Let’s Talk About Fathers

Sarah Rees and Duncan Fisher explore the role of fathers to make a case for shared parental leave and more gender-equal care.

Care is the pivot on which our entire society rests.

Caring is the ultimate fulfilment of human existence, the greatest of all opportunities. People unable to spend time caring for others are deeply deprived – theirs is a tragic existence, bereft of the opportunity to care by a patriarchal society. The entire economy rests on the shoulders of those who care. Yet those undertaking care are also deprived, undervalued and ignored in favour of an economy that places profit over people.

No political party in Wales has ever dared to propose that men should work less in order to care for children. In Wales, care is a ‘women’s issue’. The debate is all about how it can be shifted around among women. This leads to only one thing: lower paid women looking after the children of higher paid women.

There is only one way out of this cul-de-sac: sharing care between women and men. Sharing of care is a prerequisite for sharing everything else.

Care is inherently undervalued in our neoliberal economic system. It is considered something that needs to be dealt with as cheaply as possible so that we can all work more. If you are a carer you are more likely to be living in poverty. Polling carried out by YouGov on behalf of Oxfam Cymru showed that 68% of adults in Wales think that care work is not valued highly enough by the Welsh Government.

As a low-valued activity, the work gets piled onto a less defended sector of our society, namely women, who do most of the unpaid care work and most of the low paid care work.

Women’s ability to take on higher paid and more secure jobs is constantly compromised by the need and/or the desire to care. When an excess of caring is imposed – when there is no freedom from care – then care becomes a burden. In 2019, on average, women earned 43% less than men from paid work, because of both a lower employment rate and lower pay.

The Carers Wales report, State of Caring 2021: Wales Briefing, pulls no punches: ‘During 2021 the hundreds of thousands of unpaid carers across Wales were under immense strain…Unpaid carers have seen their physical and mental health deteriorate, their services disrupted, and their careers curtailed if they are in employment.’

Welsh Policy: Care is a “responsibility to be shouldered”

The Welsh Government 2018 report, Working it out: parenting and employment in Wales describes care as a ‘responsibility’ to be ‘shouldered’ and focuses only on how to enable more work. The Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee introduced the report only in relation to how care prevents work: ‘Preventing a large proportion of the population from contributing their skills and experience to the workforce is not fair and does not make economic sense. In light of technological, social and economic changes, now is the time to modernise workplaces so that they are fit for the future for everyone, not just parents.’

This care-as-responsibility is well-meaning – it corresponds to the sense of unfairness of women being forced to do more of it than they want. But the narrative demeans and devalues care in the same way as the dominant economic paradigm does. We lose sight of the truth that we all know in our heart of hearts – that care is what makes the world go round, what makes us happy, what makes us human.

When Fathers Care More, Women Do Better in Work

In Sweden it has been estimated that with each additional month of parental leave taken by a father in a heterosexual couple, the mother’s earning increases by 6.7%. In the UK, in a survey of 773 fathers, 47% of those who worked flexibly and shared childcare substantially said their female partner had progressed in her career since having children. Only 26% of fathers who had not actively cared said their female partner had advanced at work.

It is time to start talking about how we can achieve equal sharing of care between men and women in Wales

At a London reception to celebrate the launch of Aviva’s new shared parental leave scheme (on which more below), I (Duncan) talked to a mother whose male partner worked for Aviva and had taken months off to look after their baby. As a result, she had been able to resign from a job she hated and to apply for a better one, all within a year of having a baby.

So, it is time to start talking about how we can achieve equal sharing of care between men and women in Wales.

There are two fundamental false beliefs about men and caring that need to be named and then politely ushered out of our minds before we can think straight about sharing care. One is that caring is natural for women but just a social obligation for men. The other is that men don’t want to care.

Caring is in men’s nature

The idea that caring is a biological imperative for women, but only a social choice for men is profoundly wrong. This idea is embedded in employment policies of public bodies in Wales and is stopping fathers from caring for their infants, as we shall see later. So this is not just an academic debate.

Let’s start with biology. When a man cares for an infant, his hormones are fired up, just as pregnancy and infant care fire up hormones in women. A whole biological and neurobiological machinery of care is triggered. The more the man cares, the faster and bigger the hormonal reaction is when he cares and the more his brain melds itself for care, creating new pathways that are permanent (and ready for grandparenthood!) Neurobiologists have studied the brains of different kinds of men – the traditional workaholic, the engaged father, and the primary carer father (namely, gay fathers). The further you go along the spectrum, the more adapted the father’s brain is to caring.

Furthermore, the caring changes in fathers’ brains correlate with measures of the child’s social and emotional abilities 4 years later.

Why has evolution delivered such extreme levels of caring ability to human males? Anthropologists offer an answer. Sarah Hrdy, in Mothers and Others (2009) argues that the fundamental characteristic of human parenting is that it is collective. Human children are raised in ‘communities of care’ – multiple women and men too. There is huge variety in how women and men share care across history and cultures, but men have been involved so much and so often through human history that caring is now part of their biology.

