Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Stepford Husbands?
As more men take care of families, we need to hear their voices too

The volume of the global debate about “having it all” continues to grow. Many women (including me) have joined the discussion searching for solutions - if we can’t have it all, how can we at least find an acceptable balance without facing divorce, insanity or both?

But what do the men think? We have heard very little from them. There is an unspoken assumption that if women can’t have it all, their sacrifices are being made on the altar of old fashioned male dominance.  That men are still having it all and the ultimate measure of this is the glacial speed of a movement towards more gender equality in the world’s boardrooms and top jobs.

Post it notes from a stay at home dad
Receiving far less publicity but exerting a powerful influence within individual families are statistics showing that more men are taking on the majority of childcare activity.  Surveys by BT and Aviva show that numbers of stay at home dads have increased ten fold in the past decade. But many believe that employer's policies aren't keeping up with parental demand, with two thirds of respondents to the BT survey saying they don't believe their employers have sufficiently family friendly policies.

But there are signs that the 'taboo' of men acting as the primary child carer is slowing reducing and that society is increasingly supportive of the idea that women need not be the primary child carer. A Pew Research study published in the US last year found that most people reject the idea that it is bad for a marriage if a wife out-earns her husband.
--> When asked if they agree or disagree that it is generally better for a marriage if a husband earns more than his wife, some 28% of survey respondents say they agree and 63% disagree. When a similar question was asked in 1997, 40% said they agreed

This is explored in a thoughtful recent article in Atlantic  Monthly by Stephen Marche.  He argues it is no longer an ideological issue,  rather about pragmatic family choices driven largely by financial priorities.  He lobbies for society and the state to view this debate not as it is currently - framed by a small number of 'superacheiver' women but rather in the context of how to create happier families by helping to men to feel they can step up to a different role without being seen as weak. 

He points to the irony that  "masculinity grows less and less powerful while remaining iconic of power. And therefore men are silent. After all, there is nothing less manly than talking about waning manliness."

Many commentators believe that much of the recent increase in men taking over childcare is short term - driven mainly by the recession.  The combination of a tight job market and high childcare costs means it often doesn't make sense for the lower earner to keep working.  But perhaps the recent introduction of shared parental leave will change choices for the long term. Nick Clegg announced the changes at the end of last year. In 2015 parents will be able to choose how they share parental leave for the first year of their child's life.

I hope such changes give men the confidence to start taking their seat more actively at the equality table.  It seems like many of them want to - perhaps they just need encouragement to step forward.