Are You an Equal Partner at Home? A New Book Provides Practical Advice For Couples and Communities Marching Toward Gender Parity

Take the Equal Partners quiz to find out how you and your partner are doing
Blog Post
June 28, 2022

For many the path toward gender equality in the United States has never felt steeper than it does today. A years-long pandemic has destroyed precious gains women have made at work and left caregivers and parents—especially women—burnt out and desperate for support. Last week’s Supreme Court decision overturning Americans’ right to privacy in regards to abortion, despite widespread public support for Roe v. Wade, has left people across the gender spectrum wondering just what they can do to continue the march toward equality.

Research shows that the ways we divide the work at home and the larger structures, policies, and cultures that shape our lives are intertwined, and that men, in particular, play an enormous role in creating these conditions. That’s why it has never been more critical that men and others who have traditionally taken the back seat in domestic life step up into equal partnership with the women in their lives and deliberately work toward gender equality in all facets of life.

I spoke to author and researcher Kate Mangino about Equal Partners, her new book packed with research and practical advice on how couples, their families, and their communities, can do just that. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

But first: Are you wondering whether you or your partner fits the bill of an Equal Partner? Take this quick assessment we've designed with Mangino, based on the criteria she used in writing her book.

Haley Swenson: Could you start by telling me about what brought you to this book project in the first place?

Kate Mangino: I have worked in gender for almost 20 years now. And I have had a nagging frustration for years that I was able to have quite sophisticated conversations about gender in Zambia, and Indonesia, and Kenya, and Nepal. And then I would come back home to Washington, DC, and I would hear very gendered statements at the playground or at a family gathering. And so I think that established a bubbling frustration at the disconnect between my personal life and my work for a long time.

But then, there was a moment, an actual day, where the idea clicked—I was just finishing my PhD. And my research was in the intersection of masculinities and women's empowerment. I was teaching two classes, I was finishing up the writing of my dissertation, and my kids were two and five. And I was the Alpha parent. My advisor, who was also a woman, and had children, moved up my date a month earlier, and literally said, “I know you had two months to finish your dissertation, but I'm now giving you one.” And I went home that night, and sat on my dirty kitchen floor, and I cried for hours.

My husband was trying to help me and kept saying, “What do you want me to do? How can I help?” And then my literature review came out in a fit of anger, where I explained cognitive labor and I explained that giving him tasks to do was just as much work for me. It was at that moment that he got it, and it clicked. That night we talked about performing masculinity and how he felt responsible for a paycheck. And I felt responsible for the home. But it wasn't working for either of us. And we discussed that the more he worked, the further he got from the kids. It all came out that night. In hindsight, I realized that night worked for us because I had just finished this dissertation on this precise topic. But I wondered how other people in that moment handled that situation. Did they have the words to articulate the situation? That's where the book came from. I wanted to collect stories, and give that information to other people so that when others had their kitchen floor moment, they had the words to put to their emotions. Or even better—if people read this before they partner! So they never have to sit on the kitchen floor to begin with. That's the ideal.

Haley: Well, the book offers so much research-backed advice for how to avoid that. But you also make a point of not leaving the onus on couples alone. You talk a lot about involving the community in finding solutions. I'm curious about how you thought about that, as you approach this book, this line between individual advice, which gets cast sometimes as self help. And if so, maybe that's okay. But there's also so many structural issues involved in this problem. And sometimes I think people say, we don't need more individual pressure, or individual solutions, we just need the structural solutions. For us at BLLx, we've said, yes, but the structural solutions aren't coming tomorrow and people need help now. I'm just curious how you thought about that, throughout the book, and how you tried to strike that balance?

Kate: Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head. That's precisely how I think about it, too. Obviously there are structural barriers. And obviously, we're not solving those quickly enough. I think the stalled Build Back Better bill is the perfect case study about that ongoing frustration. I've always worked on the social change and behavior change side; that's my niche field and where my experience is. So I tend to go back to how people actually have the power to make changes in their lives. And I think my reaching out to the community is my way to reconcile the structural and the personal and say, yes, we do have the capacity to change things in our own lives. And yes, we cannot do it alone. We cannot task working mothers with young children to always fix household inequalities. These are the people who are maxed out and who don't have any extra time to think, who have a to-do list a mile long. This isn't about a nuclear family. This is about how your in-laws talk about partnership, this is the way that your neighbors talk about it, this is the way your faith community sees it. We all have a contribution to make.

Haley: So I want to dig in a little bit about some of the actionable advice that you have for folks, you do talk about something I thought was brilliant—recognizing the disconnect between people's stated values, and then their behaviors. You say when there’s that disconnect, people have to re-frame what they’re doing to make it make sense with their values. And I thought that was a very helpful way of thinking about it.

And so you go through a few of the ways that people reframe the inequality at home. One of the things that really stuck out to me, it's just one of the stickiest ones is how often inequality at home gets reframed as an effect of personality. “That's just what she's like, she has a lower tolerance for mess. She's this, she's that and I'm XYZ. I just don't notice it,” and on and on.

