If Finland is the happiest country in the world why do people long to opt out here too?

I’m reading Anu Partanen’s book The Nordic Theory of Everything at the moment. It’s really an excellent read; I wish I had read it sooner. Partanen’s book so clearly explains the differences between life in Finland (or the Nordics) and the US and how these two very different social, political and cultural systems come together to create independent or not so independent individuals. 

Now, especially if you’re from the US, you may be guessing that the US system is the one that creates independent individuals, not the Nordic welfare state, but, perhaps surprisingly, it’s not. It’s the Nordic system that does that. 

One of Partanen’s messages is that the Nordic countries are most certainly not socialist, despite popular (American) belief, and that any Nordic person would balk at the idea. On the contrary, the Nordic model of social security and support allows individuals to be independent and to create good lives for themselves, instead of having them depend on for example parents, family members and employers just to be able to afford important, but basic, things like education, health care, day care etc. And yes, if you visit the Nordic countries, you will see that individualism actually does run strong throughout our cultures, for better or worse.

I strongly recommend the book, but that wasn’t actually the point of this blog post. What I want to talk about is how it is possible that opting out experiences can be so similar in both countries despite the differences that rank Finland at the top of so many lists* and the US much further down? How is it that people in a country like Finland long to opt out of their current jobs and lifestyles just as much as Americans do? 

Finland has recently, once again, been declared the world’s happiest country. It kind of makes you wonder, if this is the case, why is it that the opting out stories I have collected in Finland and the US are so remarkably similar? Why is it that people who live in a country with free education, free health care, more reasonable working hours, five weeks of legislated vacation time per year, long maternity leaves, paternity leaves, even longer parental leaves after which they are guaranteed their job back, high quality affordable day care etc. etc. etc., have very similar experiences to those who do not enjoy any of the above? 

How can it be that they also feel exhausted, they feel a lack of control over their lives, and they also have difficulties creating coherent life narratives? How can it be that they also reach a point when something’s got to give, or if not, at least long to leave their current way of living and working?

How come so many of the world’s happiest people don’t seem so happy?

Well, first I want to say, that no system or country is perfect. The happiest country in the world does not necessarily mean absolute happiness at all times. Finland is also ranked one of the most gender equal countries in the world, but that does not mean that the work here is done. Finland has not reached a state of perfect gender equality, nor will it any time soon at the rate we’re going.

I recently read that Finnish mothers are among the most stressed and exhausted in the world. The main problem is (in addition to the all-consuming motherhood ideal of today) that while Finland has among the highest percentage of women working fulltime, women also continue to be mainly responsible for childcare and household chores. While working life has become more equal, home life has been lagging behind, compared to Sweden for example. 

But one factor that has become glaringly obvious to me during all these years of researching opting out and having the privilege of hearing countless people’s opting out and in stories, is that regardless of any national differences, one common denominator is corporate cultures and ideals. They tend to be similar throughout the world thanks to globalization and global organizations, and they also tend to override local practices and sometimes even legislation. 

Let me give you an example. 

It happens, in Finland, that when a man wants to take some legislated paternity leave to get to know his child and to share the load with his partner, his employer may let him know that ‘it is simply not done in this company’. 

Research has also shown that men with low incomes are more likely to take time off to care for their children than are men in high-powered corporate positions. 

So what should we do? We need to work on changing work. We need to create corporate cultures that belong in the 21stcentury. 

* In addition to being ranked the happiest and one of the most gender equal societies, Finland is also considered one of the most stable, best-governed, least corrupt, and best-educated countries in the world.

#MeToo, racism and other difficult topics (and a guy who isn’t the least bit creepy)

I got a notification on Messenger the other day, saying that I had a message from someone who wasn’t my Facebook friend. It happens relatively often, people I don’t know contact me every now and then about my blog or my art. So I checked it out thinking it was probably something like that. However, when I clicked on the notification, the message had been deleted. The person must have changed their mind. The sender was still visible though, and I was curious to see who this person was and what it was all about, so I clicked through to get a better look.  

Having public profiles on social media, I get my share of creepy messages. They are often from guys who must think I look ‘hot’ or something and are looking to be ‘friends’. Their messages usually just contain a ‘Hello there’ and nothing else, and they never change their minds and delete their messages, so I really didn’t think this was anything like that.

