Why the New Macho Is Good for Women

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If the stereotype of the macho man is the whiskey-drinking, womanizing Don Draper, then the popular perception of “feminist” is an angry, militant, man-hater—decrying the patriarchy while she burns her bra. It’s a cliché that, for decades now, has pitted the Marlboro Man against Rosie the Riveter, labeling women who rally behind men as antifeminist, and men who support women as weak, or worse. But even Gloria Steinem knew—back before women were even allowed to write at NEWSWEEK—that it was going to take both sides of the gender coin to achieve true parity. Testifying before Congress on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970, Steinem proclaimed that one crucial aspect of women’s empowerment was “a return of fathers to their children.” “Women’s liberation,” Steinem declared, “is men’s liberation too.”

Forty years later, women are further along than we were in Steinem’s day—we’re tipping the scale at 51 percent of workers; we make up the majority of college graduates, M.A.s (and now even Ph.D.s), and we are the primary or co-breadwinners in most American households. But we still have trouble penetrating the highest echelons of the corporate world, and no matter how many hours we spend trying to close that gap, we remain burdened by domestic life. In 2010, there are still precious few stay-at-home dads; housework and child care are primarily still “women’s work.” And while we may have superpowered washing machines and delivery from Fresh Direct, we still do double the chores of the men we choose to live with.

All of this is why, even in 2010, we must take the advice of a feminist of yore: women still need men to prosper. We’re not talking about Mr. Cleaver bringing home the bacon—we need men so that we can excel at work, to level the playing field at home. We need them as dads, partners, and cheerleaders—from the classroom to the boardroom. So let’s retire the tired old “battle of the sexes” war cry—equality should never have been a zero-sum equation.

There are practical reasons why we should rally behind each other’s causes. If men are concerned about American prosperity, there’s a solution: women! Countless studies prove there’s a correlation between the number of women on corporate boards and achieving a better bottom line; McKinsey estimates that the United States could increase GDP by 9 percent if we achieved true equity at work. (At a time when economists worry we’re losing our economic edge, who wouldn’t be swayed by these arguments?)

The same goes for parental leave. It’s no coincidence that Iceland has the most generous paternity-leave program in the modern world—three months!—and also, the smallest wage gap. These things go hand in hand. And no, it wasn’t a raging man-hating feminist who pushed the legislation through—it was a male prime minister, who recognized that Icelanders of both genders would benefit, and not just in the short term. The reasoning? As more men take time off to care for their children, the burden of parenthood no longer falls on women alone. Ultimately, employers will stop looking at young, fertile women and thinking, why bother investing? We’ll all be equally worthy of investment.

In today’s economy, the industries that have long been female-dominated—teaching, nursing, and so on—are the ones that, in the coming years, will grow the most. Encouraging men to “man up,” as our colleagues put it—and enter these fields should be something we all push for. Because just as corporate boards benefit from diversity of thought, so does every workplace. Recent research from the London Business School suggests that productivity levels go up when men and women work in tandem—in part because gender parity counters the idea of groupthink, and reduces the sprouting of likeminded groups that defend ideas that may be ill conceived.

Welcoming men to traditionally underpaid professions could also serve to boost average salaries in those fields, making them more competitive and better able to attract top-tier talent. It could also be a crucial step in closing the wage gap, which, of course, won’t help just women. As more women become the main breadwinners—we’re in a “mancession,” remember?—equal pay means more for everyone.

So let’s embrace the new macho, throw our weight behind men who want to make a change, and get back to the forgotten principles of the original women’s movement, which put men’s progress hand in hand with women’s. “The only way that we can resolve these issues is for both men and women to join together,” says historian Barbara Berg. “You can’t liberate only one half.”

Forty years ago, Gloria Steinem said that women’s liberation would also be men’s. Today, maybe it’s the opposite: that men’s liberation will be good for women.

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