The damage of helpless man tropes

by Apr 12, 2022

Drop the helpless man tropes

Gender stereotypes and expectations still linger as an unconscious default setting and men and women fall into roles, is it time for women to let go?


I read an eloquent piece by Seshma Saujani  “No one wants to go back to work as much as white men.”  In a very compelling article in Time she talks about the push for the return to work from a vocal minority of white men (30%.) Future Forum, a research consortium run by Slack.3  carried out a survey of 10000 global knowledge workers.  The study included over 5,000 respondents from the U.S., plus approximately 1,000 additional respondents each from Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom. The survey is from 2021 but is still considered valid today.

Workplaces designed for men

She rightly says that workplaces were never designed with “moms in mind. ” They were built by men for men, and those who had a full-time person at home assuming child care and domestic responsibilities. It was the social contact for many generations, but this has now changed. We need to shape workplaces for all parents, including fathers, as well as people with caring responsibilities.

Seshma recounts her own experience of working from home under pandemic conditions and the arrangement she made with her husband to make sure they were effective. When it comes to his portion of chore split she writes “Then he’d get the 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. shift: baths and pajamas. At first, I’d retreat to our room when the clock struck six, but no matter what volume I put my headphones on, I could hear my husband calling for me from the living room. “Could you just change the baby’s diaper?” “…get a bottle going?” “…see what that sound is outside?” 

She notes that to block off the noise she had to leave the house which gave her an understanding of why men prefer to go to the office. No kidding – going to the office is way easier than staying at home managing a tribe of toddlers.

But this is also where she lost me.

The superwoman legacy

The Superwoman legacy from the 80s was designed to give the greater numbers of highly educated women (like me) permission to pursue a career. With one caveat. They didn’t let go of their other roles. How do I know? I was there.

So we saw terms like ‘”having it all” and “domestic goddess” drift into our vocabulary as a way of not rocking the boat too much. All of this was as damaging to women as discriminatory workplace practices because they embedded gender stereotypes and expectations into a new social order.  We are still trying to shake those off.

Even Shirley Conran author of Superwoman quipped, possibly older, wiser, and more exhausted, 29 years later in 2004 “you don’t need a pair of breasts to take a child to the dentist”


helpless man tropes

So today we have a strange mix of things going on:

  • Gender stereotypes and expectations still linger as an unconscious default setting and men and women fall into those roles.
  • Maternal gatekeeping is where women proactively or even subconsciously take responsibility for child care ascribing “helpless men” stereotypes to their partners.
  • Men maintain these stereotypes either because they prefer the rigid old school split or because if they screw something up or look as though they can’t cope they won’t be asked again. It is easier.

I have seen all roles played out.

Helpless man stereotypes

Research across seven countries (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Netherlands, UK, and US) finds that 85% of fathers say that they would be willing to do anything to be very involved in the early weeks and months of caring for their newly born or adopted child. So, what’s holding them back?

The report identifies three major barriers:

  • the lack of adequate paid paternity leave.
  • low take-up of leave when it is available.
  • restrictive gender norms that position care as women’s responsibility, alongside the perception of women as more competent caregivers than men..
  • lack of economic security and government support for all parents and caregivers.

Michael Ray the Aussie gender equity specialist campaigns for diversity and gender balance at home says. “Until we throw the “lazy dad” and the “bumbling man child” tropes into the rubbish bin of history and we call them out as we should with any offensive, outdated gender stereotypes, not much will change.”

This involves a significant mindset shift all round. Sometimes the most difficult conversations women can have are with their partners which involves having meaningful discussions at home. This would be made easier if the general cultural message sets an expectation that men will be equally responsible for raising the next generation of kids. That action requires active role modelling in the workplace.


helpless man tropes

Barriers to dad’s involvement

Ray maintains that men who want to be involved in their children’s lives face significant barriers and until we tackle those not much will change. For me, the impetus for educating men has to come strongly from other men. My long experience is that men don’t take kindly to being schooled on this topic by women.

Here’s what they need

  • Their bosses walk the talk, supporting men with caring responsibilities, destigmatising parenting leave and family involvement as career breakers.
  • Workplaces that cater to parents and caregivers  equally not just “mums”
  • Dropping phrases like “working mum” etc. from our vocabulary. They are dated and misleading
  • Re-framing language around “helping” “baby-sitting the kids” etc. normalises fathering as an inferior role.

But it also means women letting go. One dad posted on LinkedIn that his partner left a pile of written instructions for him about snacks, school bags, and gym clubs when she went on a two-day business trip. He saw this as her assuming the invisible load involved in what’s become known as the third shift.

I see it differently, as a woman who needs to let go and leave her partner in charge and let him take responsibility for a few sandwiches and trainers.


Make sure your organisation supports gender balance by using our workshop on Managing Unconscious Bias


Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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