Traditional gender roles were on our mind during a recent family discussion. Too often we lock ourselves into preconceived notions of appropriate roles and attendant responsibilities without giving either one a great deal of thought. Those notions of what path is appropriate may have been shaped by our upbringing, religious beliefs, or career choices. Sometimes we see them as the price of acceptance into a culture or tribe.
This particular discussion focused on how gender roles can affect the way we make decisions. Our adult son, who is gay, noted that many in the LGBTQ community navigate these conversations differently than heterosexual individuals.
As Andrew explained it, “People in LGBTQ relationships don’t even have the roster to conform to the playbook of traditional gender roles, so by default we need to come into the space assessing everything on a more personal basis.” Of course, LGBTQ people grow up in the same world of gender roles as straight people, “but being unable or unwilling to abide by them presents one of the greatest threats to LGBTQ people living in society.” When talking about his relative ease in accepting different gender roles and responsibilities, Andrew said that he grew up watching nontraditional roles being modeled on a daily basis. How, we wondered?
Well, Andrew said, “I tell my friends that I grew up in a home where my father did the ironing and my mother did the finances.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
He’s right. Before we were married, my wife and I both lived on our own for several years. While single we learned to handle a range of tasks, and so when we met we already had a sense of our strengths, what tasks we struggled with, and which ones we would gladly pass along to someone else if given the chance. That led to an early intentional discussion about how to divide up the household roles and responsibilities. I was actually pretty good at ironing my shirts and the task provided the added bonus of giving me a guilt-free way to watch sports on television. My wife was a numbers person and over time developed a well-considered philosophy about managing the family’s finances. Within the first six months we had settled into those “non-traditional” roles.
I am still doing the ironing some 38 years later while Candice takes the lead in working with Jordan, our advisor, in deciding how to invest our money. I tell friends — in all honesty — that she is the family CFO.* Andrew and his twin sister Claire both went off to college knowing how to wash, fold, and iron their clothes; cook; balance their checkbooks while keeping a personal financial ledger; and write a thank you note. We did not teach either one many so-called gender-specific tasks, because we did not want them to necessarily think within the confines of that perspective.
I came by this naturally, as both my parents modeled nontraditional roles when I was young. My father made a full breakfast every day for the family before heading out to work. After he retired my mother kept working, eventually becoming the branch manager of a local public library. My father took over grocery and dinner chores. Over the years they split up a variety of roles and responsibilities in nontraditional ways.
Many act surprised to find roles we too often accept as normal — around gender, hierarchy, age, music, and in many other areas of life — are not set in stone. We have the ability to make thoughtful decisions as to which path we want to take at any time in our life. Instead of always following the conventional way of doing things, what if we approached that path based on our strengths?
Business consultant Robert Glazer recently had a useful take on strengths in his Friday Forward post What’s Easy. He explained his past frustration in coming away from situations where he was asked to step in to meet a challenge and quickly helped solve the problem. Why couldn’t the others see what he saw so easily? His perspective on this changed permanently, he writes,
“…after I heard a speaker share a crucial insight on the topic….“What’s easy for you is often hard for someone else.” She explicitly pointed out that we frequently assume, often wrongly, that something that is easy for us should be just as easy for everyone else.”
When we instinctively assume conventional roles or when we believe that tasks that are easy for us will be easy for everyone else, we miss the possibilities that come from approaching these opportunities through a reliance on strengths and experience rather than convention and tradition. Like Glazer, I have taken the Gallup Strengths Finder assessment. Unlike Glazer, who has “Relator” and “Activator” as two of his top five strengths, I have “Discipline” and “Context” as among my top five.** Couples, teams, allies, and partners all bring different strengths to any task or relationship.
In this time of extraordinary political and cultural divisiveness, we need to take the time to talk and listen to others. If we move beyond traditional roles and recognize that people are coming from very different perspectives — with diverse strengths while often harboring deep fears and vulnerabilities — it may assist in working through the long-term conversations and bridge-building that is required to connect in new ways.
This week, step back from what you may assume your assigned role to be and consider a different path forward. Perhaps one based on your strengths.
More to come…
*We are co-equal CEOs, while if anyone takes on the COO role that would probably be me, but I don’t want to push this analogy too far. And yes, I recognize that many people today don’t iron their clothes at all. I can tell.
**There are a total of 34 talents or strengths in the Gallup Strengths Finder. The assessment is designed to identify your top five strengths and provide the user with ways to apply those strengths along with ideas for action.