It can’t be done… or can it?

One of the things I often hear when talking about sustainable career models is that in a family with children the parents cannot both have high-powered careers: if one parent pursues a career with everything that entails, then the other can’t or else no one will ever be around to raise the children. In most heterosexual families it’s the man with the career and the woman doing most of the childcare, but I have also seen families where the gender roles have been completely reversed. Instead of sharing responsibilities more evenly they have just flipped roles and the mother has the career and the father is the main caregiver of their children.

To reach the top echelons of corporate hierarchies, there is an expectation to climb the so-called career ladder in a timely fashion. Longer breaks or leaves of absence are often considered suspect. Only a few days ago this was confirmed to me once again by a corporate executive. I was told if a job applicant’s CV has gaps, or if the applicant hasn’t advanced as quickly as expected, he questions the person’s ability, ambition, and drive.

Yes, I know. Just because you choose to do something else for a while certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t able, ambitious, or driven, but that is how many still see it. And no, I don’t think that is the way it should be, and I am working on changing it, but for now that’s what we’re dealing with.

But let me tell you this. In my research, every once in a while, I see an exception to this rule. I interviewed a woman once who decided to just step off the career ladder. She was in a management position, she was exhausted, and she realized that unintentionally often took it out on her child, which she was distraught by. She decided she just couldn’t do it anymore, so after months of agonizing about what she should do, she walked into her boss’s office to hand in her resignation. As it turned out, she didn’t end up quitting. She managed to keep her job but started working part-time instead. No one in a management position had ever worked part-time in that company before, it was absolutely unheard of, and her decision was what we would generally define as a career-limiting move. She stopped caring about promotions, she was just happy that she could still work and be less stressed as a mother. Well, get this. When I met her two years later to follow up on the interview, she had been offered and had accepted a promotion in that very same company. The career limiting move turned out not to be. Yes, she was stressed again, and yes, she stepped back on the career ladder, but if you think about it, it is quite extraordinary as she originally thought her decisions would be anything but good for her career.

Then there was this man I interviewed. He had had several gaps during his career, when he had taken time off work to stay at home with all three of his kids while his wife pursued a successful career. In the interview he talks about how he and his wife thought about what the best solution for the family was, and they came to the conclusion that she should work and he should take care of the kids. His story isn’t very usual, but it’s inspirational because it also proves that interlacing a career with other things does not have to mean kissing a corporate career goodbye. He never disengaged completely; he always kept in touch with his contacts and did some consultancy work while he was away, but definitely didn’t climb the ladder in the expected way. He and his wife had decided to take turns. First she would focus or her career, and then a few years later when the kids were a bit bigger and she had achieved many of her goals, he would focus on his. And because he was never completely away he managed to do this and is now in a top corporate position pursuing the career he originally thought he would have.

His choices haven’t been completely unproblematic. Being away makes his ascent slightly slower than his peers’, but it is still possible. And if we make alternative career models the new normal it might also become possible for even more people.

But in the meantime, consider what these two stories tell us. They illustrate that what we think of as unheard of doesn’t necessarily have to be. You may think it isn’t possible where you work, but how will you know if you don’t ask? Sometimes it really can be that simple.


Stay-at-home dads

I got back from the US a couple of weeks ago, where I interviewed men who have opted out of successful careers. By now I have conducted interviews in Finland, the UK and the US (and I am still looking for more men, so please let me know if you are or know of anyone in these countries who I could interview: Thank you!).

Luckily everything I heard about interviewing men when I set out has been proven wrong. The stories I have collected are incredibly rich in detail and so interesting. I just love interviewing, and although I haven’t started to systematically analyze my data yet, I do have some tentative impressions. One is that although it at first seemed that men who opt out pretty much follow the same pattern as women (see my post Men who opt out), the more I interview the more complicated it gets. While the stories of the women I interviewed were all very similar, I’m finding that the men’s stories are all over the place. They are actually all quite different.

