Gender roles and descent

By Mary Logan

This post is about how gender roles might change in descent. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, but Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article this month in The Atlantic instigated this post. Ms. Slaughter makes the point that women cannot keep up with the demands of work and home in the current American culture, even with the many adjuncts that the hierarchy created by fossil fuels provides, such as day care and fast food. Slaughter states, “Going forward, women would do well to frame work-family balance in terms of the broader social and economic issues that affect both women and men.” But Ms. Slaughter fails to recognize an even more pressing issue going forward. All of us will need to work cooperatively to become more self-sufficient as we restructure of our culture post fossil fuels, which requires more time at home, making the juggling all the harder if we refuse to give something up. And women are not good at giving things up, as evidenced by our current quandary of too many roles to play. As Ms. Slaughter found, I have finally found a way to live that is true to myself, rather than the expectations of others, expectations reflecting corporate values. Taking back control by working less was positive in many ways. This is my story, but you can find broader coverage of this topic and the header poster in a Fall 2011 issue of Yes Magazine. And I see that Sharon Astyk is on a similar wavelength about gender roles; maybe it is the dog days of summer that refocuses our thoughts on family. This post is a bit shorter, because I have lots of questions and no answers, and I’m interested in hearing what others think.

I am 56, and I have been happily married for 34 years. I chose the profession of nursing so that I could have an adaptable, flexible, mobile career where I could have it all. I wanted family and a good career doing something that was socially useful, that was also amenable to transition and descent. I wanted a bomb-proof career guaranteed to be an option no matter how descent played out, since caring for others never goes out of style. We had one daughter, and I worked in critical care and then in academia, teaching nursing. At about the age of 50, the hormones wore off or wore out, and healthcare started to seem more and more ridiculous as I started to reconsider my career. I kept removing fun things from my life to cope, until finally there wasn’t much left except work and family, and family was starting to come second. My value system was starting to fray.

And the work wasn’t satisfying. Nursing education was a pink-collar ghetto, with heavy workloads, committees, and the need to also work weekends in a stressful critical care setting, which was my specialty, to stay current.  Various certification boards prescribe the curriculum, with a research course that focused on reductionist methods, yielding fragmented pieces of evidence that did not fit into a whole. My pharmacology course focused on treatments developed by for-profit companies using reductionist science. There was no time for holistic systems courses, and no leeway to think outside the restrictive box of western medicine. The overwhelming details and complexity of nursing science expanded rapidly, occupying teachers and students alike with an overload of detail and specialization. I “trained” nursing students to become cogs in the machine of industrial healthcare, which conflicted with my values of holism and descent. Class size, technology, and committee work kept expanding, while pay relative to men’s pay did not.

Crones have a tendency to speak out and act out.  And in Alaska, uppity women are part of the culture. A popular bumper sticker up here reads, ” Well behaved women seldom make history.” The attitude is infectious. After jettisoning large chunks of my life and saying no to too many things, I finally scaled way back on work, too. I stopped in time to enjoy the last year of my daughter’s time at home; I just wish that I had stopped sooner. I shifted gears, and I now work as an adjunct, with control over what I will and won’t do. It is much easier to jettison empire without the corporation on your back.  In nursing, which is about 95% female in the US, “retention” of nurses in the workplace is largely a function of autonomy and not more common satisfiers such as pay scales (Morgan and Lynn, 2008). Women want control and a say in workplace design, and we’re not getting it, at least in healthcare. In the US, healthcare has adopted the corporate business model, which is the antithesis of care.

The amount of energy available defines how all systems self-organize into designs–that includes family systems. How will gender roles play out in descent? How do men and women respond to transition, and will family roles change (or change back) as well? How do both genders redefine success in a world with a diminishing or absent corporate ladder, and the need to do more manual labor at home?

Gender and the stress response during transition

Gender responses during stressful transitions may lead us to interpret and respond differently based on gender. There is a biological gender difference in how we respond to stress, both hormonally and behaviorally. The classic (Cannon, 1932; Selye, 1926) model of response to stress is fight, flight, (or freeze) involving either aggressive or avoidance behaviors. But early stress researchers used male samples. Taylor et al. (2000) examined women, and proposed that women are perhaps prone to a different model of stress response of tend and befriend, where affiliation behaviors such as maternal tending and contact with peers is predominant in reducing stress of threats. It seems clear that both mechanisms would be adaptive in survival of communities, and the authors suggest that the befriending response could be especially prominent, perhaps for both genders, in situations of resource scarcity. Too much competition in this situation leads to extinction. What this suggests, then, is that we need the women to step up and speak out in the renegotiation of community. Have the male-dominated competitive behaviors become dominant in a century of capitalism, and how do we recollect the cooperative?