So, I clicked through to see who this person was and I thought I recognized him from his profile picture. As a matter of fact, I was pretty sure it was the dad of a sweet, little girl who was friends with my daughter almost two decades ago. My family was located in Sweden at the time and this dad and I were both on parental leave with our daughters and had met through a play group. Our girls got along beautifully and we would sometimes meet up in the park for play dates. I remember them well, I really liked both of them.

We only lived in Sweden for a couple of years. We moved back to Finland and lost touch with many of the people we had met. I had not been in touch with these particular friends since we left and had no idea where or how they were, so I was really happy to see that it was him.

I didn’t think twice. I shot back a message saying I saw that he had tried to contact me and is he so-and-so’s dad? He messaged me back saying yes, he is and that he had found old pictures and decided to see if he could find me on Facebook. But then he had changed his mind after messaging me. Whatever, I didn’t care, I was thrilled. What a blast from the past!

By now we’ve chatted over Messenger a couple of times about old memories of when our girls were little. Sometimes he apologizes in case it seems like he’s prying or if he’s messaged me in the evening. He really doesn’t need to, there has been nothing inappropriate about any of this, but I get the feeling that he just wants to be sure that he won’t offend me or make me feel uncomfortable. He doesn’t want to come across as a creep.

I appreciate that, but let me say right off the bat that this guy has never, ever been even remotely creepy or inappropriate in any sort of way what-so-ever. We had some good conversations as our daughters played and he was always just a really nice guy. 

Being the gender scholar that I am, I thought that was interesting. He was clearly apprehensive that I might misconstrue his motivations for getting in touch after all these years. Maybe it’s just who he his, I don’t know, but what I do know is that a lot has happened since we last met. #MeToo for example. 

The #MeToo movement has been, and continues to be, a hugely important movement. Sometimes I hear comments (mainly from men) about how it has gone a bit too far. I really don’t agree, it hasn’t. On the contrary, it needs to go further because awareness isn’t enough, we also need change and we’re just at the beginning of it. 

One problem, however, is that it is an uncomfortable truth and like all uncomfortable truths, it makes a lot of people feel like they don’t know what to say or how to act. It’s the same with racism, also a hugely important topic, but one that many white people avoid talking about. Many are scared they might say something wrong. I notice it when I write blog posts about difficult issues like these. Unlike other posts, they are usually met with almost complete silence. They hardly even get any likes. 

But back to #MeToo. Every once in a while, I will see frustrated posts and comments about how it is possible that men have become unsure about what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to women. Do they really not know how to be respectful? Do they really not know what is and isn’t appropriate behavior when interacting with another human being? 

Although I really get where these frustrations are coming from, I also understand guys who all of a sudden feel unsure about what is and isn’t okay and are worried they might say or do something around women that may be considered offensive. How can they know if they’ve never been taught?

We live in a world where inequalities are built into the very structures of our society. Misogynism and racism can be overt, and when they are, they are of course relatively easy to detect and people really should understand that it’s not okay to treat others that way. But in this day and age (because a lot of people know it is not okay to be openly racist or misogynist) it is more often than not rather subtle and difficult to detect, although potentially just as damaging. 

Since #BlackLivesMatter became an international phenomenon in 2020, many white people have started to become aware that they need to listen in order to learn what is and isn’t okay. We are invariably racist, whether we like it or not, since racism is built into the very structures of society where we have been brought up. It’s the way we have been raised and we have to work at being better – at not being racist. 

In the same way, there are probably men (and women) who need to learn what is and isn’t okay to say and do, because we have also been brought up in a very gendered society with very gendered social structures. 

So, when men do feel unsure and ask, we shouldn’t lash back and ridicule them for not knowing. The fact that they are asking is a sign that they are listening. They want to know and they want to unlearn and relearn. 

It is the men who don’t ask and who think they already know that we should be worried about. 

It saddens me that these things are so difficult to talk about. People tend to avoid them like the plague in the fear of seeming ignorant or saying or doing the wrong thing. But the fact is, it is only by talking about these things that we will learn and it is only through dialogue that we will see change. 

And if that old friend of mine is reading this and I completely misinterpreted whole the situation, I apologize. But it did get me thinking, so thank you for that!

Learning about men and what they have to live up to

When I set out to research men, I admittedly felt a little daunted by the task. I mean, would I as a woman be able to really understand what it means to be a man? Would I be able to give an accurate account of the opting out and in experiences of the men in my research project? This is something that gender scholars spend a lot of time thinking about. For example, how do I as a researcher affect the research and how does my position and perspective color the way I see the world? These are important things to reflect over. Although researchers strive to be as neutral as possible in the face of their task, we are all human and how we understand and interpret things are invariably affected by who we are.

