Written by Dotty Winters

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Breaking dad

The charity Working Families has warned that we’re in danger of creating a fatherhood penalty, which is why we need to stop talking about mothers and fathers and talk about parents instead, says Dotty Winters.

dad holding a baby
Managing the competing demands of work and family is a constant tightrope in my household. I also travel for work, so can be away overnight on occasion. We are a two-parent household, and discuss and agree on how we are going to manage as a family. We have more options than many but it can still be a very complex task to meet all of our commitments.

I’ve been surprised by some of the comments people make when it’s Mr Winters, rather than me, who has to make space for childcare. I’ve heard people respond as if he is some kind of sainted being for doing his share of parenting and even ask why it isn’t my job to pick up a puking child from school. It turns out we are not alone.

Fathers are struggling to achieve work/life balance and spend more time caring for their children, according to the Modern Families Index report, published this week by the charity Working Families. The fathers who responded to the survey of 2,750 parents reported that they were struggling to balance the demands and expectations placed on them by employers with their aspirations to take a more active role in raising their children.

The survey responses show that:

47 per cent of fathers agree they would like to downshift into a less stressful job, reflecting the difficulty they face in reconciling work and home.

Eight out of ten mothers and seven out of ten fathers agree they would assess their childcare needs before taking a new job or promotion, indicating that both genders now feel they might have to downgrade their careers in order to care for their families.

Just under half of millennial fathers (46 per cent) said they would be willing to take a pay cut to achieve a better work-life balance, vs. just over a third of fathers overall (38 per cent).

Working Families warns that we may be creating a fatherhood penalty, where fathers move into lower paid roles in order to maintain or increase their caring commitments. This could mirror what we already know about the motherhood penalty that exists in the UK economy.

“The same processes and structures that penalise fathers who want to take a more active role with their children, penalise the men who speak up in their workforce.”

Among the most striking findings in the report is that while many of the respondents identified flexible working arrangements as a potential solution, people feel very hesitant about raising this as an option, fearing that requests to work flexibly will be poorly perceived or damage long-term prospects. This effect is more pronounced among fathers than mothers, the report stating that:

Twice the number of fathers compared to mothers believe flexible workers are viewed as less committed and over double the number of fathers believe working flexibly will have a negative impact on their career.

44 per cent of fathers have lied or bent the truth to their employer about their family responsibilities, compared to 37 per cent of mothers.

Aside from the – hopefully evident – fact that we can’t usefully exclude all parents from the labour force, there isn’t compelling evidence that either parents or flexible workers are less productive (Some studies show marginal productivity gains – see for example Krapf et al’s 2014 study into skilled labour).

If the issue here isn’t an economic one (it isn’t) then this is a matter of perception and choice. Survey respondents indicate that they feel it’s twice as acceptable for women to take time off work for childcare as it is for men. I’ve seen this directly, with male family members facing criticism and barriers linked to time off for childcare that are disproportionate to those faced by mothers.

Patriarchal systems which restrict and define the roles which people can, or should, play based on gender are more than just painfully outdated; they have measurable impact on the lives of men and women and are also economically damaging (the UN estimates the cost of gender inequality to the global economy as trillions).

At a time where we are increasingly responding to the realisation that gender is a social construct based in outdated customs, and when we are fighting to redefine our economy in changing and uncertain circumstances, this is one simple change we can make to improve our lot.

dad holding toddler
The same processes and structures that penalise fathers who want to take a more active role with their children, penalise the men who speak up in their workforce. As with all areas of discrimination, there is a duty on all of us to speak out, and amplify messages when we have the opportunity and strength to do so.

We need to stop talking about mothers and fathers and keep talking about parents. Families take SO many forms: the heteronormative, two-parent, 2.4 biologically-related children variety is just one of many wonderful options.

We should challenge ourselves to use the term ‘parent’ wherever it is more useful than ‘mother’ or ‘father’ and shape expectations and rights accordingly.

And while we are at it, maybe we need to finally get our economy on board the flexible working train and recognise that the benefits of new ways of working should be open to all, regardless of parental status. (For those of you who think the solution to this problem is to discriminate equally against parents of both sexes, I refer you to my thoughts on alternative options for populating the planet.)


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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.