Many reports and studies show that there is increasing equality between parents in terms of traditional parenting roles and responsibilities;
For example British men are spending more time on domestic work than their forefathers (an increase from 90 minutes per day in the 1960s to 150 minutes per day by 2004), are taking increased responsibility for caring for their children (from 15 minutes to 2 hours per working day between 1975 and 1997, an 800% increase) and are increasingly becoming the parent with sole responsibility for childcare during the working week (21% of fathers of under-fives are solely responsible for childcare at some point during the working week)
While there is still some way to go before we can begin talking about true equity and equality between the sexes, these are positive trends.
And yet public media is unfortunately still very much geared to reinforcing the traditional “doofus father” stereotype – the blundering, largely absent, beer and sports obsessed icons of yesteryear, petrified to change a nappy, incompetent at meal times, useless around the house, and generally setting a bad example to their children.
And to compound this stereotype, society is also not currently particularly geared to accepting the change in the zeitgeist which the statistics suggest is happening,
Whether it is detail such as the fact that nappy change facilities are still largely positioned only in female public toilets; that there is still poor or non-existent pre-and post natal support for fathers; that marketing and advertising for baby products is still geared towards women.
Or more at the macro level like for example the fact that until recently there has been dreadful inequality between paternity and maternity leave entitlements, it is little wonder that men may feel intimidated by impending fatherhood.
Traditional notions of masculinity still pervade a man’s everyday life too. One only has to see the incredibly damaging four “rules of masculinity” pioneered by 1970s American psychologist Robert Brannon, to understand how many fathers have been coded to act.
- No sissy stuff – reject all that is associated with femininity
- Be a big wheel – wealth, power and status define your success as a man
- Be a sturdy oak – reliable and strong in a crisis
- Give ‘em hell – men are associated with risk, daring and aggression
These notions are damaging because they are divisive. They perpetuate notions that it is somehow emasculating to let your female partner go out to work while you look after the children at home.
Even though the proportion is at a historical low (and despite all the positive advances mentioned above) a recent study revealed that nearly one in five British men still believe that it is the woman’s role to stay at home and look after the children. Those one in five constitute an important critical mass, and one which needs to be addressed if a tipping point for societal change is to be reached.
For some families it no longer makes as much economic sense to automatically designate the father as a breadwinner because according to a number of studies the gender pay gap has all but disappeared in low income families and findings by the National Equality Panel in 2010[i] found that the earnings gap is continuing to narrow.
And this trend is likely to continue across all demographics as young girls / women now outstrip boys / men not only in school participation, graduation and results but also in further education and training.
So going forward, men in the UK are likely to have much more of a role in bringing up their children than their fathers, or their fathers father’s, ever did. And new research shows that this is perhaps no bad thing.
Researchers and child experts are realising that there are incredible benefits related to this societal shift. Research[ii] shows that infants of highly involved fathers have higher cognitive functioning, are better problem solvers as toddlers and have higher IQs by age three.
As well as better cognitive functioning, infants of highly involved fathers show better social and emotional development and well-being. And if that is not enough, involved fathers lead to less disruptive behaviour, less depression, less sadness, less lying and substance abuse and a myriad of other negative development outcomes in their children[iii]. And when men participate fairly in the home, research shows that everyone is happier and healthier.
What this boils down to is the need for gender equality and men can be important agents of change in this regard. An excellent recent report from the Government Equalities Office[iv] (which dad blogger John Adams – @dadbloguk – contributed to) points out some of the challenges that face individuals, organisations and societies when pursuing equality.
But the report argues that the key thing is to ensure that male voices are included in dialogue about gender and that actually, in doing so, amazing opportunities may arise. Many men will have much to gain through gender equality that allows for new ways of working and living for both men and women to flourish.
As UN Under Secretary General Ban Ki Moon points out, the evidence is clear
“Countries with more gender equality have better economic growth. Companies with more women leaders perform better. Peace agreements that include women are more durable. Parliaments with more women enact more legislation on key social issues such as health, education, anti-discrimination and child support. The evidence is clear: equality for women means progress for all”
This all strikes a very resonant personal chord with me. I have recently cut down to a four day working week in order to spend more time with my family. It initially wasn’t easy, and I had to have a number of tough conversations with my manager, my colleagues, my wife and most importantly, with my ego.
But it very quickly became a conversation about opportunities. My reduction in work hours, provided my wife with an opportunity to pursue a more challenging career and I got some all-important time off to be a better father and better husband.
The important thing to conclude is that new shifts towards gender equality are exciting and will benefit organisations, individuals and ultimately society. There is still a long way to go however, before a true tipping point can be reached.
However through modelling opportunities presented by pro-equality governmental and organisational policy, and continued dialogue around gender equality and the roles of men and women in society, there is no reason why a more equal vision of society cannot be achieved in our lifetime.
[ii] See for example “The effects of father involvement: a summary of research evidence” Father Involvement Initiative, fall 2002