Anyway, so when I embarked on my research project on men opting out, I set out with the intention of learning as much as I could about men and what it is like to be a man from as many sources as possible. I basically read everything about men that I could get my hands on, from research to fiction, hoping to become enlightened and better prepared for my task. I was expecting to learn a lot.

Well, the feeling of a new world opening up to me never really happened. It was almost a bit anticlimactic because I kept looking for that source that would provide me with some Earth-shattering insights, but it never came. I was starting to wonder whether I was missing something or just not seeing whatever must have been right in front of me all along. 

I mean as a sociologist and a person who has just always been interested in people and psychology in general, I already knew a lot about the societal expectations we place on men. I mean who hasn’t heard about what a ‘real’ man is and should or shouldn’t to. You know what I mean, things like men don’t cry, men shouldn’t show weakness, the strong silent type… But I thought there must be something more. 

Okay to be fair, I did learn a lot. For example, I did learn about social codes among men that I had no idea existed. That is, how men interact with each other. But on a whole, I have to say I was really struck by how stereotypical everything I was reading about really was. 

The social expectations on men are to this day really very one dimensional. Men are in a nutshell expected to be manly, strong, competitive, stoic, unafraid and definitely not show too much emotion or any weakness of any kind. The media depiction of men, whatever the genre, is also very stereotypical. It was actually quite disheartening to tell you the truth. The reason is that I know as a researcher who has interviewed men and as a person who knows men that these one-dimensional ideals of what a man should be don’t even nearly describe what real men in the real meaning of the word really are like. They are also difficult to live up to.

Men and women alike are multidimensional. We are all human, and part of being human is experiencing the whole range of emotions that are available to us. We are strong and we are weak, and we are all vulnerable at certain times in different ways. We all need love and closeness and we all have meaningful relationships we want to nurture. And we all cry. It’s part of being human.

The fact that men and boys are discouraged to partake in much of this saddens me. Researching men has taught me that social masculine ideals are very problematic in many ways as they foster violence on many levels in society (including in the home and at work) and have a negative and sometimes detrimental impact on men’s health. I put my hope in younger generations. Research has also taught me that, thankfully, there are a lot of young men who are breaking these unrealistic and unhealthy masculine norms.  

The truth is, that talking about the difference between men and women is actually not really very helpful at all. Even though there are biological differences, obviously, the actual differences in what we are like as people and what we need are really not that great. There are greater differences within the sexes than between the sexes. All men are certainly not alike, nor are all women, and thank goodness for that! So, the idea that all men should act in a certain way is simply ludicrous.

On that note, I have been going over the proofs for my book Men Do It Too: Opting Out and In this week. I don’t have an exact publication date yet, but it will be some time during the summer. In my book I write in-depth about all this, about men and the expectations placed on them; about how that plays out and the impact it has on their lives and life decisions; and what it is they want and need and how they go about creating meaningful lives. I will keep you posted!  

Introverts mostly among women? No, I don’t think so.

I participated in an online seminar last week about introversion and leadership. I’ve been interested in the topic of introversion and work ever since I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. For me, reading Quiet was a huge eye-opening experience. There was so much in the book that I recognized and for the first time I realized that I myself am a bit of an introvert. I say a bit because I had never thought of myself as introverted before. I can be very talkative and I have always been told what a social person I am. But reading Cain’s book, I realized that it was not about sociability but more about how you interact with others, how you work, and where you get your energy from. Growing up, I liked spending time with friends, like most kids do, but I also found that after being with friends for a while I was often quite tired and just wanted to go home. To be honest, I thought there was something wrong with me. Why didn’t I want to continue hanging out and having fun like everyone else? Why did I want to be alone? This continued to be true as I grew up. As a student at university, I just didn’t have the same stamina as my other friends did when it came to parties and social activities. I just didn’t want to be together all the time and I was starting to wonder whether I was just not a very good friend.

Well, when I read Cain’s book I realized that no, there is nothing wrong with me, that up to 40% of the world’s population is, in fact, quite like me. The problem is that especially Western culture revolves around extraverted values and ways of being. The same goes for workplaces. Workplaces and work ideals are organized according to extraverted behavioral norms. The standard is already set in business schools where courses are structured so that extraverted behavior gives more points and better grades. 

