When it comes to women and men and the differences between them our comfort zone is not in the hard sciences but in the soft ones. When it comes to women and men and leadership our comfort zone is not in the hard sciences but in the soft ones. When it comes to women and men and leadership and the hard sciences we retreat. We retreat from the hard sciences and turn to the soft ones because to linger even briefly in the former runs the risk of political incorrectness.
The terms “hard” and “soft’ as they apply to the sciences are not rigorous. They’re used colloquially to distinguish between sciences that are perceived to be methodologically rigorous (hard) versus those that are perceived to be clearly less so (soft). In general, sciences such as biology, chemistry and physics are thought of as hard, while social sciences, such as psychology, sociology and political science, are considered soft.
I have written before about the impact of childbearing and breastfeeding on women. Similarly, I have written before about the impact of childbearing and breastfeeding on women and leadership – specifically on the persistent paucity of women in leadership roles. Finally, I have written before about how reluctant we are – including we presumed leadership experts – to point out that it is women who get pregnant, women who deliver babies, and women who breastfeed, and that these might, just might, have an impact on who leads and who does not. Today’s post is a variation on this theme.
Claire Cain Miller is a staff writer for the New York Times whose usual beat is women and work. Her recent piece, “Why Men Don’t Take Their Full Family Leave,” is more evidence of our preference in these matters for explanations grounded in the soft sciences, as opposed to the hard ones.*
Miller writes what we already know about family leave – which is that men, even if they are paid during time off, are much less likely than women to take time off, especially to care for infants and children. (Men are also less likely than women to take time off to care for aging parents or sick family members.) Miller points out that this holds true even when men say they want equally to share family responsibilities. Which raises the question of why? Why are women still much more likely than men to prioritize family over work – protestations from men nothwithstanding?
Miller provides several answers, including 1) men don’t feel they have the choice not to work even when they do (no explanation provided); 2) men feel financially responsible (though women who work outside the home obviously also contribute); 3) men are driven by gender role expectations (they are expected to work outside the home, not so much in it); and 4) men feel trapped by traditional role expectations both at work and at home (at work they are expected to show up and at home they are expected to be breadwinners).
As is typical of writings like these, Miller provides some palliatives, such as paid paternity leave and workplaces that encourage involved male parenting. But, as also is typical, these solutions are grounded in the soft sciences, not in the hard ones. I therefore conclude that these palliatives will help – but only somewhat. They will get more men in the future than in the present to take time off for caregiving. But I further conclude that though they will help, palliatives like these will not significantly alter existing gender imbalances. To an extent we do not care to confess, biology is destiny. Thus human mothers and fathers resemble other primate mothers and fathers. Specifically, Mom tends to stay close to home, while Dad tends to roam from home.