When my oldest child started preschool, I transitioned to a new job with longer hours, fighting guilt each time I raced from her classroom to the train. At my desk, my brain was a pinball machine. Had I forgotten to bring in her rest blanket? Did I accidentally pack the leaky thermos? And how could I fit in a grocery run before dinner?
In this frantic state, I answered a call from the school’s PTO cochair, who was recruiting room parents. “We think you’d make a great one!” she said. Every fiber of my overwhelmed being told me this was a terrible idea, but what I uttered was, “Of course!” As a 21st-century parent, being overextended was just a fact of life, I told myself.
At the first room parent meeting, I started to consider this “fact of life” further. Every person at the table was a woman. Many worked outside the home. Had any fathers been asked to volunteer? My husband hadn’t — though as the more outgoing of the two of us, he’d likely be better at the job. Mothers, I suddenly recognized, experienced a particular cultural pressure that fathers, by and large, did not: to give of their resources generously and without compensation, as if altruism were a uniquely female trait.
Seven years and two more children later, I continue to observe this imbalance. Women now constitute 47 percent of the labor force, and yet participation in school life still tends to default to mothers, perpetuating a volunteering gender gap rooted in the days when most women stayed at home. In 2015, among parents with children under 18, 45.1 percent of mothers volunteered for an educational or youth service organization, compared to 36.8 percent of fathers, according to a survey by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Parental investment is vital to schools, and I’m not suggesting we abandon it. Many people also find community service, which has been linked to improved health and well-being, deeply fulfilling. But we’ve entered problematic territory when volunteering crosses the line from an individual choice to a gendered mandate, no matter how quietly it is imposed.
In the eight kindergarten through eighth-grade schools in my Boston suburb, there’s just one male PTO cochair. At a recent district-wide chair meeting, he says, “I looked around and realized I was the only man not being paid to be there.” (The other two were the superintendent and an enrollment official.) When fathers are recruited to volunteer, they’re often called upon for their professional expertise: the architect invited to visit the first grade during its building unit, for instance, or the accountant asked to head the finance committee. Women have been earning the majority of advanced degrees in the United States for more than a decade, and yet the tasks they often fulfill — planning teacher appreciation breakfasts, attending welcome events — draw primarily on their identities as caregivers.
“Often for mothers, but not fathers, there’s a cultural expectation to devote oneself to family in an undivided, emotionally intensive way,” explains sociologist Mary Blair-Loy, director of the Center for Research on Gender in STEMM at the University of California, San Diego. “Men are given lots of credit for their professional vocation. But even if a woman works full time, her mothering identity remains her master status, and it’s generally expected she act in accordance with it, even beyond her home.”
One might argue that if a mother is disinclined to volunteer, then she simply shouldn’t. But as Blair-Loy points out, cultural expectations become internalized. Women are more likely than men to feel guilt when they don’t meet these expectations. Internalized expectations can contribute to “role overload” — the feeling of being overwhelmed by multiple, often competing, responsibilities, says Carolyn Glass, a Boston-based psychotherapist specializing in women’s career and relationship transitions. “This stress can easily snowball into anxiety and depression,” she adds.
My purpose isn’t to point a finger at fathers, who are also affected by stereotypes. The assumption that volunteering is a “female” activity reinforces stifling ideas about masculinity and creates barriers to fathers’ involvement, even if they crave it. One friend told me he’d like to be more engaged at his daughter’s school but feels “as if the system is designed to keep men out.” At a time when middle-aged men are suffering from what’s been called a loneliness epidemic, the dearth of male involvement in school volunteering is a wasted opportunity for connection.
At the Spruce Street Nursery School in Boston, increased male volunteer participation is now a goal. This year, director Christie Guevin broadened the concept of the room parent so that volunteers can participate not only as individuals, but as couples. This shift has encouraged more fathers to step into the role. “It’s made many dads, who I think historically have felt a little marginalized here, feel more integral to their child’s experience,” says Guevin. Her next goal is to draft a father to cochair the school’s annual auction — the first time in the school’s history that a man would perform this job.
It will take more deliberate recruitment like this to change cultural habits around gender and parental roles at school. And at home, couples should have upfront conversations about how they’ll divide the work of supporting their child’s school, if this is a value they share.
Deeply entrenched norms don’t change on their own. Without intentional effort, this 20th-century gender division will endure even deeper into the 21st — and we’ll have a whole new generation of children raised to believe that emotional labor and selfless giving aren’t human work, but women’s work.