It needs to be noted, however, that extraverted does not necessarily mean better, and being outspoken, social, and talkative does not guarantee good results. On the contrary, research has found that stopping, reflecting, and thinking before speaking and acting may actually be better for the bottom line. 

The reason I originally became interested in this professionally, is that through my opting out research I have met and interviewed many people who have not felt that they have been able to be themselves in the workplaces they opted out of. It has been one of the factors that has added to a difficulty to create a coherent narrative of work (which we need to be able to do for our well-being), which, in turn, is one of the main reasons why people opt out. This is true for both men and women. In fact, more of the men than the women I have interviewed have described themselves as introverts, and both the men and the women have talked about not wanting to work and pursue a career in the way that is expected.

So last week, when I was listening to the discussion in the seminar, I was surprised when it was suggested that more women than men are introverted. I don’t think that is true and nothing I have seen in my research suggests this. If you think about it, suggesting that women are more introverted is really quite a sweeping generalization and a bit of an essentialist view of what men and women are. It suggests that women essentially are a certain way and men, in turn, are another way, whereas in reality, research has shown that stereotypical generalizations like that just aren’t helpful. There are more differences within the sexes than between the sexes. What that means is, there are more difference among women and among men than there are between men and women. 

Women are socially conditioned to spend more time thinking about and being in touch with their feelings and the feelings of others. They are taught to talk about their feelings, whereas men are taught to pretty much ignore them and definitely not talk about them too much (although seriously, men have just as many feelings as women). As a result, women invariably tend to spend more time engaged in self-analysis, which is a reason they may be more likely to recognize themselves as introverts than men are.

And let’s not forget, girls are still in this day and age taught and expected to be more still and quiet, and less rowdy than boys.  

This does not mean that women have a greater tendency to be introverted than men. 

If you’re as interested in this as I am, here are the readings from the seminar last week. I, for one, am going to check these books out!

Creating Introvert Friendly Workplaces by Jennifer Kahnweiler

Quiet is a Superpower by Jill Chang

Introverted Leadership by Karolien Koolhof

So what is the difference between men and women then?

I have spent the last five years studying men and opting out. It was something I knew I wanted to do right from the start, when I started working on my research on women opting out. I was convinced that opting out was much more that the women’s issue it had been treated as, and now I can confirm this is indeed true. Opting out is a contemporary issue; it’s a societal and an organizational one. All kinds of people opt out, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, marital status, whether or not they have kids… They leave because the way they have been living and working just doesn’t work for them anymore and they can’t or won’t go on the way they have. 

I get asked a lot about the difference between men and women who opt out. Are there any differences? Do they opt out for different reasons? Do they experience it differently? The answer is yes and no. 

Their situations are a bit different. This is not because of biological differences or differences in character, traits or values. It is rather because of the different expectations we place on men and women in society.

Women are taught to be nurturers, men are taught to be fighters. Women are taught to be empathetic and emotional, men are taught to be strong and not to cry. Women are told that they can be anything they want to be (thank you feminism!), men are told they need to be able to support a family. 

This may sound archaic and stereotypical to you, by I assure you that today, year 2020, this remains to be true, even in my home country Finland, that is considered one of the most gender equal in the world. 

Opting out is harder for men because part of ‘being a man’ is making enough money to support a (real or hypothetical) family. It’s easier for women because being a good woman does not (according to societal norms) hinge on having a good career, but rather on how good a care taker (or mother) a woman is. 

So yes, there are differences, but my research has shown me that their reasons and experiences are still surprisingly similar.

Both the men and the women in my research have felt the environment and/or way of working that they opted out of was unsustainable. Many of them – both men and women – felt that they couldn’t really be themselves. Both felt they didn’t have enough time for loved ones and wanted lifestyles that allowed them to really be there for the people in their lives. Many of them started working in areas with more compassion, where they could work more closely with and help people. 

The men and women that I have interviewed all went through a similar process when they opted out and in, and they had similar hopes and dreams the futures.

So yes, although their experiences are somewhat different, they are also very much the same. The differences lie in social and societal expectations and norms; the similarity consists of their humanity.

At the end of the day men and women really are much more alike than we tend to think. After all, we’re all human.

I would never say that

My research has gotten some media attention again this fall. I’m pleased of course; it feels great to get recognition for what you do, as well as confirmation that what you’re doing is important.

