Study of families across the globe finds that challenging gender norms and achieving equal parenting takes a lot of effort from working dads
The efforts working dads have to go through to make equal parenting a reality are laid bare in a global study of parents.
The research looked at families in 25 countries. It was led by Francine Deutsch, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College in the US. Her book Halving it All looked at how American families split domestic labour. Her latest book, Creating Equality at Home, is based on the new international work. She says her aim was to tease out the similarities across cultures among couples who model equal parenting. “The book spans couples from Iceland to Indonesia. I wanted to look at whether there are things that cut across cultures when it comes to sharing parenting,” she says.
It took more than a decade to complete the project. Deutsch had to enlist a team of collaborators from around the world. Indeed during that time the researcher she found in Tunisia was appointed a minister for women’s affairs following the Arab Spring. She later had to flee into exile.
Professor Deutsch is due to speak about her findings at the online Cambridge Festival on 2nd April.
She gathered 25 couples to study. Most with children under 12. Professor Deutsch says talking to parents with younger children was vital: research shows that the kind of hands-on care required in the early years tends to be highly gendered, with dads generally becoming more involved in parenting as their children get older.
Her group of parents were mostly sharing equally from the very beginning. They were also all ‘non-conformists’, even in the more liberal countries. Many faced criticism from their families or the wider society about their choices. “They have to put up with societies that are not very supportive and require a certain level of self confidence to thwart norms,” says Professor Deutsch.
Some of the fathers loved that non-conformist aspect. One Austrian father revelled in being the only dad at home with his child. Many picked their friends carefully – for instance, other couples where men were very hands on so they didn’t feel alone. Some had to ditch old friends. An Australian couple, who both worked part time and saw their earnings drop substantially, moved away from friends who didn’t share their anti-materialistic approach.
Asked about the impact of wider society on children’s attitudes to gender, Professor Deutsch says research shows that children do absorb egalitarian attitudes they experience at an early age and that, in any event, people have the agency to overcome social attitudes. Indeed, most of the couples in the book grew up in ‘traditional’ families. Only a minority reported a relatively egalitarian family background. “In many instances, their parents were anti-models. Women saw their mothers being in a subordinate position. A mother in Singapore mentioned that she didn’t want to be a servant; a father in Austria said that the only thing he learnt from his father was how not to parent.”
Some of the men were more confident taking on non-traditional tasks because they had grown up helping their mothers with housework and childcare.. Professor Deutsch said the theory is that children learn most from parents of the same sex – and sometimes do the opposite of that when they grow up. But her research shows that boys also learn a lot from their sisters and mothers. A number of the fathers had not had a close relationship with their own dads and wanted a different kind of relationship with their children.
Professor Deutsch says that legislation on issues such as parental leave and flexible working is important. It is no accident that more families share parenting equally in Sweden than in Indonesia. But she adds, “The caveat is that people have to use the policies. Even in Iceland which has the best policies and a very egalitarian rhetoric it is a minority of couples where fathers share as much of the leave as mothers. Fathers get part of the leave, part is reserved for mothers and they can share another part, but often that goes to the mother.”
And she says that even in countries such as the US, which has no national statutory parental leave entitlement, parents that are really determined can find ways to share. One dad in the US saved his holiday time up so he could share the care when his baby was born.
She agrees flexible working is hugely important for sharing parenting, enabling men to prioritise their families over work. Some of the fathers in her book had changed career or gone part time so that they could share parenting. But even where there was flexible working legislation, some fathers had had to negotiate with unsupportive employers. What distinguishes the dads in the study is that they were willing to take penalties. That might mean lower earnings and lower chances of promotion.
The common thread among couples who model equal parenting is commitment. That might mean men putting family over work or women making room for men to be equal care givers. “People need to have the fortitude to thwart social and cultural norms,” she says.
*Creating equality at home: how 25 couples around the world share housework is published by Cambridge University Press.