Few people would have failed to notice that, 50 years on from the sexual revolution, this decade is beginning to see considerable changes in notions of gender. The generation currently emerging into adulthood appears to have a much more fluid sense of gender expectations than ever before ‒ with terms such as ‘genderless’, ‘cis-gender’ or ‘pan gender’ now commonly used by increasing numbers of young people raised to deconstruct traditional notions of gender imposed by society. Gay marriage has passed into law, transgender communities are more openly campaigning for rights, and women continue to break new ground in terms of opportunities – whether it be outnumbering males in university or increasing female participation at all levels of society (albeit with still a degree of progress to be made before this is fully representative).
Yet despite a more tolerant and progressive climate, there still seems to be one area in which traditional gender roles assert themselves as strongly as ever ‒ that of parenthood. It seems that no matter how equal a partnership may be in its early stages, once children enter the picture, then many revert to a much more traditional model of man as provider and woman as carer.
In the past much of this lack of progress has been put down to a male-dominated society. But in the 2010s this theory no longer holds as much weight. For one thing, women have far greater autonomy in the workplace than previous generations – indeed recently it was reported that women in their twenties have now not only closed the gender pay gap, but overtaken the earnings of young men providing more impetus for them to become the ‘breadwinner’ after having children. At the same time the appetite of young men to play a bigger role in their children’s lives is clearly growing in the UK – the amount of time the average father spends with their child has risen sevenfold since the 1970s, whilst the number of fathers who act as primary caregiver has quadrupled in just 25 years, albeit from low initial levels.
But still so often fathers report feeling out of place looking after their children in public, from having to field patronising comments like ‘it’s so nice to see a man looking after a child’, to more worryingly being viewed with suspicion, usually by women, as a potential threat to their own or other children. Similarly, as the workplace has become more flexible, many men are now facing their own form of discrimination through being refused part-time hours or flexible working by ‘old-school’ male bosses who would not dare to impose such restrictions on their female staff for fear of discrimination. Perhaps a particular gap is that there is a still a dearth of literature and support available for dads during pregnancy and in the early years when compared to what is targeted at mothers. At KCA we have found, for instance, that our Five to Thrive approach seems to receive particularly good feedback from dads who welcome some basic principles of how they can parent effectively and learn what they can do both to enhance their child’s development and play a role in reducing the stress of their partner who often takes the role of the ‘primary’ caregiver.
Perhaps these are all reasons why the issue of fathers has been rapidly rising towards the top of the political agenda in the last few years as policy increasingly looks out of step with the wants and needs of families in our age. Although David Cameron’s Life Chances Strategy, which had promised to prioritise fatherhood, has now been abandoned, it is known that Whitehall has spent much time in the last year looking at the issue. It would be a surprise if Theresa May’s government did not include at least some of this learning within its forthcoming Social Justice Green Paper. Elsewhere the Women and Equalities Committee recently announced a new inquiry looking at whether fathers are being treated equally in the workplace. Whilst at the same time a new coalition – the Fathers Development Foundation – is set to shortly bring together interested parties from across the sector to help provide a measured voice advocating for fathers and fatherhood. Dads are becoming a hot topic in Westminster!
It’s clear that there is much work that can be done to better support fathers. More and better information and guidance for one – particularly that which gives dads the tools to understand how they can develop their own bespoke role as parent, rather than prescriptive materials which try to mould them into ‘mini-mums’. But to achieve cultural change we also need to create an environment which facilitates a more equal approach to parenting. Perhaps one initial step towards this might be to include ‘Paternity’ as a protected characteristic in the Equalities Act 2010 alongside ‘Pregnancy and Maternity’? This would help set a tone for public services and employers alike to consider their practice towards fathers to ensure they are not discriminated against.
Ultimately, though, it is only through mothers and fathers seeing the benefits of equality and working together that real advances will be achieved. When asked to show cultural change as being possible most policy makers point to drink-driving, wearing seat-belts, or the smoking ban as concrete examples. I would proffer that the proportion of men now present at the birth of their child constitutes a positive revolution for those of us raised just a few decades before on the stereotype of men sitting anxiously in hospital waiting rooms. Now it’s time for both parents to demand a society which values fathers retaining that presence right throughout childhood.