I also got quite a bit of exposure for my opting out research when I finished my PhD a few years ago. Then, I talked about women opting out, because that was what my PhD had been about, but now I can add men to the mix, and compare my research results. This is interesting of course, since my research is somewhat unique in that respect.

I’ve always thought giving interviews is fun. I mean what researcher doesn’t love talking about his or her research? However, taking the picture that goes with the interview has been a different story, because they always take a picture.

The picture used to give me a fair share anxiety, at least back in 2014 when I finished my PhD. On the morning of the days I would have an interview, I would carefully choose what to wear, diligently blow dry my hair and spend some extra time applying my makeup, which I don’t use a lot of. It was always a bit stressful, because honestly, what does one wear when one gets featured in the media?! On interview days, I kind of wished I had a stylist.

But not only that, it almost always rained or was both rainy and windy on the days I got interviewed. This was unfortunate because my hair, which I had carefully blow dried, would always get hopelessly frizzy. I would hold my umbrella as close to my head as possible and dart between buildings, hoping to save my hairdo (which those of you who have a tendency to get frizzy hair know is a lost cause).

I remember on days I didn’t have interviews, I took to walking in the rain without an umbrella and looked up at the clouds thinking bring in on! It felt so liberating to not have to care about how I looked.

Luckily, I have come a long way since then, and I kind of stopped caring. This time around I really don’t get as stressed about how I look. People don’t really notice a difference anyway.

But, of course, there are other things. Like before, I’ve had a very positive experience. Most of the time, the journalists who interview me will send me drafts of the article before publishing to check facts and that they don’t misrepresent me. I really appreciate that, because there are almost always things that they have misunderstood and that need correcting, things that are just factually wrong.

It’s funny though, because as a researcher, when I interview people, I always record the interview and then I transcribe it, so that if I quote someone, I am absolutely certain that I write exactly what they have said. This is important in research. It would be unethical and just bad practice to misrepresent someone or to put words in their mouth.

But I have noticed that journalists don’t generally record interviews. They take notes and then they write the article based on those notes. They quote me using quotation marks, even though in reality they are paraphrasing because what they put in the quotation marks isn’t exactly what I said, but rather what we have talked about. I know this because often I find myself supposedly having said something in a way I would never say it. But I try not to be too picky, and as long as it’s factually correct, I let it pass.

Besides, often a journalist will write about my topic in a different way than I usually do, and I find the new perspective refreshing and often it adds value. They mostly do great jobs.

However, sometimes they don’t send me a draft first, and the first time I see the article is when it is published. Reading through it for the first time, is always a tiny bit nerve-racking, because I’m doing it at the same time as uncountable others and I don’t really know what I will find. Most of the time it’s fine, but sometimes they get things wrong. And sometimes it’s not just some minor unimportant detail.

This happened in an interview last month that was featured in not one but two newspapers in Finland. The reporter had quoted me saying that Finland is a gender equal country.

Now you might not think this is a big deal, but I was reeling when I saw it. I would never say that; it is simply not true. Finland isn’t a gender equal country. Finland is considered one of the most gender equal countries in the world, that I know I said, but to say that gender equality has been reached in Finland is a lie. There continues to be structural inequalities between men and women and we certainly have a lot of work left to do regarding gender equality in Finland.

But it was upsetting also for another reason. I am, among other things, a gender scholar. One of the things I have worked for during the past few years, is to raise awareness about gender inequalities and to make Finnish organizations more gender equal. Having me declare that Finland is gender equal in a national newspaper, kind makes much of what I have been doing superfluous and irrelevant. It kind of undermines everything I stand for.

So no, Finland is not gender equal, and I would never suggest that it is.

When it hits you in the gut: what the pay gap really feels like

When we hear about phenomena in the world, we can usually understand what it is we are talking about intellectually, but still it is often just statistics. It doesn’t have a face, it doesn’t feel like it’s happening to real people – real people with real feelings. Take the gender pay gap for example. Yes, I think many of us agree that it must be wrong to pay people less just because of their gender. Or their race for that matter. But it’s still just numbers. Pay should be fair, but looking at the statistics, it doesn’t really affect us. It doesn’t create a sense of urgency.

And one thing I know, is that without a sense of urgency, it is very hard to create change.

