When it comes to child care, men want to step up — so why don’t they?

OPINION: Although women still do the bulk of unpaid care work, a new report finds that men want to do their fair share. All that stands in their way are pervasive social attitudes and inadequate government policies
By Lauren McKeon - Published on June 14, 2019
a man carrying a laundry basket
A 2018 International Labour Organization study notes that. If men did just 50 minutes more unpaid care work a day and women did 50 minutes less, we’d be much closer to equality. (iStock.com/RyanJLane)

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If the 1950s were responsible for producing the image of the perfect housewife, then they are also to blame for another domestic stereotype: the cold and distant father. More than half a century later, these gendered roles — and theirs divisions of chores and care — have proven hard to shake. That’s not to say we haven’t made progress. I’ve lived with partners who’ve eagerly, and equally, shared the housework, and I have male friends who wouldn’t dream of being as uninvolved as the fathers of yore. But as much as we’ve challenged ideas about who should be responsible for what work within the home, we haven’t come far enough. In fact, according to a recent 2019 OECD report, not one country in the world has achieved gender equality in unpaid care work.

In 2018, the International Labour Organization released a report, based on time-use data from 23 comparable countries (including Canada), that found that the unpaid-care gap between men and women had decreased by a total of just seven minutes per day between 1992 and 2012. That isn’t even enough time to do the dishes. And, yet, it wouldn’t take much to even out the scales. The same study indicated that, if men did just 50 minutes more unpaid care work a day — cleaned the bathroom, say, and maybe even dusted — and women did 50 minutes less, we’d be much closer to equality.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that balancing unpaid care work can have drastic benefits for women’s equality. Feminists have been calling for it for years; it surfaced in second-wave activism and was as a key point in the United Nations’ landmark 1995 Beijing Declaration. And the UN has also said that, in order to reach its stated “sustainable development goal” of gender equality, countries need to “recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work” and promote “shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.”

We’re also starting to have larger discussions about the value of so-called emotional labour — the work involved in reminding a spouse or child to do something, making appointments, keeping the family peace — and the fact that women disproportionately shoulder the responsibility for maintaining a smoothly run household.

What may come as a surprise, however, is that men apparently wish they could be more involved, particularly in child care. Often, when we discuss the uneven division of work, we fail to consider how much they may want to step in. “State of the World’s Fathers,” a recent report from Promundo, an NGO that focuses on promoting gender quality, finds that 91 per cent of men in Canada say that they would do “whatever it takes to be very involved in the early weeks and/or months of caring for my newly born or adopted child.” Yet, outside Quebec, only 40 per cent of men took the maximum paternity leave; an additional 40 per cent of men took off no time at all. When it comes to who receives parental-leave benefits in Canada, men account for a scant 13.6 per cent.

So, what’s stopping men? On some level, the issue is societal attitudes. The report surveyed 12,000 people from 11 countries: nearly three-quarters of the respondents said that they believed mothers should make it a top priority to take the bulk of the offered parental leave. But the report suggests a reason for that: “the largest barriers to men using paternity leave are social norms holding that women are the ‘natural’ caregivers.” Many of the fathers surveyed believed that mothers are naturally better at parenting. Our 1950s perceptions of gender roles might as well be zombies given how hard they are to kill.

Then again, society isn’t structured in such a way as to encourage men to step up. The report also finds that 35 per cent of families believe a woman should stay home when she’s the one who earns less (call it the Cycle of Creating a Wage Gap). Government policy, which often treats paternity leave as a secondary, voluntary, nice-to-do thing, also acts as a roadblock.

Research has consistently found that fathers are more likely to take parental leave when it is mandated solely to them — that is, when they can’t transfer it to the mothers. When they can, however, most do. Take Canada. Most provinces do not have a mandated leave policy for fathers — and we see lower numbers of dads taking leave as a result. Yet, in Quebec, where fathers are entitled to five weeks of exclusive leave, nearly 80 per cent of dads take it. (It’s also worth mentioning that some of the men who may want to step up aren’t eligible for paid leave, because they’re part-time or seasonal workers, contractors, students, or unemployed.)

The benefits of more men taking up care, however, are undeniable. In 2018, according to the OECD study, more than 600 million women around the world said that they couldn’t seek paid work because of their unpaid care responsibilities. And when women do just twice as much unpaid work as men, their earnings are two-thirds less. But it isn’t just women who benefit from men’s increased involvement. And the Promundo report finds that men with increased child-caregiving involvement feel more hopeful and report increased satisfaction with their work lives and their sex lives. I mean, of course — and I imagine these benefits would extend to any man who steps up his unpaid-work game. After all, I swear there is nothing sexier than a partner who picks up the vacuum, unprompted, on a Sunday afternoon.

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