There is a lot of recent interest in supporting dads. However, this focus on just one gender of parents poses some interesting questions and challenges in the context of ongoing gender inequality.
Dads often feel that general parenting services, like parent and toddlers, or parenting classes are not aimed at them and may feel excluded from these services. But young mums, older mums, women from ethnic minorities, same-sex mothers or women with disabilities might also feel that services are not ‘for them’. This is not only about gender.
Dads are getting more involved in family responsibilities than in the past – that’s a great step forward, but it’s not yet a revolution (see Giddeon Burrows blog). In most households (though not all), women continue to do the vast majority of childcare and housework. In particular, women fit their employment around the perceived needs of their husband and children more often than do men. This is one main reason why women account for 75% of part-time workers in Scotland.[i]
Because of this, it is likely that early years services, like parent and toddler groups will have more women than men using them. Services focus on those who need them, and the vast majority of those caring for young children on a day to day basis are women. Of course services should, where appropriate, make particular efforts to include all kinds of parents.
Whilst men are getting more involved with kids at home, they tend to focus on the fun things, and less on the hard work of caring, feeding, cleaning, doing the washing and ensuring children eat healthily and get enough sleep[ii].
Men face discrimination at work when asking for parental leave because we perpetuate the ‘father as breadwinner’ model. We need to tackle this, but not in isolation. Women still struggle to get their basic rights at work when pregnant, including not getting sacked, and face a barrage of assumptions and obstacles in their role as parents. Employed women are overrepresented among clerical workers, personal service workers (including care) and sales staff. This perpetuates gender stereotypes that caring and serving others (also within the home) are female tasks. All these issues are interrelated so that that they need to be addressed together.
Good parenting matters, but also good co-parenting – that is how parents coordinate and cooperate in their parenting roles – that benefits children’s wellbeing. Mutual support and good communication between both parents is likely to create a supportive environment within the whole family. High-quality co-parenting is also fundamental in the event of a separation or divorce. Fathers who were significantly committed to their co-parenting role before the separation are more likely to stay actively engaged in their children’s lives after the separation. In this situation, mothers are also more likely to trust and promote fathers having frequent contact with their children.
In most families, it is desirable that fathers are involved with their families and children, but it is also important to acknowledge that a number of fathers are destructive, abusive and violent forces in family life. In these situations, fathers often do more harm than good for children’s wellbeing.
What does the evidence say?Evidence shows children need at least one loving and attentive parent. Having two parents helps to share this difficult and time-consuming task, but there is no clear evidence that the gender of either of these matters to children's outcomes[iii].
However the broader evidence on parenting is unclear about gender. Most research on parents focuses on mothers by default rather than intention as mothers as the main carers are usually more available to researchers to provide details of family life[iv] When research does look at fathers there is often no comparable data on mothers, so it is hard to identify a 'father' effect.
For separated families we know that good relationships both between parents and between fathers and children (in particular high support, responsive fathering and non-coercive control) are fundamental to children's wellbeing[v]. Some children regret not being in touch with absent fathers, other children feel coerced into continuing contact with fathers who are causing them distress (see Morrison, 2009).
In any case, tackling gender inequality within the home and at the workplace requires actions and changes from both genders.
Initiatives for just one gender of parentWhat are we trying to achieve in developing and funding work aimed specifically at dads or mums? Do we want to get men more involved with their children? Or are we interested in getting men to play a full role in family life and share half of the homecare tasks enabling women to achieve greater equality in public life? Or is the aim that any parent should feel supported and enabled in their role regardless of gender?
If we are offering services to solely dads or mums, we need to be careful that they do not reinforce gender stereotypes and perpetuate gender inequalities. The following questions may act as a guide:
- Why are we offering services to a specific gender, rather than parents? Are there specific barriers we seek to overcome? For example, antenatal services must focus on women, or support for absent parents should be thinking mainly about dads.
- What is the aim of the gender specific service? Is it addressing inequalities issues or perpetuating them? For example, do services for mums emphasise attachment, whilst those for dads emphasise having fun with their kids? To tackle inequalities do services for men need to emphasise their role within the home, whilst those for women help them find employment?
- Are services for dads ensuring that they are not aiding coercive and violent fathers to continue to control their partners post separation, or enabling contact that children do not want?
- Are all parenting services building on the evidence that strong relationships between parents is a key factor in children's outcomes, rather than focusing separately on mums or dads relationships with their children?
- When we deliver gender-specific services for parents, do we avoid gender stereotyping? Are gender specific groups and organisations careful about the language they use to talk about men and women to avoid reaffirming gender-based assumptions (like men are not skilful at childcare, or women are naturally more caring?)
- Are we careful when talking about gender-specific parenting not to offend and upset children who have different family structures due to bereavement, separation, adoption, assisted conception or lone parenthood or same sex parenting?
If we want to move to a world where mothers and fathers are enabled to do the best for their children and families, gender-specific services need address inequalities. In imagining a Scotland that is the best place in the world to grow up, shouldn't any parent get the support they need to fulfil their role to the best of their ability regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or social background?
[ii] Growing Up in Scotland 2008 Chapter 7 'Parenting Styles and Parenting Responsibilities' in: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/212225/0056476.pdf
[iii] Bromley (2009) Growing up in Scotland: the impact of children’s early activities on cognitive development. Edinburgh Scottish Government
[v] Mooney, A Oliver C and Smith M (2009) Impact of Family Breakdown on Children’s Well-being. London DCSF