Raise Your Hand

Where Are All The PTA Dads?

This has to stop.

by Anonymous
Emma Chao/Scary Mommy; Getty Images

I get a lot done during the hour-long Zoom PTA meetings for my daughter’s school. While they discuss the budget line-by-line and pass motions on the upcoming craft fair, I’m able to clean my desk, respond to at least five emails, order a new coat for my kid, and paint a full set of nails in a fetching autumnal burgundy. But occasionally, I do pay attention to what’s going on at these meetings. And at the last one, I noticed something troubling: there was a distinct dearth of men in our midst. Actually, there were none. All the officers were women. All the chair volunteers were women. All the meeting attendees were women.

You know where I’m going here. A tirade about invisible emotional labor when it comes to childcare and social obligations.

Earlier in the week, the president of the PTA sent out a frantic email asking for volunteers to chair the various committees, half of which were unclaimed. She said, essentially, that the other (female) volunteers were stretched thin, fulfilling room parent roles (which was what I signed up for, under a bit of duress myself) while covering multiple committees. If we as an elementary school parent body didn’t get our act together, the kids would miss out on some of the traditional seasonal activities.

And I felt that threat in my bones. I like volunteering at those events, handing out ice pops to kids, throwing balloons their way as they parade down the street in sunshine-themed attire. It devastated me to think that they would miss out on those experiences. Then it enraged me. If we had half as much interest from the male family members on these committees, there would be no need for drastic, pleading emails.

I texted my husband and said, “Look at this list of volunteers. Not a single man among them. THIS IS BULLSHIT.”

And, it turns out he hadn’t even gotten the email, though we were both listed on the contact list for my daughter. When I turned to Instagram to rant about the unequal gender distribution in our PTA, the responses flooded in from other mothers to the tune of, “Yes, this!” Some said they volunteered their husbands. Others said this was symptomatic of how school/social duties are typically associated with childcare, which in turn is often associated with women’s labor. (I hate that phrase.) Many said that the struggle is just getting the dads looped in on communications: “How can they help if they don’t know what’s going on?” Schools, evidently, often default to contacting the mother for extracurriculars.

But even when they are in the loop, there still seems to be a severe gender imbalance. Look, I’m not commenting on anyone’s individual schedule, and I’m definitely not interested in insinuating that some parents have more time to volunteer than others. Whether individuals are able to contribute time at all is very much shaped by privilege and access — not everybody has the kind of flexible job where you have more control over your schedule or reliable transportation and resources. I’m certainly not here to shame those who truly cannot volunteer into feeling badly about it.

But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s undeniably gendered. In most cases, women are the first to step up for social responsibilities in both school and work settings. Who’s organizing the pot lucks? Coming up with cute decorations for the holiday parties? Who are you receiving those reminder emails from? I’ve volunteered at some PTA events (though certainly not all!) and typically notice a very imbalanced ratio, though men do show up to help at the bigger events, like Sports Day. Perhaps you are in the rare community where the dads/grandparents/uncles are just as active as the women. However, I can safely say that’s still an anomaly in America.

In the same way that mothers are often tasked with making magic at the holidays and upholding traditions, mothers are often the ones at the forefront of school volunteering organizations. Do these childhood memories mean more to a woman than a man? I guarantee you that if you take a survey about how excited students are for their school parties and parades, you’ll find the same level of glee across all genders.

I can hear some arguing that women like crafting and being involved with their kids’ schools more; that it’s some kind of biological maternal instinct. I’m here to assure you that’s false. In talking to other volunteers, I’ve learned that none of us are aching for the additional responsibility. I, for one, dislike organizing events and I am distinctly subpar at it, though I know I’ll find the fun in it eventually. But I’m okay with doing it for a season, if I know someone else will take up the reins the next time around.

So it’s not an issue of who values these experiences or who enjoys them more. It’s an issue of who’s actually willing to step in to ensure that these events — this outpouring of magic for the kids — actually happen. And that who is, in most cases, mothers.

After my all-caps text to my husband, he volunteered to chair a movie night committee. To his credit, he was excited to do it, though he did need that initial nudge. He’s also in charge of gathering volunteers and has vowed to make it an All-Dad/Grandpa/Uncle committee, to counterbalance the lack of participation thus far. Am I hopeful? Sure. Am I expectant? That’s another story altogether.