The most attentive fathers in the world today are the Aka in Africa, the closest representation today of the non-hierarchical pastoral hunter gatherer societies within which we evolved. They spend more time caring for children than any other fathers on earth. That’s how we evolved.

Syniadau uchelgeisiol, awdurdodol a mentrus.
Ymunwch â ni i gyfrannu at wneud Cymru gwell.

We live in an age when men caring is an imperative. We live in small family units (a very odd arrangement by international and historical standards) and the economy needs the skills and contributions of all parents. Biology stands ready to help the change.

Child developmentalists have exhaustively studied the relative sensitivity of women and men to babies. For decades they have studied how infants form attachments to their parents, of whatever gender. After libraries of research over 50 years, they can find no differences between women and men. What matters is the nature of each parent-child bond and also the nature of the alliance between the parental carers. Who the parental carers are does not make a significant difference either – heterosexual mother and father, two fathers, two mothers, or a myriad of other possible arrangements.

But child developmentalists also agree on another thing: women are usually more confident and competent with care. But this is not driven by biology, but by social structures and expectations. Women do not start off more confident and competent, but they get a whole lot more practice and social support.

And to complete the myth busting, we must address breastfeeding. Some worry that if fathers care for babies, breastfeeding will be compromised. But this is the exact opposite of what actually happens. Fathers caring more is linked to higher breastfeeding rates. This is probably because a father actively caring suggests a strong parenting team, which enables the mother more peace of mind and more choices (I (Duncan) have lectured internationally about fathers and breastfeeding).

The Global Fatherhood Charter

Some years ago I (Duncan) called together some of the world’s leading researchers to define precisely what fatherhood is about. They produced the Global Fatherhood Charter, published on the Child & Family Blog. This is a US website, but designed and edited in Wales, and rich in content on fatherhood and child development. And, as icing on the cake, they had the Charter written by a Welsh calligraphist!

Do Fathers Want to Care?

Fathers and mothers want the same thing. Pew-funded research in the US in 2015 found that fathers were just as likely as mothers to say that parenting was extremely important to their identity (57% and 58% respectively). The same research found that 48% of fathers felt they were not doing enough caring.  Earlier Pew research in 2013 found that working fathers were as likely as working mothers to say they preferred to be at home with their children but could not because they had to earn instead (48% of fathers versus 52% of mothers). According to Google/Ipsos in 2017, millennial fathers watch more parenting-related videos on YouTube than mothers.

But is this real? Are these men playing to the camera, saying what they think people want to hear?

That’s been tested too. Here in the UK, Aviva decided to introduce a policy of treating mothers and fathers exactly the same, except for the short period when the mother is recovering from giving birth. They decided to offer both 6 months leave on full pay. The take-up by fathers is 99%. 84% took the whole 6 months.

And if we look internationally, the take up of parental leave by fathers is 86% in Iceland80% in Quebec and 75% in Portugal. Parental leave policies around the world are reviewed regularly in a survey led by a team at London University.

Meanwhile, uptake of shared parental leave in the UK is 1.6%. That is insanely low by international standards. 

 Why Is Shared Parental Leave in the UK such a Failure?

Shared parental leave in the UK was predicted to fail by the Westminster Government before it was legislated – the Government’s assessment before the law was enacted was 2-8%. But the media did not read the small print, and so a system destined to make no difference to how men work could be hailed as a step towards gender equality and family friendly law. A neoliberal economy does not want people to stop working.

Why is uptake so low? First, only 45% of families are even eligible for shared parental leave in the first place. But still the take-up within the eligible group is only 3.6%.

The second reason is that it is not shared parental leave at all. It is maternity leave for the mother, which she has to give up to the father. Fathers are just never going to take leave away from mothers – it is a preposterous proposal! Creating such a zero-sum game at the heart of the parenting team is deeply disruptive.

In our leave system, fathers get 26 times less financial support than mothers. A woman on an average women’s annual wage of £28,300 gets, in the first year, six weeks’ state maternity pay at £490 (90% of pay) plus 33 weeks at £152, making a total of £7,956. A father gets two weeks at £152, which is £304. Mothers are only allowed to transfer the £152/week part of their leave to fathers, not the 90% of pay part.

UK’s parental leave is completely rigged to fail and vies for the worst parental leave system ever introduced anywhere in the world.

And not content with that, many employers make it worse. A 2017 survey of 341 companies found that 95% enhanced maternity pay above statutory provisions, often to a significant extent, but only 4.4% enhanced paternity pay for even part of the statutory two weeks. In this regard, we will come to the case of Powys County Council in a moment.

Same sex male parents also get less parental leave, though this is a different manifestation of gender stereotyping and not unique to UK.

Sharing Care in the Welsh Policy Debate

Sharing care is not a hot topic in Wales like it is in Scandinavia, where Second Wave feminists deduced fifty years ago the importance of sharing care. Scandinavia has been building experience ever since. Scandinavian policy on sharing care is based on three priorities, in this order of importance: the welfare of children, gender equality, and economic productivity. 

