The XX Factor

Mr. Mom and the Art of Social Change

How to affect social change: “First, begin with a dialogue of mutual respect, free of self-congratulation. Second, when you have a core of converts, organize a program of public commitment to new practices. To end one practice … you need to start another.”

Granted, the American (and generally Western) practice of expecting women to do most of the “second shift” work of raising children and running a household hardly reaches the level of foot-binding and female genital cutting. But change is change, which made the contrast between Kwame Anthony Appiah’s ” The Art of Social Change ” and Lisa Belkin’s ” Calling Mr. Mom ” in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine amusing. Appiah lauded successful change movements in China and Africa while Belkin grappled for examples of the kind of change she rightly said we’d need before before men and women reach any real sense of emotional or economic parity. Her statistic has women performing “twice the housework and three times the child care that men do, even in homes where women are the primary breadwinners,” which means that while some couples are managing to do better than that, plenty are doing a whole lot worse. Women, she says, can’t “have it all” until men do, too-and men appear to be caught up a bind of their own. Men may say they want a bigger role at home, but even when the opportunity is there in the form of parental leave and flex time, they don’t take advantage of it.

But to find an example of successful social change in this respect, Belkin found herself stuck with Sweden and its much-heralded parental-leave policy, and with Lehman Bros., which apparently disguised a new telecommuting program and effectively made it gender-neutral by billing it as a back-up plan in the event of terrorism or epidemic. We can learn from the methodology of both successes-both Lehman and Sweden not only had to make taking advantage of a parent-friendly policy appear gender-neutral, but had to make not using it essentially unacceptable-but as role models, both Lehman and Sweden leave a lot to be desired. The socialist programs of Sweden are anathema in much of this country, and even Sweden itself, in the grip of the same recession that clutches most of the West, has  elected more moderate politicians in both of its last elections on the promise of lower taxes and trimmed benefits. And Lehman Bros.-well, no one wants to go there.

Belkin is right to say that empowering American women can’t focus only on women. Real change for working mothers has to be real change for working parents. That may be the “dialogue of mutual respect” Appiah referred to, but where are the necessary core of converts? I easily found the  top 100 companies for working mothers (best benefit, hands down: at-desk grocery or family dinner delivery), but my search for the best companies for working fathers turned up no matches: In fact, it took me repeatedly back to the best companies for working mothers again (as did a search for “family friendly,” which actually led to “family friendly companies  for women” ).  To return to Appiah: To end one practice, you need to start another. Where is the list of companies who already have?