The decision to leave seems to have come about differently for men than it did for the women I interviewed. The women typically set out to have a career without any plan what-so-ever to ever leave, but finally did leave due to a crisis that pushed them to rethink their lives and their values (see for example How do you decide to opt out?). The decision for men to opt out on the other hand – not all of them but many if not most of them – seems to have been less about being pushed to make a decision and more about just doing it.

This, of course, could be because men aren’t potentially as forthcoming about talking about crises as women, but that is not the whole truth. Men are socially expected to work, to be the breadwinners, and to support their families, whereas women aren’t. If a woman pursues a career, she has to overcome social norms and expectations. In fact, we often assume that women who pursue careers do it for selfish reasons – self-actualization – while men do it for selfless reasons: to support their families. That is not true, however, both do it for both selfish and selfless reasons. Both may have families to support and both do it because they find it meaningful, but still this is how people often subconsciously see it. So a woman has more social barriers to overcome when pursuing a career than a man does, which probably means that if she has made it that far in her career, she has done so because that is what she really wants to do. And if that is true, she is not going to give it up very easily, unless something happens that makes her rethink her priorities.

Men on the other hand, are expected to work, to have a career, so all men who have risen in the corporate hierarchies might not have gotten there out of pure conviction and grit. So I’m thinking, maybe the decision to leave may therefore just be something they decide to do and not necessarily as a result of a crisis. Maybe it is just their next step, whether it is for good or for a period of time until they come back again.

Many of the men I interviewed in the US either are or have been stay-at-home dads. I suppose that is to be expected as there is no legislative parental leave and affordable high quality daycare is harder to come by in the US than it is in Europe.

For these men, it was therefore naturally often children that made them decide to leave. They saw their family as a unit and together with their wives (who also had successful careers) they decided that the best thing for the family whole was for the wife to work and for the husband to care for the children, and then that was what they did. And all of them were very happy about their decisions. Despite the hard work (because staying at home with kids really is hard work), it felt meaningful and they cherished the time they had with their children.

But, the truth is, when it comes to social standards they are the anomaly. In their respective communities, they are the only stay-at-home dads in what continues to be a predominantly woman’s world. And here are some of the frustrating things they hear from other women, often strangers:

  • “Oh you’re babysitting your kids today!” (How can a dad possibly babysit his own kids? They are his kids!)
  • “Oh you must have forgotten her jacket at home!” (No, this dad knew exactly how much his daughter needed to wear in that weather.)
  • “Oh how sweet, are you helping your wife out today?” (…)
  • “When are you going to find a job?” (Something you generally wouldn’t ask a woman in the same situation.)

And the most incredible thing I heard was something that one man told me happens on a regular basis when he takes his child to the park. Strange women will come up to his child sitting in the stroller and fix things like hats and jackets, thinking that this dad needs all the help he can get. Anyone with children will know how unsettling that is. You don’t want strangers touching your children and if a man did that – just walked up to a woman with a stroller and started touching the child – it would definitely be frowned upon, right?

It seems that although we are becoming more open to men and women breaking gendered norms, we really have a ways to go. Even in Finland, which is considered one of the most gender equal countries in the world, very few men actually take parental leave. Many men take out their legislated paternity leave and stay home with the mother and the new baby for up to three weeks right after the baby is born, but the percentage of men who actually stay at home and are the main caregivers until their children start daycare or school, is in the single digits. Last I heard it was about 3 or 4%. And a lot of it is due to organizations not supporting fathers who want to do this. Although they would never deny a Finnish mother to go on maternity and parental leave, I have heard many stories where employers have told fathers that it may be your legislative right, but here we just don’t do that.

So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with a long way to go. But based on the stories of the men I interviewed, it is a truly valuable and cherished experience for both the father and the child. Fathers can be just as attentive and caring as mothers and if we just give them the chance to participate in childcare on equal terms, I really do think the world would be a better place.

Exciting news!