Whilst policy in the UK has been a disaster area, there remains lively discussion about it in England. There is an All Party Parliamentary Group on Fatherhood in Westminster. The Fatherhood Institute (which Duncan co-founded) has fronted thinking for decades. The Medical Women’s Federation is about to launch a campaign for shared parental leave. Scotland has a Fathers Network and Nicola Sturgeon highlights ‘paternity rights’ in her 2018 TED talk on a wellbeing economy.

Equal sharing of care could be added to the Welsh gender plan, Advancing Gender Equality in Wales Plan (2020), which talks only about the equal sharing of ‘power, resources and influence’. Both this plan and the Plaid Cymru 2021 manifesto refer to the need for parental leave, though both struggle with the fact that parental leave is not devolved. The gender plan just proposes to ‘draft a Ministerial letter to advise the UK Government’. After 20 years of the UK refusing to institute shared parental leave, a letter from Wales will do little to affect change.

Both Labour and Plaid Cymru need to be more specific about their proposals, using the Scandinavian experience. First, they need to place child welfare considerations centre-stage. Second they need to specify clearly a shared leave arrangement that works, because there are lots of arrangements that don’t. The leave must be largely individually available to each parent and it must be paid. Without these two, uptake will be negligible.

Arrangements to promote the sharing of care beyond women are fundamental

In Wales, there are individual champions for shared care. Mark Williams campaigns for the mental health of caring fathers. I (Sarah) have been campaigning for parents to be allowed to be together during the birth of a baby. The NHS abruptly stopped this practice during Covid, precipitating a remarkable reaction. A Welsh Senedd petition to end the practice in the Welsh NHS attracted 7,326 signatures, but ‘the Petitions Committee decided not to refer this petition for a debate’. A UK-wide equivalent petition, No woman should have to birth alone, attracted an astonishing 427,000 signatures. No social experiment has ever revealed so intensely how much value parents place on family togetherness around babies.

Perhaps the greatest heroes of this cause in Wales are Baz Price and his partner, Laura, in Brecon. Baz Price used to work for Powys County Council in children’s services. You won’t have heard about them unless you read the single story about their campaign in Powys County Times. Fortunately, the story was picked up by the Fatherhood Institute in London, so we can hear it via England.

Laura did not want to break her career after their baby was born and they wanted Baz to care for the baby instead. He applied to Powys County Council to enhance parental leave for him, just as the Council would do for a mother who asked. This was refused. He took this to tribunal in 2019, but lost, acting alone against an experienced barrister. The family decided to appeal. They ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised £5,000 for proper legal representation. During this long time Baz had to work, though he ended up taking several months of sick leave through the intense stress of the situation and then left the employment of Powys County Council. Laura took a short period off work, but returned to work after six weeks with help from her mother and sister.

The appeal, however, was rejected. In law, when a father looks after a baby it is deemed to be different from a mother caring for a baby or parents adopting a baby. A  father caring for a baby is just babysitting, not parental care where attachment is growing between parent and child. The prejudices I listed above define the agenda in the Welsh public sector. The agenda is to keep men working.

Baz has written a book about his family’s story, to be published later in 2022: Breaking Dad: Man-up Snowflake. This story is not going to go away quietly.

A caring economy for Wales?

In 2019-2020, the Women’s Budget Group set-up a four-nation Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy, of which I (Duncan) was a member. The report, Creating a Caring Economy: a Call to Action (full report, Welsh language summary), represents by far the most sophisticated thinking about an economy where care is at the heart, not a burden of responsibility that has to be shifted from one woman’s shoulder to another.

The report states: ‘A caring economy is the absolute antithesis of a neoliberal economy. It is an economy which prioritises care of one another and the environment in which we live… A caring economy ensures that everyone has time to care, as well as time free from care.’

“Everyone” explicitly means people of all genders. Arrangements to promote the sharing of care beyond women are fundamental in the recommendations. The recommendations are wide-ranging – revisioning an economy that values unpaid work, investing in social and physical infrastructure, equal sharing of parental leave in the first year, investing in a caring social security system, changing the tax system, using fiscal and monetary policy, developing a different trade system and working internationally to promote caring economies elsewhere.

The report suggests an increase in the borrowing powers of the devolved Governments in order to expand the options available to build a caring economy. Is this enough? I (Duncan) believe that real change will require leaving the control of Westminster altogether, whilst I (Sarah) believe that action is required to challenge deep-rooted social norms to enable the redistribution of care.

The  report provides a strong new intellectual contribution for a discussion about how care is organised in Wales and for the political parties to develop stronger policies. But all the parties will have to overcome their terror of the idea of men working less in order to care more.

This article is part of our series of commissions on the theme of work. Find out more here, and send us your pitch if you have ideas on the topic.

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Duncan Fisher is Project Manager of Our Food, a project of the Conservation Farming Trust, a small not-for-profit company set up to advance agroecological farming in the UK.
Sarah Rees is Head of Oxfam Cymru and oversees Oxfam’s policy, advocacy, campaigns and communications in Wales.

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