As I look out at the blogosphere, the majority of audible voices talking about descent are men. Where are the women? Are they so exhausted and overburdened by multiple roles that they have no time? Did women exchange the values of home and family for corporate values when they left the home for work? Immersion of both parents in increasingly corporate work values probably impacts the values at home. Can women still have it all in a world of descent, where the work at home includes more labor, less hired help and less technology?

In descent, the cultural shift within families will be great, as families and communities reorder themselves. In transition, while we are shuffling infrastructure, roles, and systems of control such as money, how do we straddle the dominant culture and that of descent? Growing your own veggies, keeping animals, and making your own food takes time, yet we still have obligations to the old system–we must have money or savings to pay the utility bills to straddle the dominant system and descent. How much more frugal will we have to become, in both energy efficiency and frugality?

As both men and women return to working at home in sustainable roles, we might revert to functional, specialized roles that were found in pre-industrial societies. Inequities in gender power could re-emerge or expand. Capitalism treats women’s home-based roles almost as poorly as it does Mother Nature by undervaluing or devaluing those contributions. How will that change?

But men aren’t happy either

I watched my husband’s federal career get more and more hectic, as the system compiled more and more bureaucracy and very little was ever subtracted. Computerization added Blackberries. Technology helped to erode boundaries, and the importance of work started to dominate the home life, to the point that workers were expected to be available at home or during other meetings, with instant decisions. Men are just as overwhelmed by the complex bureaucracy that we have woven, where yearly additions pile on, and we subtract very little. After a very long career, he is happily retired, making beer, bread, yogurt, and getting a life. He is much happier being the change he wishes to see in the world, and he looks years younger now.

Trapped elders aren’t happy either

Friends my age who still work full-time seem more and more unhappy, trapped in jobs that they don’t like, with a bewildering amount of responsibility, workload, or lack of control. Wolfers and Stevenson (2009) call it a new gender gap; that women are less happy than women of 40 years ago, and less happy than men in their lives. Secure healthcare insurance or a better retirement income are the carrots that keep some of my friends at their jobs. Some friends’ egos are heavily invested in their work. Many are additionally stuck with mortgages in defunct housing contracts. Our communities will not be free to innovate and redesign until we default these contracts and allow people the mobility and economic freedom to move on with change. We have chained ourselves to old promises of insurance, pensions and loans to the future which are not a sure thing. And are aging workers taking a job in our contracting economy that our unemployed daughters or sons might want to occupy instead? Our failing economy has trapped older workers in jobs, preventing employment for our youth. At the very least, we could job share or work part-time, making everyone happier and freeing up time to allow for creativity in forging new ways of being. The wisdom of our elders could be better employed in helping to create a new culture of relocalization. But that would not maximize profits.

If we’ve got so much surplus energy, how come all of us are working so hard?

What I’d like is to keep the power that we’ve gained as women, and the ability to work as I want. But I don’t think that in descent we can have it all, with many kids, a high voltage career, and be happy too. Our bureaucracy tends to expand over time, as profit-chasing feedback loops accumulate. The amount and technological complexity of work piles up while becoming less meaningful. Having it all requires making a lot of money so that you can live your life without limits. But living without limits means that you cede control to the corporation that controls your life. What a paradox.

As corporate life continues to expand into our personal lives, how much will we endure before both men and women say “Enough?” Women’s voices are especially important, as women seem to be geared physiologically and emotionally towards cooperative behaviors that are critical in relocalization. How much of what you are doing today reflects your values, and how much do we absorb from corporate culture? Do we define success as useful social contribution to the group, or is it making the most money for the company? If you had complete control over your life, what would your own personal values say, and how would you behave? Are you happier living the corporate life or would you be happier walking away from empire? I’m interested in hearing what others think about this?

Adbusters Are we Happy Yet?
  • Thank for your perspective Mary. Please see my article “Masculine, Feminine, Collapse, And The Next Culture” which was posted on my site in June and also on Energy Bulletin:

  • Thanks, for the link, Carolyn. I missed this one during one of our bike trips this summer. You covered a lot of the same ground, but you’ve done a lot more thinking about some of the archetypes. I really enjoyed Women Who Run With Wolves, and have done some digging in the Jungian archetypes, but you’ve done much more. Have you read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale?

