Viewpoint: Gender equality in parenting remains a long way off

Published in The Journalist (hence the lead paragraph) Aug ’18

I have been a lone parent since 2008 when my son was two, and a successful freelance journalist for the last eight years. The childcare commitment has made some aspects of journalism tricky, including conferences and trips of any length, restricting me largely to home-based work. But the job is flexible enough to work around school-runs and events, sleep-overs and illnesses, and the combination provides for a balanced and contented life.

However, one thing that has struck me is the under-representation of men in the parenting world. My peer group is almost entirely women, especially in the single parent category. I know of only four other male primary carers or lone parents. Our local single parent group was almost exclusively female, as were the fitness classes during the day at the gym! – Quite a shock for me as my full-time newsroom work environments (in London and Singapore) had been gender balanced.

There are many reasons for the under-representation. A lot of it is down to instinct (and consequent unsuitability) on the part of some men, and to the physical side of pregnancy and childbirth, which makes mum the default carer. But much is also due to conditioning, including the lack of representation of men in the media/society as primary child-carers, which leaves many men feeling work is their only option in life, and that they should be the one to go if the partnership breaks down.

Of course, there is also discrimination – in the workplace this traditionally made women the lower earners, and so they take the childcare role for financial reasons. But there is also discrimination (by mostly elderly male judges) against men in the family courts, where the tendency had always been to put the kids with the mum (less so today).

The consequences include a lack of real choice for men in their lives, and a wider gender pay gap – if women take more time off to look after the kids than men, then their pay suffers as a result. However, my pay has probably suffered too, suggesting this element of the pay gap is more an issue of role than gender. If more men were primary child-carers, it would certainly help narrow the gender pay gap, as well as improving men’s access to family life.

To enable this, the first thing that needs to change is media portrayal. Just as successful female workplace role-models and representation in the media is important, so male representation is key to encouraging men to opt for childcare roles. Portraying childcare roles as exclusively female* is little different to portraying the boardroom as exclusively male – something that is not acceptable today, and rightly so. Gender-stereotyping the home role is as bad as doing the same in the workplace – it simply reinforces existing social conditioning.

Childcaring needs to at least be portrayed as inclusive to men, (apart from the actual carrying and birth), and perhaps should even be aimed at men if we really want a more equal society. But on its own that won’t be enough. There also needs to be equality of opportunity to be primary child-carers, which currently doesn’t exist. Obviously, men cannot get pregnant, so it is difficult to ensure this equality – if I’d been a woman, I would’ve had another baby a few years ago, whether or not I’d met the right person. That is not a choice open to men.

Today most male primary child-carers are still in the role because their partner died or is unable to do it, and not through choice. It is still difficult to find a woman (outside London at least) who is willing to hand over the domestic reins to her partner, partly because she too has been conditioned – although this is changing as more women become influenced by professional ambition. In family court decisions too, judges should aim to bring the custody award balance up to 50:50.

Action needs to be taken to address men’s under-representation in primary child-care roles. We need positive male primary carer role-models, inclusivity in media representation and greater equality of opportunity – it’s where the greatest gender inequality lies in the UK today, and it is essential if we are to give men the choices women already enjoy and help tackle the gender pay gap.

*Examples available

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