In 2008, voters in California passed Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage. Six years later, the United States Supreme Court paved the way for same-sex marriage. How was victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, and what can the gender equity movement learn from this story?
Over this short period, Americans changed their attitude about gay marriage, with a majority now in support of it. “This is the most significant, fastest shift in public opinion that we’ve seen in modern American politics. And what is remarkable about it is that no demographic has been immune. You name it, and it has shifted in favor of gay marriage,” Alex Lundry, a Republican political consultant who worked on Mitt Romney’s campaign, is quoted as saying in Jo Becker’s Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality (Penguin Press, 2014).
Becker, a Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times investigative reporter, was allowed to be the proverbial “fly on the wall” in all of the meetings and conversations that took place among the players behind the legal challenge to Proposition 8 or Prop 8, as it became known, after she wrote a 2009 New York Times front-page story on attorney Ted Olson’s decision to join the cause. As a result, the book is a blow-by-blow account of the strategic moves and decisions that led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating the Prop 8 referendum in California. While there were many players involved, each of whom contributed in a unique way, I will refer to them together as the “Core Team.”
The country’s change of heart around gay marriage did not happen by itself, according to Forcing the Spring. Rather, it was the result, in large part, of a coordinated, multi-dimensional appeal to what President Obama, in his 2015 State of the Union address, called “our American values.”
The lessons the book chronicles could serve as a template for those working to close the gender gaps across our society – from the wage gap to the leadership gap to the caregiving gap. Here are three lessons I gleaned from the book.
Lesson 1: Address core beliefs
Marriage equality: The Core Team had the key insight that the root cause of opposition to the gay rights movement, and indeed the basis for legally sanctioned discrimination against gays, was a belief that sexual orientation is a “lifestyle” choice, not an inherent trait. The Prop 8 trial addressed this core belief from multiple angles, including documenting the research conducted by well-respected academics and telling the stories of people who had been forced into “conversion” therapy and become suicidal. The goal was to create a consensus among the American public – and a record in the case – supporting what Ted Olson saw as a self-evident truth: that “sexual orientation … [is] no more a choice than skin color or sex.” With this consensus, the Core Team could appeal to the fundamental American value of fairness.
Gender equity: What are the core beliefs that are holding back the gender equity movement today? To my mind, they revolve around caregiving. While most Americans will now say that they don’t believe a woman’s place is in the home, they do still believe that women are naturally better caregivers – and that therefore, caregiving should be a woman’s responsibility. Here are some indications of why I say this:
- 67% of Americans believe it’s “very important” that a man be ready to support a family before getting married, while only 33% believe the same about women (Pew Research Center).
- 51% of Americans believe that children are better off if the mother stays home, but only 8% say children are better off if the father stays home (Pew Research Center).
- 20% of employers who are required to comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act do not provide paternity leave, but only 6% don’t provide maternity leave, even though the Act makes no distinction between maternity and paternity leave (Families and Work Institute).
- A study of 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates show that men expect their career to be primary and their spouse/partner to do the majority of caregiving, and that is what happened, even though women expected to share caregiving (Harvard Business Review).
- Fathers want to be involved at home, but fear career repercussions for dialing down at work (Boston College New Dad series).
- The gender wage gap has shrunk for childless women but stayed the same or widened somewhat for women with children, especially at lower-wage levels (Clayman Institute for Gender Studies).
Lesson 2: Craft a universal message
Marriage equality: Even though more than half of all states allowed discrimination against gays in housing, employment, and other arenas, the Core Team was committed to marriage equality as “the right fight to choose. It steered the conversation towards principles of love and commitment, rather than rights and demands, and it showed that gay and lesbian couples wanted the same things in life as their straight counterparts.” Marriage equality is a universal message – one that all people can relate to on an emotional level.
Gender equity: If I am right that gender equity must address the core belief that caregiving is a woman’s responsibility, then we need to craft a message that addresses this belief in a way that has universal appeal and shifts the conversation. I believe this new message should be about caregiving as something we all can do and for which we should all take responsibility. In other words, caregiving is a social good, and helping families provide care helps them achieve the American Dream.
Lesson 3: Pick your messengers carefully
Marriage equality: As Forcing the Spring makes clear, a universal message is most powerful when delivered by unlikely messengers. Ted Olson himself was one such messenger. As a leading conservative who represented President Bush in Gore v. Bush, having him represent the plaintiffs in the Prop 8 litigation was “a game changer.” Other unlikely messengers were straight couples, parents of gay children, and African- American pastors.
Gender equity: Who would be unlikely messengers for the gender equity movement? I am sure there are many, but a few that come to mind are men – and the more senior the better! The Families and Work Institute’s research shows that men are more involved in elder care than child care, so maybe enlisting men with elder care responsibilities is a good place to start. Other potential messengers are veterans and their families, and people who are childless, as these groups would send the message that this is a universal issue.
Forcing the Spring is not just a great read – it is a source of inspiration to those of us who have started to despair about the lack of progress on the gender equity front. Change is possible – so let’s get started.Anne Weisberg is the Senior Vice President for Strategy at the Families and Work Institute. She is a recognized thought leader who has designed innovative practices to build effective, inclusive work environments, including co-authoring the best-selling, Mass Career Customization: Aligning the Workplace With Today’s Nontraditional Workforce (HBS, 2007).