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IDEAS | Carol Hay and John Kaag

To lean in, find someone who’ll lean out

Nicolas Ogonosky for The Boston Globe

Much has been said recently about the importance of women “leaning in.” But what’s generally being overlooked in these conversations is that if a woman leans in to her professional opportunities, another party — typically a man — is going to have to lean out. About half of all Americans are in long-term relationships, and, of these, most are heterosexual. Given this, women’s ability to lean in demands a full-scale revision of the gendered expectations that still govern most personal relationships.

What’s involved in leaning out? While leaning in is a straightforward matter of self-respect and determination, leaning out requires degrees of self-effacement and humility that don’t fit comfortably with traditional conceptions of masculinity. Discussions of leaning in should thus not focus simply on undermining the stereotypes surrounding femininity in order to secure professional success for women, but also on the toxic and misguided stereotypes of both femininity and masculinity.

Well before Sheryl Sandberg coined the term “leaning in,” Linda Hirshman, in her 2006 “Get to Work:. . . And Get a Life, Before It’s Too Late,” advised career-minded women to choose husbands who are younger or less professionally motivated or not as advanced in their careers — in other words, to get and keep the upper hand in the relationship by securing a partner who will lean out. Many might bristle at the suggestion that women approach their romantic relationships as they would a bargaining table, but the fact is that the partner who earns more has more leverage in a relationship, no matter how well-intentioned everyone is. Lower-earning partners are more vulnerable in the event of a divorce, and even when a couple stays together, it makes sense for lower-earners to sacrifice their careers for the needs of the family. These sacrifices are almost always inevitable, but what’s not inevitable is that they’re borne solely by women.

Hirshman’s matchmaking suggestion still flies in the face of contemporary romantic ideals, yet it’s these ideals that really determine a woman’s ability to lean in. If a woman is following the social scripts for a heterosexual relationship, her partner will probably be older and more advanced in his career, which means that his leaning out will cut against not only his own self-interest but also the shared financial interests of the couple as a whole. Men’s leaning out thus will feel risky for many couples, so it needs to be a conscious choice made on the basis of something other than purely economic considerations.

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A depressing implication of all this is that what started as a question of women’s rights might boil down to a question of what unearned privileges men are willing to give back. Convincing the powerful to relinquish their power is a hard sell, but it is at the core of most ethical decisions. We need an equally earnest public conversation about what masculinity would look like stripped bare of its entitlement.

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Indeed, support groups might be necessary for the men who are willing to lean out. This might sound humorous, but it’s not. Men who forgo professional accolades for the sake of their partners’ careers should not be viewed as heroes (they’re only doing what is fair, after all — this is not chivalry, but justice), but they also shouldn’t be regarded as doormats. Still, they oftentimes might be — and this alienation and attendant loneliness might be one of the real reasons men are unwilling to deviate from societal expectations.

This suggestion is, to be clear, in diametric opposition to the sort made by “men’s rights activists.” Men don’t need solidarity in order to reclaim their bygone glory, but rather a community that respects them for recognizing and then eschewing the injustice of the pre-feminist-era. Some of the frustration and anger espoused by many men’s rights activists is perhaps understandable, if not, in the end, actually justifiable. Their members believe they are losing the unearned perks of domination. Reframed, however, leaning out is also an act of ethical conscience. And being on the right side of history might make the bitter pill of modernity a little easier to swallow.

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The gendered difficulties of leaning in and out are usually not the result of some deliberate, diabolical plot. Instead, they result from centuries of mostly unspoken assumptions about what men and women are supposed to be like, and from the distinctive social roles each sex is supposed to take on based on these supposedly disparate natures. Men are expected to be naturally ambitious and creative. Women are expected to be naturally domestic and nurturing. The art historian Linda Nochlin, in her brilliant, under-read essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” argues that what look like natural talents (e.g., certain men being born with genius) are actually premised on cultural scripts that systematically disadvantage women. In fact, men of genius could only excel, historically, because virtually all the mundanities in their domestic lives were taken care of by women (and people of color). Even Henry David Thoreau, that paragon of masculine independence and self-reliance, had his mother do his laundry.

The workplace continues to function on the outdated assumption that a worker — particularly a well-paid white-collar worker — has a wife at home taking care of house and kids. When this problem is discussed at all, it’s often to bemoan working women passing off their domestic duties to underpaid nannies and house cleaners (who are of course also women), instead of asking why it isn’t reasonable to expect men to take on 50 percent of these responsibilities. Many feminists tend to focus on the injustice that befalls women, as Katerin Marcal does in her recent book, “Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?,” where she argues that unpaid and underpaid domestic work has historically been shouldered by women and people of color. What we also need is a conversation about Adam Smith cooking his own dinner, or better yet, cooking dinner for his partner and their brood of children and then cleaning up the kids and putting them to bed. Adam Smith is going to have a busy, busy day. But he’ll eventually get used to his second shift. Countless women already have.

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Carol Hay is an associate professor of philosophy and director of gender studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She is currently writing a book entitled “The Stories We Tell About Women.” John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His book “American Philosophy: A Love Story” will be published with Farrar, Straus & Giroux this fall.