I received exciting news last week. I’ve been applying for funding for my research on men opting out and on the new meanings of work, and finally funding has been granted! Not only that, I got the mother of all funding: three years full-time funding from the Academy of Finland, which in Finland is a really big deal. In fact, it’s only just starting to sink in.

To be able to focus full-time on research is a dream for any academic, and for me it’s especially amazing since this is what I’ve been planning ever since I started working on my PhD several years ago. I want to research opting out as a societal phenomenon, not just a women’s phenomenon, I want to be the first (as far as I know) to include men in the discussion on opting out, and I want to be involved in uncovering and creating new definitions and solutions for work. This is the future and it’s happening now!

I think one of the things that worked in my favor in this round of applications was that I have already started this research. I was frustrated last year when I couldn’t seem to convince funders of the importance of this topic, so I decided to start interviewing men on their opting out experiences anyway without funding because I knew this is what I wanted to do. As a result I’ve already conducted about 10 pilot interviews and could share preliminary impressions and results in my application.

So if there is one learning to take away from this, it is that if there is something you really want to do, don’t wait for permission, just do it!

I’m going to miss teaching though, I was just getting into it and I really liked it. But you win some and you lose some, and in this case the win is pretty amazing. Post-doc research project, here I come!

Oh right, and I also need more men to interview. So if you are a man who has opted out to adopt a new lifestyle or way of working, or if you know of someone who is and who would be willing to be interviewed, please contact me:

All emails are confidential and will be treated as such.

Men who opt out

Thursday this week was a big day for me. I was at a conference presenting papers, which isn’t extraordinary as such, but one of the papers I presented was on my research on men opting out. So now that I’ve spoken about it publicly I feel like it’s finally official! This research is really happening!

Before you get too excited let me start by saying that this research is really very much in the early stages. I’m still only starting out and in my presentation I presented preliminary, tentative impressions of the interviews I’ve conducted so far. But having said that, there are some things that can be discerned from these interviews that are really very interesting. And working on this presentation really reminded me how exciting and fascinating this research is.

The first main impression is that men’s opting out and in processes really don’t seem to differ that much from women’s. They basically go through the same stages from opting out to opting in. Like women they experience turmoil, fatigue and a lack of control; then they experience something that triggers them to take the step and actually opt out; and in their new lifestyles and/or alternative solutions for work that they opt in to, they gain a sense of authenticity and coherence, and a feeling of having more control over their lives.

And just like for women, a common denominator seems to be the hectic, high-pressure, all-consuming nature of corporate culture. Although their opting out and in experiences are anything but easy, I’m still secretly pleased to notice this because it supports the notion that there is something detrimentally wrong with the way we organize work as well as with the working cultures we create. Well, at least it is for many people and we really need to do something about this. We need to critically examine what it is we are doing to people in these working environments and what we can and should be doing instead.

And then there is the way we define successful careers. The career models that continue to be idealized by most organizations today are quite linear. You’re generally expected to progress up the proverbial career ladder in a timely fashion if you want to reach the top. Too much deviation from this path might define you as unambitious or not having what it takes. Now there is a lot of research on different career models that better correlate with how people today want to and actually do live their lives and manage their careers, but still, the linear career model continues to be the one most prevalent.

This linear career model is a remnant of the post-World War II career model that was developed by men for men. Typical to that era, these men generally had housewives at home to take care of the home front, and it has been argued that managerial jobs weren’t created for just one person, but for one and a half people. That is, for the man with the job, and also for his wife who did everything else for him. And considering professionals work longer hours than ever before, I guess its no wonder a lot of contemporary people seem to have trouble handling it all!

Because this career model was created by men for men, we call it a masculinist career model. However, as we all know, not all men are the same. They don’t all want the same thing and they don’t all want to work in the same way. Just as women are a diverse group, there are multiple masculinities, that is, different ways of being a man. So while these career models are created for men, in reality they’re created for a certain traditional way of being a man, which doesn’t really leave a lot of room for much diversity among men either.

