Could equal rights for fathers be the key to helping more mums and dads to have it all?
I was looking at a school book from the 1950s recently and discovered that in post-war Britain all dads used to smoke pipes, go to work and do the gardening. Meanwhile, all mums looked after the kids, walked to the shops in their headscarves and baked cakes with the ingredients they’d brought home in a nice basket.
When you consider today’s mums and dads, their apparent indifference to headscarves and tobacco pipes isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the last 60 years. We are living in an age of breadwinner moms and stay-at-home-dads, yet despite the continual blurring and blending of conventional gender roles we’re told that women still can’t have it all and men aren’t having it all either.
So why is this? If we are heading for a future where men and women share the joys of making dough and baking dough equally, then what’s stopping us from getting there? For all the seismic shifts in gender roles we’ve seen in recent decades, when you average it all out, women are still doing more parenting while men are still doing more earning.
The four main reasons usually given for this are:
- Women are discriminated against in the workplace
- Men aren’t pulling their weight on the homefront
- Women need to “Lean In” at work
- Dads who want to be involved are discriminated against
All of these perspectives are valid and here we consider four ways that dads all over the world are discriminated against and what we can do about it.
1. Unequal Opportunities
If we want men to share responsibility for parenting and providing equally then we need to consider why men on average don’t do an equal share of parenting. Is it because they’re lazy or is it because they don’t have an equal opportunity?
According to international comparisons in 21 leading economies, the proportion of childcare men do ranges from a quarter in Austria to just under a half in Finland.
As with most Scandanavian countries, Finland offers generous support to help mums and dads stay at home in the early years and men respond to this opportunity by being the world’s best dads when it comes to sharing childcare.
Dads are also more involved in countries where there’s less family breakdown. In Italy and Portugal where fewer than 10% of children grow up in lone parent families, dads are now doing more than 40% of childcare.
Clearly, if you’re a dad who lives in a country where there’s more family breakdown and the state doesn’t actively support shared parenting, you have less opportunity to be a hands-on dad.
2. The Breadwinner Burden
Earlier this year Pew Research revealed that 40% of American mums are the main breadwinner, which sounds like the U.S.A. is just 10% away from equality when it comes to parents sharing the breadwinning duties.
Beneath the headlines, the reality is that the majority of those breadwinner moms are lone parents on low incomes who are both the primary carer and the primary breadwinner.
In conventional families, breadwinner dads are still three times more likely to be earning 100% of the family income. Mums and dads aren’t reversing roles en masse, but they are increasingly sharing roles, with 60% of two-parent homes in the U.S.A. now having two breadwinners.
According to Richard Dorment at Esquire magazine, men in dual-income couples work outside the home 11 more hours a week than their working wives or partners. When the Pew Research Center asked working mothers and fathers what their ideal working situation would be, it found that dads are twice as likely as mums to say they want to work full-time and are currently doing seven hours more work a week than non-fathers on average.
In a world where fathers are twice as likely to say they want to work full time, these cultural norms discriminate against families with dads who want to break away from the main breadwinner role and share parenting and providing more equally.
How do we address this discrimination? A good place to start is by asking our sons and daughters to consider what equality in relationships means to them. Does it mean earning the same and spending the same time on childcare and other unpaid work? Or will the freedom to choose how these responsibilities are shared be more important to the next generation of mums and dads?
3. Unequal Parental Rights
The world of equal parental rights is far more complex than the idea suggests. Unlike equal voting rights for women, there isn’t a simple binary switch we can turn on to make the law equal for dads.
The relationship between an individual and a ballot box is much simpler to legislate for than the relationship between two adults and their child, particularly when those adults are separated and in conflict.
Imagine trying to write a law where two people had to share one vote between them and you had to ensure that both parties rights and needs were met even when they disagreed who to vote for—if you consider this for a moment, you begin to get a sense of how difficult it can be to create equal rights for parents.
While giving parents equal rights is complex, in most modern economies dads do have fewer rights than mums. In the UK, for example, a former Equal Opportunities Commissioner described the situation as follows:
“In UK law, a father can only be a father if the mother approves him. She can do this in two ways – marry him or invite him to sign the birth certificate. If neither of these happens, he is not the father until the family court approves him. A man has to be vetted by the mother or the state before he is allowed to be a father.”
Part of the problem is that it’s much easier for the state to grant legal guardianship of children to one parent or another. In modern economies when a child is born it is generally assumed that the mother will raise the child and make decisions about who else can and can’t be involved.
If a mother wants to restrict a father’s involvement he has to fight for the right to be part of his children’s lives. This places fathers—and particularly separated fathers—in an unequal position.
How do we create a more level playing field for mums and dads? The progressive approach is to make it easier for dads to share parenting from birth—in countries where this happens, separated fathers are far more likely to have some kind of shared parenting arrangement.
The conservative approach is to take action to reduce family breakdown, the assumption being that in intact families parents are less likely to be in conflict and so the relative rights of mums and dads become less of an issue.
4. Dad Press
All over the developing world there is a growing acceptance that dads have been getting a lot of bad press in recent decades.
In June, the UK online community netmums added its voice to the “stop sexism against dads” movement with a survey revealing that nine out of ten parents claim children’s shows don’t represent real-life dads and three out of ten say the way dads are portrayed in the media is a “subtle form of discrimination”.
“The type of jokes aimed at dads would be banned if they were aimed at women, ethnic minorities or religious groups” said Netmums founder Siobhan Freegard.
So how do we tackle negative media portrayals that discriminate against dads effectively? The US Daddy Blogger Chris Routly, whose writing has been featured here at the Good Men Project, has demonstrated the power of effective complaining by causing two leading brands to pull ads that were sexist against dads.
Chris led a successful campaign against a sexist Huggies nappy ad last year and proved he isn’t a one hit wonder, by scoring a second success this year by persuading the Clorox bleach brand to pull a sexist ad that said:
“Saying ‘No-no’ is not just for baby. Like dogs or other house pets, new Dads are filled with good intentions but lacking the judgment and fine motor skills to execute well. Here are a few dangerous no-nos new Dads might make, and some training tips…..”
Chris’s example points the way forward for dads in two key ways. Firstly if we want things to change for the better for dads—to cut through our unequal rights; the expectation that we should be the main breadwinner; and the unequal opportunity that we have to be involved parents—then we have to stand together as men and assert our right to be taken seriously as fathers, just as women stand together and demand to be taken seriously in the workplace.
What was most heartening about the successful campaign to persuade Huggies to change their adverts, was that mums and dads fought alongside each other. Women had many different motivations for getting involved from the personal “don’t you dare talk about the father of my children like that” approach to the more gender political reasoning that recognizes that women’s equality at work is inextricably linked to men’s equality on the homefront.
If deep and lasting change is to happen for men and women it will only arise when enough fathers are prepared to demand equal rights, equal opportunities and equal treatment as parents. Dads also need to “lean in” and grab those opportunities with both hands, because our individual demands will only make a collective difference when enough women are convinced that men having greater parental equality, works for mums too.
In parenting, as in life, we are after all in it together—and if more mums and dads work together on this issue, then maybe we can find a way for more men and women to have it all.
Photo credit: Flickr/AMTaylorPhotography