So, when I saw an article about how a woman reacted when she realized she was being paid less than her colleagues because of her gender, I though yes, things like this give these issues a face. They give them a feeling, one that helps us understand that this is not just a statistic, this is something that really affects Anne, Elisabeth, Sofia, Andrea… It affects how they feel about themselves. It affects their sense of worth. It affects their motivation. It affects what they can and cannot buy for themselves or for their children. It affects them. They feel the pay gap, it is something that can be felt.

In this article you see a woman who realizes she is holding her colleague’s pay check and you see how her face changes from confused to horrified to defeated. It describes so clearly that this isn’t just a statistic to her; it is a real, lived, physical experience.

Incidentally, the day after I read the article, I was looking through some papers in my office and I stumbled across a piece of memory work I once did. A few years ago, I participated in a workshop to learn about a method called memory work. What we were supposed to do was to write on a theme from our memory for a few minutes without stopping and just let it flow. Afterwards we read what we had written to each other.

The subject we were asked to write about was “A time when I was conscious of my gender.” As I sat down with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, I spontaneously started writing about an experience I hadn’t thought about for years. The words tumbled out of me faster than I could write them down. It was a story about the gender pay gap.

As I later read what I had written to the group, I got strangely emotional. This memory that I had buried deep inside my mind and not thought about in years, was surprisingly painful to read out loud. It was like ripping open old wounds. It was almost an out of body experience, because although it was about me, it was about a much younger version of me. Yet, it still felt surprisingly raw and painful. Maybe because I had never told anyone about it. I mean, it was embarrassing. I wasn’t being paid what I was worth.

Well, I’ve decided to share it here, my real experience of the gender pay gap. I’ve anonymized it because I don’t want to name any names, but otherwise it’s pretty much exactly as I wrote it in that workshop:

 

A time when I was conscious of my gender

I was about 25 or 26 years old. I was at my second job after graduating from business school, but I was only at my first job for a year or so, so I didn’t have a lot of experience or a lot of self confidence in my professional role. There is one thing I remember specifically that made me very aware of my gender. It was when I saw my colleague’s contract. We more or less did the same job, and we had been working for about the same amount of time – I may have worked a bit longer (since I graduated) – but I realized when I saw his contract that he had a higher salary than I did.

This was the situation: In the office I kept a lot of paperwork that concerned the team. I was the coordinator as well as having [other (the same as my colleague)] responsibilities. In the corner of my office there was a large, locked cupboard with double doors. I was kneeling on the floor in front of the cupboard, flipping through the folders that were kept in there. I was looking for something specific. I can’t remember what it was, but as I was flipping through some papers, I stumbled across his contract. It was in a plastic “pocket” and it had his name on it and I knew right away what it was. I saw his monthly salary, the one he started out with, because for all I knew he may have negotiated a raise already.

I felt the blood drain from my face and a knot develop in my stomach. I felt enraged because they had told me when I was hired and tried to negotiate my salary that there was no way they could possibly pay me more than what they offered. I had felt pretty good about it until now. I felt cheated, and I felt that it was because I was a woman. I had heard about women being discriminated like this, but I never thought it would happen to me. And it just had.

I remember sitting there, on the floor by the cupboard, with the binder in my lap, feeling just horrible. I think that was the beginning of the end for me at that company. I lost faith in the organization and in my superior. I realized that it was just business for him, that he was going to pay me as little as he could get away with. And even worse, I felt disappointed in myself because worse than feeling cheated is the feeling that you let yourself be cheated. I felt I was a stupid girl who let people discriminate me and pay me less than I was worth just because of my gender.

Making the world better for boys too

My idol, Professor Mirjam Kalland, had a column in my local daily newspaper last week. She wrote about boys and girls, about gender structures and about how we value and treat people differently based on their gender. She wrote about gender discrimination and about how this affects both boys and girls as they grow up. Her column struck a chord with me because this is what I am always saying. Although a lot of people don’t realize it, gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it’s a societal issue. It’s about men and women, about boys and girls, about the wellbeing of all.

There is research that shows that gender norms and structures, while still being discriminatory towards women, are not good for men either in a number of ways. One of the ways is men’s health. Gendered structures and norms affect men’s physical and mental health negatively. For example, suicide rates are, as we know, higher among men than women.

I think of this as I watch my son grow up. I have a girl and a boy, both are smart, sensitive, inquisitive, social beings and it pains me when I see how they are treated differently, for no other apparent reason than their gender.

