Supporting fathers to be active in their children’s lives is essential to creating well-functioning societies, businesses and families.
I am personally very happy to see more work being done in recent years to look at fatherhood experiences at work, assess how we can close the care gap, redefine gender-based parenting roles and change attitudes around what it means to be a man and a dad.
We’ve come a long way over the past couple of decades. The expectations and experiences of many new dads now are very different to what our grandads and even our own fathers encountered. My grandad never attended the birth of any of his six children. Now 96% of fathers attend their children’s birth.
There are 10 times as many stay-at-home dads in the UK now than there were a decade ago. And the introduction of shared parental leave in 2015, followed by Covid-19 in 2020 – which saw more men taking on childcare responsibilities than ever before – have all helped to shift the conversation around fatherhood.
However, with all these developments, mothers still take on the vast majority of childcare and this contributes to many gender inequalities across society.
The large disparity in the gender pay gap comes about when the first baby is born into a family, and for us to address this, we need to support and encourage dads to share the caring load in the months and years after their baby is born. This also has huge positive benefits to outcomes for our children. Research suggests that equal paternal involvement in the early years has significant positive impacts on children’s wellbeing and education.
We need to evolve the role of the father in the family. But if we are going to change fatherhood, we first need to change manhood. Masculinity is going through a significant transformation. Just a few decades ago we had clearly defined gender roles. Masculinity was largely defined by providing, protecting and strength. While elements of this still exist of course, masculinity has broadened. Now, modern men are also encouraged, and in some cases required, to be empathetic, compassionate and willing and wanting to take on caring responsibilities.
However, the evolution is a messy one. Gender roles are slowly becoming more fluid, but we still face a significant resistance and stigma around men taking on shared or primary caring roles still exists.
So how do we remove the stigma around male caring and encourage and support dads to share the caring responsibilities in their home?
I think we need to take a holistic approach that considers healthcare, childcare costs, employment and cultural expectations.
Let’s start with healthcare. I work with midwives and GPs within the NHS to help them to engage expectant and new dads in the pregnancy process. Unfortunately, many dads can feel alienated from this process – partly due to their own hesitancy stemming from outdated views around manhood, but also due to some of the maternity services not being set up to include them sufficiently. Engaging dads in their role as early as possible is important to ensuring they bond with their baby and play an active role in family life from the beginning. If a dad is disengaged from the start, this often carries into how caring responsibilities are distributed later. We need to engage expectant dads from day one to reduce gender inequalities.
Childcare costs in the UK are extortionate. We have the third most expensive childcare system in the world. This expense ultimately leads to parents, usually the mother, leaving work to look after the children. This reinforces gender roles and mothers also face discrimination when they try to get back into the workplace after taking time out for childcare reasons. We need to make care affordable to reduce gender inequalities.
The workplace has a huge role to play in deciding how a family shares their caring responsibilities. Poor workplace policies, a lack of flexible working and un-progressive workplace cultures can all contribute to reinforcing traditional gendered parenting roles.
I am the co-founder of the Working Dads Employer Awards which celebrates employers that are supporting working dads. There are now around 35 employers in the UK who have equalised their maternity and paternity leave polices and many more that offer new dads an enhanced period of paid paternity leave. The pandemic has seen a fundamental shift in flexible working in some industries and many leadership teams are building inclusive cultures that support dads being active in their children’s lives.
However, there is so much more to do and significant challenges in site-based industries and low-income roles. We need to good paternity leave packages, inclusive workplace cultures and flexible jobs for all to reduce gender inequalities.
And then there is the challenge of breaking down cultural and societal views on manhood and fatherhood. My organisation, MusicFootballFatherhood, works to create open conversations around being a dad. We want to create safe spaces for men to talk about mental health, relationships, work, gender roles, loss and everything else.
We need to normalise conversations around fatherhood and give dads the opportunities to speak with others about how they manage their caring responsibilities. It’s in doing this that we can help men to practise positive masculinity – a masculinity that centres empathy, seeks help and support, shows a range of emotions and embraces caring and fatherhood.
I am optimistic about the future. But this work is urgent. Families are suffering. Children are getting a sub-optimal upbringing. Relationships are on the brink. And gender inequalities persist.
We have lots of work to do and there is something here for all of us to contribute towards.
Written by Elliott Rae, co-founder of the Working Dads Employer Awards and founder of the parenting platform for men, MusicFootballFatherhood.