Today there are many engines for positive change around the world, including powerful and inexpensive technologies, near-ubiquitous vaccines, and improving NGO-private sector collaboration in developing countries. But if I had to choose the one most important driver for good, it would be the empowerment of women.
While it’s dangerous to generalize about men and women, science does point to some important differences. “Research tells us that women invest more of their earnings than men do in their family’s well-being—as much as ten times more. They prioritize things like healthcare, nutritious food, and education. When a mother controls her family’s budget, her children are 20 percent more likely to survive—and much more likely to thrive.”*
Imagine if men and women were equal. Trillions of dollars would go toward health, education, food and childcare. While technology gains, civil society and anti-corruption programs are important, the change in priorities that would flow in the wake of gender equality would transform the world for good.
And many trends bode well. All over the world walls are coming down that have kept women out of male-dominated professions. Girls’ participation in education has grown a great deal in recent decades (see chart below), but atrocities against girls in Pakistan and Nigeria remind us that there are misanthropic (and misogynistic) forces that violently oppose female empowerment.
Chart: Female Secondary Education Participation, 1975 and 1997**
The Charlie Hebdo tragedy reminds us that we must stand for our values, even if our opponents are gun-toting nihilists. Like free speech, gender equality must be a highest priority.
*from “Why Development Begins with Women” by Melinda Gates
The kids today! They’re spoiled, ill-mannered, immature dunderheads!
If you relate to this (exaggerated) sentiment about today’s youth, you’re not alone. Ever since the first adult witnessed pubescent immaturity, great thinkers have dismissed the younger generation: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” Or so wrote Aristophanes in one of his plays.
Well, it turns out that the greatest generation didn’t defeat Hitler or invent the transistor. Today’s youth are the greatest generation. In a recent Washington Post article, David Finkelhor uses data to lay bare how great our children are. They’re less likely to commit crimes, bully others, commit suicide, engage in premarital sex, drink, and engage in risky behavior. And because of the Flynn Effect, which shows no signs of going away, each generation is smarter than the previous (at least as measured on IQ tests).
And if the world keeps doing what it’s doing, this generation’s children will be the next greatest generation.
The increase of working professional women and stay-at-home dads is one of many positive demographic trends of the past couple generations. Poor women have always been in the workforce, doing their best to keep their families clothed and fed. For nearly all of historical times, middle- and upper-class women have been kept at home to raise children, manage households and play hostess. Exceptional women sometimes loosed these shackles, but the vast majority were kept from their full potential. In recent centuries, more professions opened, notably education, but professions have only opened slowly and with some prying.
Today nearly every profession is open to woman, though Old Patriarchy still holds sway in parts of the world. There’s even a decent chance that our next President will be a woman. Meantime, more and more fathers are staying home and raising children. I have no qualms with working dads and stay-at-home moms. But I do think that it’s a good thing that gender is not destiny.
Diversity is a good thing, and not just for “We Are the World” warm and fuzzy reasons. Gender diversity is important, too. I teach elementary school, and it’s becoming more and more common for men to choose to teach young children. It’s great that the world of children includes more men who take teach and take care of children full time.
Diverse people usually produce diverse perspectives, which contribute to better decisions. Groupthink decisions are made by homogenous leader bodies. Data sets that don’t represent diverse reality won’t reap real results. Many see the “decline” of the traditional family as a bad thing. I see an opportunity to experiment with new kinds of family structures. Diversity in action.
This New York Times article describes a recent convention of stay-at-home fathers. In this age of persistent tinkering, innovation and creativity in technology, medicine, education and business, it’s reassuring to see that the same is happening in millions of families, and new paradigms of fatherhood are emerging.
When I was a kid–do I sound like my last post?–my father was an affable, sweet-hearted yet somewhat distant, usually benevolent parent. However, Mom did most everything. When Dad came home from work we kids ran to the door and regaled him with our love. I remember him hoisting me on his shoulders as he walked through the house to greet Mom. I also remember the five o’clock stubble against my cheek; it was a good feeling, despite the rough scratchiness, ’cause it was Dad.
But except for fishing trips on vacations and occasional help with Pinewood Derby cars and other projects, Dad was kind of in the background. I don’t think he changed any diapers. And he didn’t have much of a clue about what I was doing in school, with friends, etc. It’s sad, isn’t it? But he did provide for the family, as he was expected to do. I believe he was following the training of his parents and the norms of the era. His mother immigrated to America in her early 20s, and his father lived with relatives because his father, my great-grandfather, was a hardcore alcoholic. It’s a cliche but I believe it: They were doing the best they could. Dad did the best he could.
Nowadays fatherhood is worse in some ways and better in others. There are plenty of dads in the background…or not around at all. In fact, many more kids grow up without a dad in the house than kids did in the 60s. According to a Pew study that gleaned its findings from US Census data, “only 11 percent of children younger than 18 in the United States were living apart from their fathers in 1960, compared with 27 percent in 2010.”
But the kind of dads I see all over the country hearten me a great deal. I see more fathers snuggling, playing with, schlepping, talking to and walking with their children in a way that most fathers did not do very often when I was growing up. Pew research backs up this perception:
“Pew also reported that fathers who do live with their children are spending more time with them and taking part in a greater variety of activities with them. The amount of time that married fathers spent with children living in their household rose from an average of 2.6 hours per week in 1965 to 6.5 hours per week in 2000, the Pew researchers noted, referencing statistics from “Changing Rhythms of American Family Life,” (Russell Sage Foundation, 2007).”
That’s nearly a threefold increase in time fathers spent with their children.
Fatherhood today is a mixed bag. It would be better if more fathers lived with their children. But the dramatic increase in the time dads spend with their kids is a very good thing. It is no longer rare to see stay-at-home dads taking care of their children full time. And for the kids today, engaged fatherhood is a new normal.