Worlds apart: Speaker examines the roles of women and men at work and home

Jessica Shortall was astonished when, upon returning to work after maternity leave, a co-worker asked how she enjoyed her “vacation.”

“I’d never been on a vacation like that before,” Shortall said in disbelief as she shared the experience with a group of over 300 Milwaukee area business leaders and members of the Mount Mary community. The perception that caregiving is misunderstood and undervalued in the workplace, was the topic of her keynote presentation at the Voices of Leadership event on March 21.

“Caregiving is considered women’s work and designated a lower value,” said Shortall, an advocate for gender equity and author of “Work. Pump. Repeat.”

“Such perceptions are not fair to the health, happiness or well-being of women or men,” she said. “Yet there is no enemy imposing this on us. We buy into it.”

Shortall challenged the audience to consider the inputs that reinforce gender stereotypes, from unrealistic stock photography – one image depicting a mother balancing a baby on one hip and a laptop on the other - to the children’s books that parents read to children at bedtime.

Whether the images portray a mother wearing an apron or a father taking an afternoon nap on the couch, these are detrimental and pervasive, she said.

“These types of images are keeping us (men and women) in our lanes, and are failing all of us,” she said. Even in books that portray children as barrier-breaking – boy princesses and girl engineers – the parents are often stereotypical, giving little chance of hope for the future. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Whether or not women are caregivers, their roles are defined within the context of caregiving, whether that is caring for their children or aging relatives. This translates into lower wages, career potential and representation in various fields.

And while many men want to actively enter into caregiving roles, they are also limited by society’s perceptions and are often seen in a comedic light, such as “Mr. Mom.”

When Jessica’s son entered kindergarten, she noticed how volunteer parents are called ‘Room Moms,’ as if the gender of the volunteers was a foregone conclusion.

The event was sponsored by Mount Mary’s Women’s Leadership Institute. The Voices of Leadership event is an annual keynote event for Mount Mary, providing the opportunity to engage in conversations with women leaders who have broken ground in entrepreneurship, innovation, social change and leadership.  These women share their experiences, stories and best practices to help participants see and pursue their own leadership potential.

In preparation for this event, student groups from Mount Mary have been studying issues of gender roles from various perspectives. They exhibited their projects from a diversity of disciplines, including communications, interior design, fashion, art therapy and fine arts.

“Jessica is working to reset societal expectations, so all people can work across gender roles,” said Mount Mary President Christine Pharr, Ph.D.

The event concluded with a panel discussion with Shortall and Milwaukee-area leaders providing insight into how to affect change and greater equity.

Here are a few of the takeaways:

Lift up the good you see around you, and call out the negative. For example, why is ‘working moms’ a socially accepted descriptor, while ‘working dads’ is not?

Equity in work and caregiving isn’t simply a women’s issue. “Having solidarity with one another allows all of us to be human, no matter what shape it takes.”

Demand equity including equal pay, and use your privilege to set the stage for others, too.

Build partnerships – whether they are allies at work or life partners at home – in which you are equal.

 “We can tell ourselves a new story, write ourselves new instructions,” Shortall said. “That work starts today.”