Why don’t parents share like they say they want to?

Share care?

Photo: Tatiana Vdb. Creative Commons.

Two recent studies have shown something that comes as no surprise. Before the first baby is born, aspirations to share roles equally are high among women and men. Then reality sets in – workplace inflexibility, lack of affordable childcare, family services that engage with mothers better than fathers, and so on. Not only do parents live more traditional roles than they had planned, but they change their beliefs about parenting, becoming more traditional. We can presume this is because that makes them feel better about things they feel they cannot change.

What makes the intention to share go away?

Sarah Thébaud, publishing in the American Sociological Review, found a substantial preference for a more egalitarian share of work and care among women and men in a scenario of little constraint. Women are a little more egalitarian than men in their views, but not by much; and there are no significant differences between more educated and less educated individuals. But when they were asked to consider what they would do when constraints are added, they all shift decisively towards “fallback” positions that are much less egalitarian.

Janeen Baxter in Australia, reporting in Social Forces and also on the Child and Family Blog, surveyed couples before and after having a first baby, and she also found an attitudinal change towards more traditional views.

Both studies also show that mothers and fathers change differently. In Sarah Thébaud’s study, she found highly educated women become more traditional than highly educated men – the only scenario where women are more traditional in their views than men, favouring the man working and the woman caring. Less educated women, on the other hand, swing from egalitarian preferences to self-reliance and earning roles, rather than traditional dependence on a male partner. Less educated men, in direct constrast, swing overwhelmingly in a different direction towards a traditional view – they work and the mother stays at home. How many less educated families, one wonders, are struggling with such a divergence of view!

So the two groups most in favour of a traditional division of labour are more highly educated women and less educated men.

Janeen Baxter found that men who become more traditional in their views apply this to both caring and earning. Women, on the other hand, become rather more conflicted: on the one hand they believe (even more than men, as in Sarah Thébaud’s study) that motherhood is the most important role for mothers, rather than work; on the other hand, they believe more strongly that mothers who work do not betray their children.

Sarah Thébaud found that women shifted to even more egalitarian choices if workplaces were to offer specific support: “guaranteed access for all employees to subsidized childcare, paid parental and family medical leave, and flexible scheduling (such as the ability to work from home one day per week).” Men, on the other hand, did not shift significantly. She offers an explanation for this: that such a non-gendered formulation does not address the underlying assumptions about gender roles, so generic support will be seen in the workplace context to be more for mothers than for fathers.

Both authors see in this evidence that a change in workplace arrangements would lead to a change in parenting towards more egalitarian patterns. Sarah Thébaud proposes further that flexible working options need to be particularly targeted at fathers in order to tackle the core problem: that flexible working and childcare is seen as “for women”.

How can we enable parents to share more in UK?

These studies do much to help us understand the challenges in UK. Our current leave entitlement arrangements, which start out by giving all the leave to mothers, do not challenge the underlying idea that caring is for mothers and earning is for fathers. Now we now have evidence that this is having a big impact on how parents organise work and care between them.

It has been shown in Scandinavia that, in addition to flexible arrangements that are identical for mothers and fathers (other than for the first bit of leave that is specifically related to health and childbirth), a successful policy to broaden options requires public information campaigns that home in on the role of men in caring for young children, akin to public information campaigns that promote career opportunities for women. These campaigns were designed to challenge the underlying beliefs and they have been a successful part of broadening choices in the countries where they have been used. We need the same in UK.