I remember when my son was a lot younger, and nervous about going to the dentist. We have found a wonderful dentist, to make going as easy as possible and I had been taking my daughter there for a couple of years at least before I went with my son. Both the dentist and his assistant were always very kind and patient towards my daughter, making sure not to do anything until she was ready. As a parent you feel so grateful to people who are kind to your children.

Imagine my surprise when I went with my son. He needed the same time and patience, but what he got instead was a snide comment from the assistant (who was female, in case that matters), to be quiet and open his mouth so we can just get this over with and go home.

This was the nurse who had been treating my daughter completely differently for years, and when I came in with a much younger child who was nervous, but calm and polite, and was wondering what was going to happen, like his sister had often wondered, the response was be quiet and open your mouth. I’m pretty sure there was no other reason than that he was a boy and you don’t coddle boys. “How are they otherwise ever going to become men?” Have you heard that before? I have and all of a sudden, I was experiencing it too.

Well, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I see how little boys are treated differently than girls all the time. I’ve witnessed it at my children’s day care (which, for the record, was a wonderful place). I’ve seen girls hurt themselves and how they’ve been hugged and soothed, rightly so. I’ve seen boys hurt themselves, and handled kind of roughly when they’ve been picked up off the ground, even when they are crying. I’ve seen a little boy laughed at by a grown-up at day care when he hurt his genitals, because that was kind of embarrassing and I guess laughter just came more spontaneously than a hug.

And this is in a country that is considered one of the most gender equal in the world, where day care workers have degrees in early childhood education and care.

Well for my son, the gendered treatment continues. He is much older now and very much aware of what is going on around him. He is still sensitive, and one of the most empathetic people I know, and he sees how he and his friends get treated differently than girls in school because they are boys (again, I need to stress, he goes to a really good school).

He says boys are damned before they even open their mouths. He’s frustrated that the worst is often expected of him before he has even done anything. That he is told to be quiet when he has a question and expected to be rowdy, even though that really hasn’t been his tendency. He knows that people often don’t even realize that this is what they are doing – that they don’t necessarily do it on purpose – but the term that comes to my mind is self-fulfilling prophecy. That is how boys will start acting if that is all that is expected of them.

So no, I don’t think gender equality is a women’s issue. I think it is everyone’s issue. I think gender equality really would make the world a better place. For both girls and boys, men and women, and everyone else too!

Dads caring for children: is it natural?

A friend asked me the other day if I think it’s natural for dads to share care responsibilities. She was frustrated because her husband just didn’t seem to be attuned to their child’s needs and was concerned that he (the child) simply wasn’t getting cared for the way she felt he needed when he was with his dad.

The timing of her question was actually quite perfect because I am, coincidentally, just now working on a chapter on stay-at-home dads for my book on men opting out. I have mostly interviewed men who have opted out to opt in to other forms or approaches to work, but my data does also contain a few stay-at-home dads whose narratives are so interesting that I’m dedicating a whole chapter to them. It’s a very timely issue, what with initiatives to get men to share the care load and to take more parental leave when their children are young.

So the question is, is it natural for a man to be a caregiver, or even the main caregiver, of his children? One argument I sometimes hear (in addition to the one above that men just aren’t sensitive enough to children’s needs) as to why it isn’t is that in the animal kingdom it is often the female that cares for the young while the male goes off and does something else, whatever that may be, so shouldn’t it be the same with people. (Yes this is true, this is an argument I hear, although there are species where the male also cares for the offspring to different degrees. I’m no zoologist, but you can look this up.)

Let’s deal with this point first, and get one thing straight. We humans are our own species with our own social structures, rules and needs, so comparing us to other animals is not always helpful. In fact, according to Finnish child psychiatrist Jukka Mäkelä, one of the things that sets us apart form other species is that human infancy lasts much longer than it does for other species. This means that it takes much more physical, emotional and mental effort as well as time to care for human infants until they are big enough to feed themselves, actually walk, look out for themselves etc. than it does for other species’ offspring.

What this means in practice is that this is a lot to do for one person (i.e. the mother) and the work and responsibility should, in fact, be shared. Unfortunately our individualistic society with ideals like the nuclear family and mothers struggling alone to raise their children does not support this. However, our individualist ideals are not a natural human condition, they are social structures so deeply embedded in our consciousness that most of us have trouble seeing alternative ways of life. But parenting has historically not always been organized or idealized the way it is today; caring has, for example, not always been done primarily by the mother.