But another thing I’ve found, is that there are a lot of assumptions about men; almost more, it seems, than about women. Or at least this is the impression I’m getting. When telling people that I’m interviewing men, I sometimes get comments about how men won’t open up and talk about their feelings, or how they don’t opt out, and if they do it’s for completely different reasons than it is for women. For example, many assume that relationships aren’t as important for men as for women, and sometimes I hear that if men do opt out it’s not about difficulties or turmoil but more about challenge and self-actualization. And even more interestingly, these comments often come from men.

Well, like I said before, I’m in the very early stages so I can’t make any generalizations, but so far I would say none of these stereotypical assumptions are proving true.

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes. In the meantime I’m always looking for more men to interview so if you are a man who has opted out and in, or know of a man who has opted out and in, and who would be willing to be interviewed, please email me at Thank you!

Summer reading plans

As spring has gradually turned into summer, the world seems to be slowing down a bit. I notice that instead of focusing on my writing like I should be, at least for a few more weeks until my summer holiday starts, I find my mind drifting and I’m distracted by the blue skies (okay so they’re sort of grey today, but still), the fragrant flowers, and the chirping birds outside my window. The words of one of my so called opt outers echo in my head: “It’s so much about being efficient… I don’t know if that’s the life I want to live.” So with my body, mind, and soul longing for lazy summer days, I thought I would share with you some of my summer reading plans.

Since the work of a researcher never ends, I will start with academic books. I have a couple of books on masculinities on my desk that I’m looking forward to digging my teeth into (not literally): Men’s Lives by Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner; and The Gender of Desire: Essays on Male Sexuality by Michael S. Kimmel.

The reason these are on the top of my list is that I have just embarked on my postdoctoral research project on men opting out and these books represent a door to a whole new world that I can’t wait to start exploring. I could intuitively understand what was going on as a woman studying women, but the situation is different now.

The concept of masculinities is relatively recent in gender studies. While focus has typically been on women, it is only during the past decades that researchers have started to explore different types of masculinities. So let me tell you about Catherine Hakim, who developed Preference Theory, which many of you may have heard of. She argues that the main reason women don’t reach top positions in any great numbers is their preferences. That is, according to her, many prefer to focus on family rather than on a career. Now I have dedicated many blog posts to why it just isn’t that simple, that there are a multitude of forces and reasons beyond preference that hold women back or have them ‘choose’ one thing over another, so I won’t go into that now.

But relevant to the study of masculinities, Hakim also argues that the reason society is patriarchal (that is, mainly men have the power) is that women are so diverse in their preferences and therefore make lots of different choices, while men are basically homogeneous, that is have very similar interests. Let me run this by you again just so that you can take this all in: she argues that women are diverse and men basically all want the same thing (and no, she is not talking about sex, at least I don’t think so). I mean really. Men aren’t all the same. They don’t all want to live their lives the same way. They don’t all share the same dreams. Just like women are a diverse group – just like there are many different femininities – there many different masculinities too. And in case anyone is still unsure of where I stand regarding this: no, I don’t agree with her.

Next on my list is Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World by Cecilia L. Ridgeway. This book is apparently one of the most important contemporary books on gender, and it supposedly tackles big questions in an accessible way, so I’m looking forward to that. This book is relevant for my research on how opting out can lead to greater gender segregation. For that I’m also going to acquaint myself with the literature on silences – on what’s not said. Women who opt out often insist that their decision was completely their own, that their husbands (if they are married) have said that they will support them no matter what they decide. However, what is becoming all the more clear to me as I go through transcripts of interviews, is that while many of the husband say they support their wives, they don’t actually do very much to alleviate their wives’ situations. They generally don’t take a more active role at home so that their wives might feel less overwhelmed. They basically do nothing, except of course provide moral support (and financial support if their wives end up quitting work altogether, but that’s not what I’m talking about here). So through their silences and non-actions they are actually saying quite a lot. Perhaps not consciously, but still. So I need to know more about that.