How do you confront that? It’s hard to tell people, well, maybe that's not your personality. Maybe there's something else going on. How do you tackle that?

Kate: I still hear that a lot. And the way that I handle it is to say, I hear you, and maybe in your relationship, that's actually true. But I just want to point out that if you look at this family by family, it's very easy to say one person is like this and one person is like that. But when you take a step back and look at the macro level, where 65 to 70 percent of the people who do the household female role are the ones who have “the personality” to be a house manager, then that's a pattern we cannot ignore. And that statement usually opens up the conversation, and allows me the opportunity to talk about how we socialize kids differently based on their perceived gender. We raise daughters to value cleanliness and tidiness. We give them accolades for babysitting for extra money. Girls learn household roles from a very early age. On the other side we raise boys, or those whose gender identity we perceive as male, to mow the lawn and do outdoor chores and to be messy, and we excuse their messiness. And we don't give them accolades for cleanliness and tidiness. And that feedback we give kids very much turned into values that people take into adulthood. If I am given the time to go through this explanation, people often get it. Not always, but often. Of course I still get people who are very defensive, and they'll give a micro-example to counter my point like, “My daughter cuts the grass!” It's interesting how many people want to be excused. They want my blessing that they are good, gender-aware parents. That can make for awkward moments.

Haley: So a lot of this is about hard conversations. And couples everyday are having hard conversations with each other, or in some cases, avoiding the hard conversations, which I think is leading to the crying on the kitchen floor kind of situation. Do you have general advice for people about how to think about these hard conversations, or how to get in a good mindset for them?

This is actually one of the harder things about BLLx, because so many of our experiments start with, step one call a family meeting, and then do XY and Z. But that presumes a lot—that “call a family meeting” is doing a lot of work. So what are some best practices here? What are some tips you can give to folks who are nervous about that conversation?

Kate: I think that it depends on the family. Some families love regular meetings, and a designated time. I interviewed people who need to have that Sunday night check in, or a monthly dinner date to talk about big issues. Because when caught off guard, they feel defensive. My family doesn't personally work that way, we're much more spontaneous. Like when you find yourself in traffic, and have a random 20 minutes, you take advantage. I personally find it easier to be a little bit more flexible. And so I think it is really a question of how your family communicates best. And it's probably trial-and-error. The one thing I would say for certain is, this isn’t going to be solved with just one conversation.

And I think that's the beauty of Better Life Lab, because we know gender inequality at home is not going to be solved by one experiment, one time. It is going to require repeated conversations and multiple experiments. And what works for some, might not work for another. That’s why we need lots of ideas and lots of options.

Haley: Tell us about the book’s Equal Partner 40. For people who haven't read the book, these are forty men you identify who are doing it well, as full equal partners! They're not, you say, chore robots, but they anticipate half of the household needs, they manage half of the household needs. You're not just a doer, you're not just checking things off the list—you're planning, you're active, you're in it. You also, as a man, reject the “social hall pass” to not be in this work as deeply. You went out and you found them. And importantly, their partners agree they’re doing it all. Why was this important for you to seek these men out and include them here in the book, and what did you learn from them?

Kate: Oh, gosh. So it was important for me to seek them out, because I think we have all become quite adept at describing what men do wrong. But I don't think we've done a great job of articulating what we want. I think that the media love a bad-boy story, and there's a lot of bad-boy behavior that needs to be called out. People need to be held accountable. So it's not that I disagree with what's being reported, I just think you also have to be able to articulate what it is that we want. And bottom line, reading an entire book about what people are doing wrong is depressing. Whereas if you take an appreciative approach, and you look at people who are doing things right, and how great that can be, it gives us hope.

It is interesting that you mentioned that it was important to ask the partners. There were many potential EP40s that I was starting to talk to, But when we got to the point of the protocol where we brought in their partner, they actually discovered that they were not equal partners. And that was a learning moment for them.

As for what I learned from the EP40—I don’t even know where to start. I suppose this is when I suggest you read the book. The entire Section II of the book is about the EP40; who they are, where they came from, what their motivation is, and their recommendations for raising the next generation.

Haley: I loved that you say in the book you were looking for patterns in the EP40, of what led these men to become equal partners. And you do say, at some point, actually, what's amazing is they're all different. There's no one path to becoming an equal partner. There's lots of different ways you can be brought to it. And I think that's really inspiring.

Kate: It is true, I found very few universal patterns. But the flip side to that is that as you said—anyone can be an EP40. There’s no excuse NOT to be one. And that in itself is amazing.

So after writing this book, are you hopeful about the future of gender equality? And if so, where are you finding hope?

Kate: Yes, I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful because I don't think we have an option. I just don't think that pessimism gets us anywhere. I'm hopeful because I see my kids having conversations that I didn't have when I was their age. I think that we're raising a new generation of people where gender is fluid, and looks differently than it ever has before. And I'm excited about where that's going to take us. Household relationships are still one of those sticking points that tends to fall into the traditional gender buckets. But I think that with gender understanding and intentionality continuing to evolve, it's only going to get better.