I think we are rightly sensitive to issues of gender equity in parenting, but it seems to me it is also necessary to think critically about them. This was brought home to me by this story in the newspaper today. Does equality give a genetic father the right to be present at the birth of his child, just as the genetic mother will be? Or does the different between being the one giving birth and not being the one giving birth justify different treatment?
For anyone who thinks hard about parentage gender equity is a difficult topic. There are so many levels of sameness and difference that figuring out what amounts to equal treatment can be tricky.
On the one hand, men and women each contribute genetic materials to a child. On that basis one could determine that they are similarly situated and so principles of equality would suggest equal treatment is appropriate. But on the other hand, women are pregnant and men are not. If in this regard they are not similarly situated, then equal treatment is not warranted. How does one fit together the sameness and the difference?
To give one example that seems clear to me: Even though men and women may have a similar genetic investment in an offspring in utero, I think the woman gets sole authority to decide whether to continue the pregnancy or have an abortion. The difference (she’s pregnant, he’s not) is more important to me than the sameness (they each have DNA invested.) And I’d say the same even if she was pregnant with the last genetic offspring he could possibly produce. To me, this result isn’t offensive to an equality principle–because the situations of the man and the woman are (to me significantly) different.
That set of sameness/difference is pretty much rooted in biology. If one broadens the field of vision to consider social roles, it’s possible to observe different patterns of behavior. So for example, among the heterosexual couples I know, women are much more likely to be more deeply engaged in day-to-day childcare stuff than are men. I’m pretty sure I can find a raft of statistics that would extend this conclusion across large swaths of American society. (Yes, this is a generalization. There are households where it isn’t true.)
Personally I don’t think for a minute that this is biologically pre-0rdained. But perhaps it doesn’t matter why things are as they are. If they really are that way, do we need to take this into account? Does the difference (mothers are spending more of their time in care of young children than are fathers) matter? Or do we ignore it in the name of sameness (men and women are equally capable of taking care of young children)?
Let me give a “for instance.” Suppose women really are doing substantially more of the child-care in a substantial majority of homes. (That’s an assumption we can discuss, but let’s just go with it for a moment so you can see the argument here?) Suppose when couples separate and judges have to award custody of children, they take account of who has been doing the work–on the theory that continuity is best for the child. So in general, mothers end up with custody a lot more of the time than fathers do.
equal time, as they are (presumptively) equal parents. Have we fixed the equality problem (assuming there was an equality problem)?
Suppose the parents who have been doing the main caretaking (mostly women but some men) actually care deeply about maintaining the routine. They’re more attached to the child. (It’s possible that that’s either the cause or the effect of the initial unequal division of childcare.) Now that parent will have to bargain with the other parent to get back to the original division of time. If the other parent doesn’t care terribly much about having that time with the child (which again could be cause or effect of the original division of labor), they’ll take money in exchange for the time. And so you’ll end up having the child spending time in the same way as before, except now the household where the child spends most of her/his time will be poorer. And most of those poorer households will be female-headed.
To my mind, this doesn’t seem like a very good fix. Maybe we ought to take into account the “difference” we started with–spending more time with the kids? (Note that you don’t have to tie that to gender–you can favor whoever spends the time, male or female. But in the grand scheme of things, this balance will tip towards mothers.)
It’s too easy just to invoke the idea of equality and fairness in these cases. Look at the response to the NJ case I started with:
Bruce Eden of Dads Against Discrimination called the ruling “another example of New Jersey’s anti-male discrimination in the family courts.”
No one’s going to be in favor of “anti-male discrimination” but I don’t think that’s the explanation for the NJ ruling. I think the court got it right.