after school as well, when time is spent going to organized activities and completing homework instead of running around outside, playing stickball and manhunt and generally letting off steam.

Boys, who on average are less inclined to sit quietly at desks and have more of a need to move their bodies, are suffering disproportionately under the current state of affairs.  Some even argue that the bias against girls in academic settings is a relic of the past.  With teachers under ever-increasing pressure, they tend to favor girls who (again on average) are more able to sit and focus for long periods of time.  This is borne out by the fact that young women are currently earning more post-secondary degrees than young men.

If women are doing better in school, and are earning more advanced degrees, then logic would dictate that the number of women in positions of power and prestige should be at least equal to, if not exceeding, the number of men.  And yet…women continue to be underrepresented in business, science, academia, medicine, and government.  The reason seems obvious:  biology is destiny, and motherhood makes the difference.

I have a friend who is a stay-home dad and who grew up as one of six brothers (and no sisters), and he insists that men and women are, in every way and absolutely, equal.  He has four children of his own, and his wife, the bringer home of the proverbial bacon in their family, needed to take leave from work in order to birth these children into existence.  While he is a man who would have chosen to take family leave when his children were born, this would have in no way been a biological imperative in the way that it was for his wife.  That’s a pretty major difference when you consider the effect such absences may, and do, have on career potential and achievement.

People argue that having children is a choice, and in many cases (though by no means all, or even most) that is true.  What this fails to take into account is that when a heterosexual couple makes the choice to have a child, it is the woman who, even in the most enlightened and egalitarian of families, bears the physical brunt of bringing said child into the world.  The subsequent interaction among hormonal, biological, psychological and social forces is poorly understood, but it would be difficult to deny that the mothers are usually the ones tasked with raising the children.

Smart, motivated, well-educated women are left to choose between fulfilling their responsibilities as mother or having fulfilling and lucrative careers.  Perhaps more importantly, smart and motivated but less well-educated women are in a position where it is expected that they and their children will suffer exhaustion and separation, among other things, so their work doesn’t have to suffer at all.  In both cases, society does not support these women in their efforts to continue employment and earn long-term economic security while simultaneously maintaining an acceptable standard of living for themselves and their families.

If the problems seem obvious, so do the solutions:  paid maternity leave, subsidized quality child care, flexible work arrangements, time off for family obligations, social security credits for time spent bringing up baby.  Unfortunately,  the people who make the decisions in this country, primarily legislators and business leaders, do not see these things as a priority for a whole plethora of reasons.  So it is up to us, ladies, to bring about change by coming together and using our smarts and our strength to demand family-friendly social policies.  We deserve it.

About Valerie Young

Valerie Young is a public policy analyst who focuses on the economic status of mothers and other family caregivers. She promotes social justice by arming mothers with information and a healthy dose of outrage. She is the Advocacy Coordinator at the National Association of Mothers' Centers, and is a reporter for The Shriver Report and contributor to Brain/Child Magazine. Follow her blog, Your (Wo)Man in Washington, on Twitter @WomanInDC and on Facebook as Valerie Young and Your (Wo)Man in Washington.
  • Astra

    As a reader from Canada, I can tell you that even with access to subsidized maternity leave, subsidized child care, flexibile work arrangements, and paid time off for family obligations Statistics Canada confirms that the longer and more frequent the absences from the workforce, the greater the detrimental effect on career advancement and earning potential. They help families, yes; not sure if they are the answer…

  • Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

    Astra, thanks for commenting and for visiting me over here! I think that what you are saying here is exactly the issue – the more time spent out of the work force, the more of an effect on career advancement. Biology dictates that women who have children will necessarily have to take some sort of time away from work, and men will not. That will never change, but family-friendly policies may help in terms of increasing quality of life as well as decreasing the amount of time women spend away from work during the childbearing years. Ideally, it will not feel like such an either-or situation for mothers. And I think that social security credits for time spent outside the paid workforce doing the unpaid work of caring for children or other family members is an important piece of the puzzle as well.

    • Astra

      Good point… Don’t get me wrong – I do believe in family-friendly social policies (I’ve taken advantage of just about every one available to me, so would be a hypocrite if I didn’t say so!) and I do believe that more attention needs to be given the the unpaid economy. I just feel some of the more traditional family-friendly social policies haven’t necessarily advanced the way our societies think.
      And as for your friend who thinks men and women are equal? I’m not buying it! My daughter has NEVER left the toilet sear up ;-)

      • Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

        I can’t disagree with you there. I live in the US but I wonder if people actually take full advantage of these policies in the places where they do exist, or if there is a stigma against it. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing though – does changing policies change the way we think, or do we have to change the way we think before policies will change? I suspect the latter, but I don’t know.

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