My 6-year-old daughter recently told me how her best friend’s mother is always at school. This mom volunteers for library, for swimming, for the health walk and even made a papier-mâché spaceship for one of their class projects. Meanwhile I, who must cram in my work before my kids get home at 1:30 p.m., had penciled myself in for one library slot. Mari felt bad about it. So did I.

“I’m sorry,” I told Mari. “I’m working.”

“When I grow I up,” Mari declared. “I won’t work so I can come to school with my kids.”

It was spectacular. In one breath, she’d berated me and given up all her professional aspirations. She’d also forgotten all about her other working parent — my husband, who hadn’t even signed up for one library slot.

Unless you’re living under a rock or in deep denial, you’re aware that there’s an unfair burden placed on working women, also known as The Second Shift. In addition to their employment, women are still largely saddled with much of the unpaid labor they used to do before women entered the workforce 50 years ago. Buried beneath the larger issue are smaller details, like the PTA. In a society in which most women work — nearly two-thirds of American mothers are breadwinners — there’s still an expectation that the women will volunteer their time in the PTA and other school volunteer organizations, while men get a pass.

The founders of the parent volunteer organizations were pioneers. Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst founded the PTA’s precursor, the National Congress of Mothers, in 1897, two decades before women had the right to vote. Selena Sloan Butler founded the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers Association in 1911, and the two organizations only merged in 1970. These women championed children’s rights in an era when children had almost none. The PTA and similar school volunteer organizations have subsequently provided immeasurable contributions to children’s health, legislative advocacy, teaching support, anti-bullying programs and raising much-needed funds for schools, among other accomplishments.

Schools would suffer without the unpaid work of these parents. But, like with so much other unpaid labor, the expectation is still that women will fill these roles, even in families where both parents are working.

“I think the expectation is that mothers will be the primary person doing all of the things for the family, not just volunteering,” said Rachel Leventhal-Weiner, a sociologist and educator who’s the mother of two daughters ages 8 and 6. “And it makes me feel like I am constantly juggling and dropping balls.”

Leventhal-Weiner said that when she completed the school forms for her daughters, she automatically became “the primary contact for all school-related things.” She described her frustration in seeing women “inadvertently volunteered to interface for their families” because the forms aren’t written in a more inclusive way that considers the possibility of two — or perhaps more than two — parents as primary contacts.

The imbalance, and the pressure placed on women, is compounded when parents are bombarded with volunteer requests. Last year, I was asked to volunteer for library and swimming slots, to accompany children on class trips, health walks, to help out at the book fair, to “man” the stand at a school market, to bake or contribute food for various events, to set up and clean up for school parties — and that’s just in the emails I read. This is in addition to the regular time commitments of attending plays, concerts and class parties, teacher meetings, information meetings about anti-bullying programs and other planning meetings.

Each time I say no, the wheels of my maternal guilt spin. Meanwhile the gendered state of affairs taps into my resentment over how women’s work is often devalued. As always, my grievances are insignificant when compared to the other consequences of a system predicated on the idea that one parent isn’t working.

Because parental involvement has a positive impact on child development, single-parent families and lower-income families with unforgiving work schedules lose out. They have fewer opportunities to get involved and exert less influence on their children’s school and education. The imbalance surrounding the PTA culture, like so many others, isn’t just about gender and women getting shortchanged. It’s also about socioeconomic status and racial inequality, because marginalized groups have less voice and influence within this volunteer construct.

If more men participated in the PTA and similar volunteer organizations, the issues wouldn’t disappear, but the change would benefit everyone. When fathers and father figures get involved in their children’s school and education, it has a positive effect on their academic performance and well-being, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Eric Snow is the president and co-founder of WATCH D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students), a program that invites fathers and father figures to volunteer in schools. He cites multiple benefits to male involvement, including boosting children’s confidence, raising attendance and reducing the chances of substance abuse. But he says there’s still a stigma around men volunteering.

“I regularly hear from men that their child’s school isn’t ‘male friendly’ and in some instances there is still a very real perception that something must be wrong with a man who would want to volunteer his time to be around his kids and their classmates at school,” Mr. Snow said. “I believe that in many cases the men don’t know what they could do as a volunteer and fear they would be uncomfortable if they were the only dad to participate.”

WATCH D.O.G.S has a detailed program for how to overcome these obstacles and get men involved in school volunteering. Schools and parent volunteer organizations also offer various strategies to engage male caregivers in schools, like educating men about the importance of volunteering, developing a male engagement team and keeping up the momentum.

Some approaches might sound patronizing — Colorado’s PTA offer of an “Alpha Male” Awardfor example — but let she who has solved the gender imbalance in their school volunteer organization cast the first stone.

Women will also have to consciously “lean out” from the expectation that they’re the primary volunteer candidates.

“I stopped trying to be our family’s champion a long time ago,” said Leventhal-Weiner. “It’s important my daughters see my husband as engaged in their school life. Then they will develop an expectation that their future partners will share in the challenges of parenting.”

A shift in values — in which both men and women feel school volunteer work is a worthy time expenditure — would help the gender imbalance. At the very least, if more men were involved in school volunteering, little girls wouldn’t get the message, like my daughter did, that only moms “go to school,” because men would be there, too.

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