Fatherhood and Gender Equity

15 March 2005

Comment by Adrienne Burgess, Policy and Research Director, Fathers Direct

Family pictureAs the Scottish Executive puts finishing touches to the Family Law Bill – including automatic Parental Rights and Responsibilities for most unmarried fathers – the UK government has fathers in mind in a different way.

No matter that the purple-powder-condom chucked across the House of Commons remains a recent memory, and that super-heroes intermittently scramble over public buildings, Westminster’s politicians have begun thinking about active fatherhood as more than a ‘divorced dad’ thing. Nor have they transferred their focus entirely to ‘vulnerable fathers’ (poor, sick, young) who, as is becoming increasingly clear, may need substantial information and support to develop positive relationships with their children. No. Both Blair and Howard (or the backroom folk who shape their policies) are thinking their way through a new notion: of active fatherhood as a key ‘driver’ in gender equality.

Why? ‘The next election’ said Kirsty Walk on Newsnight on November 12th ‘will at least be partly fought on the parties’ understanding of how modern families work’. And ‘how modern families work’ involves, increasingly – in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK – : employed mothers; fathers who want to be closer to their children than they feel their fathers were to them; and couples with expectations of equality, which are often rudely disrupted by the birth of their first child.

Today’s divorce courts are full of mothers complaining that their children’s fathers wouldn’t pull their weight at home. And fathers are beginning to grumble, too: ‘A lot of the friction I’ve experienced in my relationship with my husband since our daughter was born relates to the enormous pressure he has felt being shoe-horned into a traditional breadwinner role’ says a contributor to the lively discussion boards on www.mumsnet.com: ‘we had a really equal relationship before our baby came along and it has been very uncomfortable being in the ‘traditional’ roles. It was a massive relief when I went back to work and he was able to take over some of the childcare.’

The idea of involved fatherhood as a driver of gender equity is not a new one – in Sweden. As early as 1974 the Swedes recognised that endowing women (but not men) with substantial work-family benefits (universal affordable childcare, extensive well-paid maternity leave, part-time work for new mothers) was not going to deliver equality for women. Not only could this make women of child-bearing age relatively unattractive to employers, but workplace cultures went unchallenged. And while many mothers were enabled through such measures to stay in, or return to, the paid workforce, typically they were consigned to a ‘mummy track’ characterized by relatively low-paid, low-skilled, shorter-hours work in the public sector. This fed the national pay-gap and female pension-poverty. It also failed to solve labour and skill shortages, as Sweden remained unable to draw fully on the talents and education of half its population: the female sex.
And so the Swedes set about involving fathers. The idea (to put it crudely) was to make fathers as unattractive to employers as mothers; to mount a real challenge to work-heavy work-place cultures (found mainly in the private sector); and to encourage mothers (who, with fathers playing a larger part at home, would feel less burdened) to have more children and to spend more years in higher level jobs.

The Swedes began by making parent-benefits available to both sexes: in law, fathers were awarded equal entitlements to mothers. Next, take-up by dads was actively encouraged: a key strategy was the ‘daddy month’ – a reserved month of well-paid parental leave that was lost to the family if the father did not take it. More recently, that was extended to a ‘daddy two month’; now a ‘daddy-five-month’ is on the cards.

All this was, and is, in sharp contrast to the UK. While new fathers as well as new mothers have a ‘right to ask for flexible working’ (i.e. their employers have to come up with a very good ‘business case’ to deny them this), this is where equality ends.

Mothers are effectively forced into the caring role. New mothers in Scotland, as in the rest of Britain, can stay out of the paid workforce for up to a year. Six months is paid, and their jobs are (theoretically) ‘safe’ for their return. New fathers, by contrast, get one month (unpaid) parental leave; and just two weeks’ (very low paid) paternity leave, which most, as their family’s breadwinners at this time, cannot afford to take. This outrageous piece of ‘gendered’ social engineering makes it impossible for most families to involve fathers substantially in the care of young children, and sets the scene for ongoing inequalities.

So what’s being mooted? First, remarkably, on November 12th, both Labour and Tory leaders mentioned fatherhood in personal terms on the same day: ‘Fathers who work full time will always worry that they don’t see enough of their children – just as I did’ said Howard, huskily. While Blair observed: ‘Because my children vary so widely in age, I’m perhaps more aware than most of the changes that have taken place . . . And that’s tremendous. For research shows that fathers who are involved with their children in the early weeks are more likely to stay involved with positive outcomes for children.’

Second, both leaders flagged the possibility of leave entitlements being made transferable between parents. ‘Mr Howard will say that fathers will for the first time be able to share with their partners a full year’s paid leave after the birth’ reported the Daily Telegraph, excitedly. Blair said: ‘Fathers increasingly want to play a hands on role at home . .. we want to extend paid leave for parents and give more choice to mothers and fathers about who uses that leave’.

Nothing, of course, is certain. But it looks as if at Westminster, as the General Election looms, the future in terms of work-family balance is no longer being regarded as purely female – at least by Labour and the Conservatives. And the Scottish Nationals? The work/family section in their ‘Manifesto for Workers and Families’ is entitled ‘A Fair Deal for Women and Children’. Fathers – and, therefore, a real grasp of what is needed for gender-equity – are, as yet, entirely missing.