How to be a Man: Lessons from the Rhodes Project

By Seb Baird

I was a feminist before I started working at the Rhodes Project. I've been involved with equality and social justice campaigns since I was a university student, and a commitment to gender equality has long been one of many struggles to which I have been committed. But working every day for a feminist research centre has been a steep learning curve, and has made gender and gender equality one of the central issues in how I think about my own life.

I've been working at the Rhodes Project since the summer of 2013, when I started as an intern, and I am currently the only male staff member. Now, I'm the Communications Manager for the Project, which means that I manage the website and social media and I'm involved with communicating the Project's research and mission to the general public. I also spend a considerable amount of time reading about and engaging in current discussions of gender issues. My engagement with the Rhodes Project's research, and gender issues in general, has led me to think more intentionally about how I want to live life as a man.

My understanding of gender's influence on family roles came to me quite late. I grew up in a middle-class family, and my parents, whom I love, adhered to a patriarchal structure. My dad went to work every day, leaving early and coming back late, and my mum spurned paid work to look after my brother and me. She was relied upon to provide care and emotional support, as well as to do the bulk of housework, cooking and menial tasks (thanks to my dad's well-paid job, of course,  she could afford to do this full time - a luxury not afforded most mothers). The culture I grew up in emphasised that the man's role was to provide cash, and the woman's role was to provide care, and I had assumed that my life (as a heterosexual man) would stick to the same pattern.

Being involved in the Rhodes Project's research and outreach, though, I've begun to challenge that assumption. The impressive group of women Rhodes Scholars have included leaders in many fields, including politics, academia, law and finance, many of whom could be the main breadwinner for their families  - and sometimes are. These women's stories give many examples of how women can live their lives, and the challenges they face in balancing family and career. But in these stories there also exist lessons for men about how to live their lives and support their partners in facing these challenges.

Take, for example, Gina Raimondo, a Rhodes Scholar who was elected Governor of Rhode Island in the 2014 election. Her husband, Andy Moffit, is now the "first gentleman" of the state, and an article in profiled him and how he was going to occupy the role. It stated:

The former first gentleman of Michigan, Dan Mulhern, says the most important thing Moffit can do now is offer the emotional and spiritual support Raimondo will need as she takes on what can be an isolating job.

Mulhern, who has spoken with Moffit, said Moffit knows how important it is for him to play a larger role at home. They have two children, 10-year-old Ceci and 8-year-old Tommy.

Sure, this is a special case: Moffit is still going to be working as McKinsey's Director of Industry Learning, so he's hardly quitting his job and becoming a house husband. The point is that Raimondo (and Moffit) provide a different way of looking at the nuclear family. They show that men should be willing to play a secondary role to their partners,. Their relationship has made me consider more carefully how I want my career to pan out. Moreover, I’ve realised that if I have children, I'd like to be deeply involved in their upbringing, and that perhaps I need a job where I can work flexibly in order to make that happen. I don't want to  assume that I'm going to be working full-time forty-hour weeks for the rest of my life.

But while the Rhodes Project does provide us with those models, it also shows us how hard an equal partnership is to achieve. Often, Rhodes women end up building impressive careers and doing the majority of work at home, picking up the slack where their husbands fail to - or are unable to, depending on how kind you're being to them. One Scholar speaks of starting out as an academic while her husband was a management consultant: because he earned more, and had to travel with work, the burdens of running a household implicitly fell to her. Another Scholar - the main breadwinner for her family - spoke of seeing her partner playing on the floor with their child, and thinking: "I never get to sit on the floor and play, I always have to worry about [whether] the food [is] going on the table, [whether] the house [is] going to be cleaned, who’s coming and [having to] do all the social stuff".   

This isn't just true for Rhodes Scholars. Research by Robin Ely and others at Harvard Business School, which has a wealth of insight about second-generation gender bias, found that there was a significant gap between the expectations of Generation X women regarding how they and their partners would share career priority and childrearing. A significant number of the women surveyed expected that they would not adhere to traditional family roles, but found that in practice, they did. Likewise, a 2013 study showed that women still do two thirds of the house work, even if they are the main breadwinners.

So while the lives of Rhodes Scholars shows us different models for balance between partners in careers and the home, it also shows us how hard those models are to emulate. Of course, we have to recognise the potential for women to exercise choice - that they might shift their priorities from work towards family later in their lives. The role of male partners here is clear: in order for our partners to rightfully succeed as leaders in their professional lives, we need to do a better job of stepping up to support them at home. The professional aspirations of our partners are equal  to our own, and we should step back and think hard about how we can support them in reaching those goals.