But my summer is of course not only going to be about work; I plan to mix in a lot of novels as well. I love novels and I basically devour them whenever I can (which is all the time). I have just ordered a copy of The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker, which I’ve heard is wonderful. And I discovered Kim Thúy a while back; I read her book and really enjoyed that, so I’m going to read Mãn next. Also, I’m waiting for Go Set a Watchman* by Harper Lee to be published in July (yes, it’s a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird!).

If you have any books to recommend, I would love to hear from you. I constantly need more good books to read!


Julia and me (and some thoughts on men, women, and the complexity of being)

My husband asked me the other day when I’m going to write about Julia Kristeva’s work on my blog. The reason he asked is because Kristeva received quite a prominent place in my thesis, and while I was writing my thesis there was a period when basically all I talked about was Kristeva. I was working on my thesis in Adelaide, and every morning for about a week or so, I would go out to the empty, green rugby oval close to our apartment and sit on the bleachers and read Kristeva. I found her work interesting, but also challenging, so I would read what other people wrote about her work as well in order to get my head around what it was she was saying. This may sound a bit crazy, but those bleachers are forever going to be the place where Julia and I got acquainted. So to answer my husband’s question, it’s now.

The reason I got interested in Kristeva in the first place was because she does extensive work on the maternal, which is an important issue in my research. But that isn’t what I’m going to write about today. I’m going to write about something I saw in my Facebook newsfeed the other day, the kind of thing that many of us see every now and then, I’m sure, but which just gets me every time.

Okay here it is: “Trying to understand women is like trying to smell the number 9.”

I mean really, are we still doing this? Aren’t jokes and wisecracks about how complicated and impossible to understand women are old already? I know people who make jokes about this are just trying to be funny, and don’t really mean anything by it, but what they are unintentionally doing, is keeping alive the idea that women aren’t really to be taken seriously. By dismissing women as complicated, difficult, irrational, and hard to understand, even in jest, women are effectively kept in the position of Other, that is someone who is so different or difficult that they don’t really need to be reckoned with. I’m going to say it, these jokes are sexist.

But at the same time I think, come on guys, don’t sell yourselves short! Men aren’t any less complicated or hard to understand than women. Men are just as complex, and filled with fears, hopes, and dreams as anyone else. Anything less wouldn’t be human. Anything less would be boring. Think about it, do you really want to be thought of as one-dimensional, and on top of that, pretty much exactly the same as the next guy: simple, uncomplicated, and uninteresting?

And this is where Kristeva comes in. Kristeva is, by the way, not only a social theorist but also a psychoanalyst, linguist, and feminist to name a few, and has done a vast amount of work within these fields, so this post will in no way do her justice. But she does say something about sex and gender that I think is relevant to the point I’m trying to make. While people generally get categorized by sex or gender (i.e. you are a man or a woman, or you behave or feel like a man or a woman), Kristeva holds that although masculine is often associated with men and feminine associated with women, the feminine is not a category specific to either sex. The feminine belongs to both men and women. The reason, according to Kristeva, is that both men and women come from the maternal body (boys as well as girls are born from, raised by, loved by, and interact with women) and unfortunately taboos and silencing effectively separates men from this dimension of social life. So if it wasn’t for all the social practices, gender norms, and other constructs out there, men’s and women’s behaviors really might not be that different.

This became complicated and difficult to explain in just a few lines. I think I’m going to have to dedicate a whole other blog post to Kristeva at some point, as she really has some compelling, important, and unconventional things to say about the maternal, feminism, and society as a whole. But for now, like many before me, I’m going to ask, so men are from Mars and women from Venus? Please. How one-dimensional isn’t that? I’d say we are all much more diverse and interesting. If we’re going to talk about outer space, then men are from any number of planets in the Solar System and beyond, as are women. But as book titles go, I guess that just doesn’t sound very catchy, does it.