Wellesley, Mass. — Today's man is new and improved, right? He is more sensitive, more willing to help with household chores, more involved with his children, and ready to say "No" to his company when work might interfere with family life.
Well, maybe. Statistics show that men did 42 minutes a week more housework and child care in 1975 than in 1965. Some sociologists say men are weighing company transfers with their family in mind rather than merely job advancement. And in a survey of married working men and women, just as many men as women said paid work conflicted with family life.
"The shift in male bevahior is small," admits Dr. Joseph Pleck, program director at the Wellesley College Center of Research on Women. "There has been a slight increase in the amount of time men spend doing housework and child care."
But Dr. Pleck thinks the "slight increase" could be more significant than it looks on paper, considering the fact that families are smaller today and housework has been made easier by technology.
"And there is a substantial drop in the time women spend doing housework," he says. "Men are certainly doing a higher proportion of the work."
Dr. Pleck, who does his own studies on the changing role of men and reviews current studies done by other researchers, tells of a survey completed in 1975 that indicated that men with working wives do no more housework than men whose wives didn't work. But a later survey in 1977 seems to show that there has been some increase among husbands whose wives work.
Dr. Pleck disagrees with the traditional view of men as obsessed with paper work and jobs.
"The portrait seems to be true enough, but probably that is the case only with a minority of men." He says data on the impact of work on family life show that men have the same qualms as women -- work often gets in the way.
"Men say things that indicate that their family is more significant than their job," Dr. Pleck says. "The quality of family life has more impact on his well-being than this job." Dr. Pleck points out that this doesn't always mean a man is more active with his family, but if society is going to devise strategies such as flexible work schedules to let men become more involved in family, then men may be ready to take them.
What is the impetus behind the changes in men's roles? There is a small but stable men's movement, as witnessed by the network of men's centers throughout the country, the national men's conferences that have been held annually since 1974, and the avalanche of publications on men's roles (dr. Pleck has a resource list eight pages long of books, magazines, and movies concerning the role of men today).
"There are many factions in the movement," says Dr. Pleck. He gives an example of one faction that is interested in personal growth among men, such as exploring the stereotypes men were raised with.Another group's sole purpose is to support the women's movement.
But Dr. Pleck thinks the bulk of change has been brought about by concern over the status of the American family.
"The public is concerned whether the family [as an institution] is breaking up," Dr. Pleck says.
The proportion of families that elect to have children has remained about the same in the past few years (about 70 percent), but these families have fewer children. There is also an increase in divorces and separations. Nearly 45 percent of the children born today will spend at least some of their childhood in a single-parent family, says Dr. Pleck.
One of the changes evoked by the women's movement has been to include women more fully in the basic American value of equality. The value of the family is also basic to Americans, and now men are being expected to share in that value.
Dr. Pleck also points to a historical change in families that has prompted a change in the man's role.
"In the early part of the century, the paidwork role was monopolized by men," he says. "Women's productivity was limited to support for her husband and taking care of the family."
Now that more and more women are entering the workplace, it is increasingly difficult for the traditional family to exist when work demands intrude. Increased involvement in household tasks and child care by men is one answer to this problem, along with new options in work schedules, job sharing, and parental leave for both men and women.
The idea that men can and should spend more time in a family relationship has hit a responsive chord, Dr. Pleck says. He has heard it called "Kramerization," after the popular movie "Kramer vs. Kramer" that follows a father's initiation into single parenthood.
And as men adopt new roles around the house, they have to learn to swallow male pride.When women's roles changed in the past decade, it was primarily toward tasks that have a higher monetary value, such as jobs and promotions, that weren't available before.
"The general dilemma for men is that their role change is in a direction that does not have the social rewards that the traditional path did," sayd Dr. Pleck. "But more are willing to try housework and child care because of the increasing value they put on family."