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.