So just because other animals organize their family life and care responsibilities in a certain way, it doesn’t mean humans should too.

Well then what about that first point, the one about men not being attentive enough and therefore being incompetent to properly care for children and their needs? Being attuned to a child’s needs is an acquired skill. Those of you women out there who have children probably remember that when your first baby was born the learning curve was quite steep. However, after spending a lot time with your child around clock you learned to both understand and anticipate your child’s needs, it became second nature. But still, it was a skill you acquired after becoming a mother.

Now, since women do the brunt of childcare and are the ones who take most or all of the available parental leave, this usually means that the father ends up not spending as much time with the child and therefore not acquiring the same skills. Hence we have the situation where moms feel that dads really aren’t very attentive, which they often aren’t because they haven’t had the chance to learn. Also, it needs to be noted that, growing up, girls are socially conditioned and taught to be attentive towards others’ needs and feelings, which is not something we as a society generally expect of boys.

However, research has shown – and I have seen this in my data too – that when a father gets a chance to spend a lot of time with his child, especially alone without the mother around (like being on parental leave), he learns to become attentive to the child’s needs and just like the mother learns to anticipate things before they even happen. This comes automatically from spending time with the child, but it doesn’t happen over night. Time is needed, and just like mothers learn to mother over time, fathers need a chance to learn to be the nurturing fathers they are very capable of being.

The upside to this newly acquired skill to be attentive and attuned to needs, is that fathers who gain this skill are not only more attentive towards their children (and develop very warm and close relationships with them), they also become more attentive towards other people, like their partners, which has a great positive effect on their relationships. In other words, this is really very good for the whole family.

And finally, I know of no father who has taken responsibility for the care of his children, either in my data set or elsewhere, who has regretted the close relationship and bond with his children that this caring has entailed. Children who have parents who share the load typically become very close to both (or all, depending on what kind of a family we’re talking about) parents.

So the answer to the question whether it is natural for fathers to take on responsibility for their children’s day-to-day care is yes! It is completely natural and it is desirable. Fathers should be around their children more and share the care load with their partners.

But, having said that, we mothers, who are concerned about the quality of care that our children get, also have to accept that everyone will not do things exactly the same way, nor should they. Everyone is bound to have their own ways of going about caring. The point is, however, that fathers need to be given a chance. And to the fathers out there I want to say, go for it, you won’t regret it!

I’ll wear whatever the hell I want

I thought we weren’t doing that anymore; telling women over a certain age what they can and cannot wear. I thought we had already stipulated that people can and should wear whatever they please. But apparently I was wrong.

Last week I didn’t see just one but two posts (suggested to me by Facebook’s generous and thoughtful algorithms – I think someone thinks I’m getting old…) in my Facebook newsfeed on fashion mistakes women must avoid as they age. One was for women over the age of fifty and the other I don’t remember exactly but it was for women older than that. According to these posts’ expert advice, the fashion mistakes you might make will either make you look old or frumpy or both. But at the same time you must look your age and avoid garments made for much younger women, because that will just make you look ridiculous.

This isn’t the first time I see advice like this. Last time I got fashion advice in my newsfeed it was things women over 30 should wear, and I’ve also seen fashion warnings for women over 40. At the time, it was followed by an outpouring of articles, columns, and blog posts protesting this preposterous advice, assuring anyone who cared that not only should women wear “whatever the f*** they want”, they also do. Countless pictures of fabulous old ladies breaking so-called fashion rules and wearing whatever they wanted were shared on social media, and I somehow naïvely thought that was the end of that. We had proven that advice on what you can or cannot wear is not just uninteresting and from an era long past, it is also simply not wanted. But apparently I was wrong.

The thing is – and I can’t believe that I have to spell this out – everyone is different. People look different and different things are flattering on different people. But not everyone even cares about that. For some people other things go before fashion, like comfort or practicality, and besides, what is flattering and fashionable is a very subjective thing, as well as varying, depending on time and place. But either way, when people wear what makes them comfortable and what they like, it makes them feel good about themselves and confident in their skin. That is much more becoming that wearing something you don’t like and ending up spending all day feeling uncomfortable and inadequate just because it falls into the category must wear for someone your age.

And consider this, do you ever see intricate lists for men of what not to wear after certain ages?

Enough said. Stop with the ageist fashion dos and don’ts already. Besides, I’m going to wear whatever the hell I want.