    And the nuns are rowdy! Did you see this monkeywrenching episode? A nun and two accomplices broke into the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility at Oak Ridge.

    In the short term, I think women need to start giving up some of the extra roles that they have assumed. Some of my friends are barely keeping their heads above water. That is no way to live.


  • Luci Fernandez

    This is such a timely post – thank you for articulating what has been going on in my head. I am also a registered nurse so many of the same sentiments are shared. As we prepare for this descent our roles will be even more important. I have chosen to learn about herbal medicine so that I can operate somewhat outside the normal business as usual. I have read The Tending Instinct and like you agree that this model could go a long way in helping with the coming challenges.

  • Hi, Luci, most of my nursing friends fantasize about other jobs where they are in control, or another line of work. The business model and caregiving don’t really mix very well. Herbal knowledge is a good idea.

    Thanks for mentioning the book title–I did not realize that Taylor had written a book. I will look forward to checking it out.


  • Here’s another take on the energetic basis of gender roles, swiped from my Marxist nephew’s FB page.

    “The authors of the study are quick to point out that more recent developments in society, including factors such as economic development and the struggle for greater equality between genders, have in many cases overridden the impact of ancient agricultural techniques. Nevertheless, the presence of this correlation represents a confirmation of a Marxist view of history. It provides scientific evidence of how the organisation of production impacts on a society’s culture, beliefs and values.”

    I would take it a step farther and suggest that the nature of energy flows is the origin of how production is organized, so it is the basis for cultural organization.


    “. . . A Southerner of Color,
    my people held the vote
    very dear
    while others, for centuries,
    merely appeared to play
    with it.
    One thing I can assure
    you of is this:
    I will never betray such pure hearts
    by voting for evil
    even if it were microscopic
    which, as you can see in any newscast
    no matter the slant,
    it is not.
    I want something else;
    a different system
    One not seen
    on this earth
    for thousands of years. If ever.
    Democratic Womanism.
    Notice how this word has “man” right in the middle of it?
    That’s one reason I like it. He is right there, front and center. But he is surrounded.
    I want to vote and work for a way of life
    that honors the feminine;
    a way that acknowledges
    the theft of the wisdom
    female and dark Mother leadership
    might have provided our spaceship
    all along.
    I am not thinking
    of a talking head
    kind of gal:
    happy to be mixing
    it up
    with the baddest
    bad boys
    on the planet
    her eyes a slit
    her mouth a zipper.
    No, I am speaking of true
    regime change.
    Where women rise
    to take their place
    en masse
    at the helm
    of earth’s frail and failing ship;
    where each thousand years
    of our silence
    is examined
    with regret,
    and the cruel manner in which our values
    of compassion and kindness
    have been ridiculed
    and suppressed
    brought to bear on the disaster
    of the present time. . . .”


    “The solution to the work-life conundrum is not “enlisting men” (as Slaughter puts it) in the domestic sphere. The solution is establishing social supports that allow families to function. The fact is, men can’t have it all, for the same reason women can’t: whether or not the load is being shared 50-50 doesn’t matter if the load is still unbearable. It will not become bearable once women lean in, or once the consciousness is raised, or once men are full partners, always, in domestic life. It will become bearable when decidedly more quotidian things become commonplace—like paid parental leave and affordable, quality day care (which Sandberg and Slaughter both advocate).”


    “Any establishment that puts people in up to 6 figures of debt that they often have no hope of ever repaying should be considered predatory. But I believe that problems inside the American academy are just a piece of a puzzle that, when assembled, presents a picture of a fundamentally flawed and distorted society. It is my feeling that the American educational system is particularly punishing for women, because here the ever-inflating expectations collide with biological reality. . . . I make no blanket prescriptions for women, because we are all individuals in different situations. Some women genuinely do not even want children, although I suspect this lack of desire may often be an outcome of a culture that prizes material possessions over relationships. My prescription is for anyone, especially people in positions of authority, who dare look down their nose at the fertile young women who choose not to get into what the mainstream deems a successful lifestyle. They need to seriously rethink their definitions. “Empowering women towards success” really means “coaching women towards living in crushing debt while minimizing their reproductive capacity.” Their prescription for success is in fact a prescription for sterilization through debt.

    If you let go of the myth that there are infinite possibilities open to all women, you might not only make better choices in your own life, but also become a bit more understanding of the different choices made by all kinds of women throughout the world, who are healthier, wealthier and happier for it.”