Lessons From 40 Men in Egalitarian Relationships

In many households, men think like helpers and women think like managers. A gender expert’s new book suggests ways for couples to escape that dynamic.

An image of two stacks of dirty plates, one towering over the other
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

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One of the exasperating features of everyday gender inequality is that couples can be aware of imbalances in doing housework, state a dislike of them, and yet fall right into them anyway.

The discrepancy shows up most obviously in the amount of time men and women spend on tasks such as cleaning and caregiving, including when both work full-time. Yet even many couples who pride themselves on a fair distribution of duties aren’t so balanced when it comes to carrying the harder-to-quantify “mental load,” the taxing work of managing a household and anticipating its many needs. (Same-sex couples tend to be more egalitarian, but can end up in lopsided arrangements as well.) Today, men in different-sex relationships contribute more than they did in the 1960s and ’70s (a low bar), but often take on a “helper” role under the “manager” role of their female partner, who’s saddled with noticing what must be done.

The job of noticing is a recurring theme of Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home, a new book by Kate Mangino, a gender expert who works with international nonprofits. Mangino is aware of how American society could be made more equitable among genders—say, with paid parental leave and universally affordable child care. But she recognizes that individual couples have households to oversee now, and offers tactics for couples to bust out of that irksome helper/manager dynamic.

Some of her observations are derived from an enlightening series of interviews she did with 40 men—most of them American and most of them in committed relationships with women—who are truly equal partners, which Mangino defines as “intentionally [taking] on half the physical and emotional load of their household.” (Finding these equal partners was a challenge; many men who initially identified themselves as such to Mangino became ineligible after their partner said otherwise.) I recently spoke with Mangino about what she learned from these couples and others. The conversation that follows has been lightly edited and condensed.

Joe Pinsker: The status quo, in which men don’t do as much housework as women, could seem like it’s nice for men. But you argue that men stand to benefit from making partnerships more equal. How so?

Kate Mangino: When I started interviewing these 40 men who already live as equal partners, I asked them, “Have you felt like you had to give anything up?” And I only had to ask that to the first five or eight of them, because their response was so strong: “No, I’ve gained.” Specifically, I heard them say that they get to be their own authentic self—they don’t have to perform masculinity and feel like a failure if they don’t make a certain amount of money; they have a fantastic relationship with their partner; they have very close relationships with their kids. They said that by participating fully in the household, maybe they gave up being able to play golf on Saturday afternoon, but that exchange was well worth it.

Pinsker: As I read your book, a theme I noticed is the importance of giving dads lots of time on their own with kids. As we think about how to prompt men to share in doing cognitive labor, it seems like one principle is to let them fend for themselves and then see everything they need to manage and account for.

Mangino: Absolutely. One of the men I interviewed mentioned that his wife is a nurse who works three 12-hour shifts a week. And he told me that because she works in the ER, he can’t call her at work, so he’s all by himself. He learned very quickly that if he doesn’t have food stocked ahead of time, he has to drag two very little kids to the grocery store, which would be miserable, so he realized he needed to run to the store the night before she goes to work. He learned to plan ahead and to notice.

I think you can replicate this in other households. Maybe if Mom has an office to go to, great—she can go and you only call her if someone is bleeding. Otherwise, you give her her space.

Pinsker: In a similar vein, you note that parent group chats, which can be a great source of information and emotional support, are more common among moms than dads. How would more dad group chats promote more equal partnerships?

Mangino: Moms are probably part of many different chats at any given moment—I can get a crazy amount of information within about three minutes from all my mom chat groups. Dads don’t have access to that. When they need information, they either ask their partner, which just puts more weight back on her, or they have to do their own research online. So establishing dad networks would be great. Like if a dad’s at a playground, he can put out a message to the dad group: Where’s the best sledding hill? You don’t have to bother Mom.

There’s all these micro-decisions we make throughout the day around parenting, and our chat groups really help us with those. Just like moms can put out on their chats, I feel like a bad mom because I just served Kraft mac and cheese for dinner, dads would benefit from that too.

Pinsker: The men you interviewed who were equal partners didn’t all have the same backgrounds, but you noticed some patterns: Some were raised by single mothers; some had a strong sense of morality, perhaps from religion; some got caregiving experience in childhood; some had experiences of feeling discriminated against; and some had negative role models who they were reacting to. What do you think people who don’t have many or any of those life experiences can do to cultivate the same understanding that these men have?

Mangino: To be honest, when I first started mapping their backgrounds, I was disappointed because I expected to find more commonalities than I did. But I think that’s actually a positive, because I hear a lot of people say, as an excuse for not doing more around the house, “It just wasn’t the way I was raised.” And these 40 men, they weren’t raised to be equal partners either. Only two of them came from households where parity was role-modeled to them. Thirty-eight of them found it on their own. So that excuse just doesn’t hold a lot of weight. If anyone’s interested enough in rewriting gender norms, they can.

Pinsker: So the idea is that these men’s experiences led them to fully grasp the scope of gender inequality, which is what sparked their changes in behavior?

Mangino: Yes. And I would say that it required repetition. None of these men had an “aha” moment that changed their life. It was, you know, summers with an uncle as a kid and then it was a girlfriend in high school and then it was a professor in college. Some of them said that they feel like they would hold themselves to high standards even if their partner didn’t require it. And several also said, My partner holds me accountable and won’t let me slip, and that helps tremendously.

Pinsker: Speaking of those partners, you wrote that most of them deliberately sought out egalitarian men. Lots of men say that they’re feminists, but how did these women actually find the ones who meant it?

Mangino: They noticed several things. First, couples who lived together before marriage obviously had experience of how they treat their home and how much they pitch in. Several women told me, He had his own place when we were dating, and I would see how he took care of his space and if he took pride in his home. Another indicator was if they had female friends and female co-workers, which was a sign that they had meaningful exposure to the challenges women face at work and outside it.

Also, they said that they didn’t just have one conversation about gender inequality, but that it was brought up regularly. And it wasn’t just brought up by the woman—the man raised these issues too, and wasn’t just reacting to when the woman brought them up. These women also noticed if their boyfriend at the time asked them about their work—not just a superficial question like “How was work today?” but specific questions to really figure out what does she do, what does she love about her job, what is her expertise. That seemed to be another indicator that these men would be extremely supportive.

Pinsker: One last tactic I liked from your book was the idea of reflecting on who you look to, intentionally or not, as a role model for gender norms, and then intentionally picking new role models if necessary. Could you talk about why you think this is useful?

Mangino: Changing gender norms is hard, so we’re going to need help. We’re going to need friends that we can look to and say, I’m struggling with this problem—I wonder how they handle it. Because a lot of our default role models, like our parents or religious leaders perhaps, tend to be almost assigned to us—society decides who our role models are. But as we grow up, we have the agency to pick new ones.

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