What makes fathers involved in their children’s upbringing?
Published: 20 Jan 2017
Manchester University’s Colette Fagan and Helen Norman explore why childcare responsibilities between parents are still so unbalanced.
Across the developed world, mothers spend more than twice the amount of time on childcare than fathers. In the UK, the proportion of men who share childcare is much lower compared to most other OECD countries with recent data showing they spend an average of 24 minutes caring for children for every hour that is done by women (OECD 2016; Flood 2016). However, research shows that most dads in the UK agree that they should be as equally involved in childcare as the mother (Norman 2010), and many say they would prefer to spend more time caring for their children than they currently do (e.g. see Working Families and Bright Horizons 2017; Equality and Human Rights Commission 2009). So why are childcare responsibilities between parents still so unbalanced?
One explanation is to do with the way work-family policy for parents has been designed. Work-family policy in the UK has traditionally focused on helping mothers, rather than fathers, to adapt their employment hours and schedules after having children. Mothers are encouraged to take time off work through a long period of maternity leave – which can be taken at any time from 11 weeks before the baby’s due date – while paternity leave is limited to two weeks to be taken immediately after the child’s birth. The right to request flexible working for eligible employees means that parents who qualify can request a change to their hours of work, days of work or place of work to fit in their caring responsibilities. However, men are less likely to make a request for flexible working, and are more likely to get their request rejected when they do (Tipping et al. 2012). Flexible working continues to be more commonly taken up by women, particularly mothers, in the form of part-time work.
Childcare is expensive in the UK – equivalent to 41% of the average wage (OECD 2011). This discourages the lower earner (i.e. usually the mother) from going back to work after having children because it isn’t financially worthwhile. The statutory free, early years childcare entitlement only covers 15 hours a week over 38 weeks of the year for children aged three and four (and some two year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds). Not only is it difficult for mothers to find a job which is compatible with these hours, there is a childcare gap between the end of maternity leave and the start of the free provision. So have the recent improvements to parental leave improved matters?
Shared Parental leave: recognising the father’s contribution?
Shared Parental Leave (SPL) is a new right for parents with children born or adopted after 5 April 2015. It is a flexible provision that allows eligible parents to share up to 50 weeks’ leave, in one week blocks, and 37 weeks’ pay, previously only available to the mother. This is a positive policy development because it recognises the importance of a father’s role at home. Although evidence suggests only a minority of fathers have taken up SPL, many men express an intention to use it in the future (see My Family Care 2016).
The 2015 Working Families employers’ survey found that most were supportive of SPL, and prior concerns about managing employees who take discontinuous blocks of leave had not materialised (Working Families 2016). However, the survey also found that the cost and complexity of SPL prevented some fathers from taking it. Some employers also reported an ‘ongoing perceived resistance’ to fathers taking long periods of leave from their workplace due to the organisational expectations for men, while some mothers were reluctant to give up a portion of their maternity leave for their partner. Thus while SPL is a step in the right direction, the evidence suggests that SPL would be more successful if it was an individual father’s right with a higher rate of pay.
What else influences dads?
There are of course other factors which shape how involved a father is at home when he has a pre-school child. Our research found that the way in which family and work-time is arranged, during the first three years of parenthood, is important (see www.cmist.manchester.ac.uk/research/projects/which-fathers-are-looking-after-their-children/; also see Norman et al. 2014; Fagan and Norman 2016).
Our project used the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study to explore what influences fathers’ involvement in looking after their children – defined as sharing childcare roughly equally with a partner. We found that fathers were more likely to be involved when the child was aged three if they shared childcare equally when the child was nine months old, even when we took account of other factors which may influence father involvement in childcare, such as the presence of other children, attitudes towards work and family roles and the father’s occupational class.
We also found that both parents’ employment hours when the child was nine months old affected how involved a father was when the child reached age three. Fathers were more likely to be involved when the child was aged three if the mother worked full-time, and if the father worked standard (30-40 hours per week) rather than long full-time hours (48+ hours per week). This suggests that work and care arrangements established in the first year of parenthood set up a pattern of care-giving that persists two years later.
The way in which parents organised their work-time when the child was aged three also affected how involved a father was at that time. We found that a father was more likely to be involved when the child was aged three when he worked standard rather than long full-time hours when the child was aged three, and when the mother worked full-time.
What does this tell us about UK policy?
These results suggest that if the policy goal is to enable fathers to become more involved in raising their children, it is important to create conditions to foster working-time adjustments from birth onwards. Creating the conditions for the father to take paternity and parental leave is pivotal, as are fostering working hours for men which are more compatible with family life. Progress towards this goal is more likely to be made in the UK if parental leave entitlements for fathers are improved beyond the current limited provision available through the SPL policy, more effective implementation of the ‘right to request’ flexible working in workplaces for men as well as women, and measures to reduce the long full-time working hours which characterise many of the jobs and workplaces that men are employed in.
Our research finds that fathers are more likely to be involved in childcare when the mother is employed full-time. In the UK, mothers are more likely to be employed full-time both nine months and three years after childbirth if they had a higher occupational position prior to the birth, the likelihood of which is greater for the highly qualified (Fagan and Norman 2012). Hence measures to enable all women to make a smooth resumption of employment after childbirth are conducive to a more gender equal parenting arrangement. Good quality, affordable and flexible childcare is critically important.
Finally, it is also important to reduce the gender pay gap for this increases the probability that the father can earn more than the mother, which creates a short-term financial logic for the father to invest his time in employment and the mother to leave employment or switch to part-time hours to care for young children. Such situations reduce the likelihood that the father is involved in caring for his children.
Equality and Human Rights Commission (2009): Working Better: Fathers, family and work – contemporary perspectives, Research Summary 41: www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/research-summary-41-working-better-fathers-family-and-work_0.pdf
Fagan, C., Norman, H. (2016) Which fathers are involved in caring for pre-school age children in the UK? A longitudinal analysis of the influence of work hours in employment on shared childcare arrangements in couple households in Crespi, I. and Ruspini, E. (eds): Balancing Work and Family in a Changing Society: The Fathers’ Perspective, Palgrave Macmillan.
Fagan, C., Norman, H. (2012) “Trends and social divisions in maternal employment patterns following maternity leave in the UK.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 32, no. 9: 544-560
Flood, R. (2016): British are worst in the developed world at sharing childcare, study says, The Independent 12 June 2016: www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/british-fathers-are-the-worst-in-the-world-study-says-a7077806.html
My Family Care (2016): Shared Parental Leave – One Year On – Where Are We Now? www.myfamilycare.co.uk/news/update/shared-parental-leave-where-are-we-now.html
Norman, H., Elliot, M., Fagan, C. (2014) Which fathers are the most involved in taking care of their toddlers in the UK? An investigation of the predictors of paternal involvement, Community, Work & Family, 17:2, 163-180
Norman, H. (2010) Involved fatherhood: An analysis of the conditions associated with paternal involvement in childcare and housework (Unpublished doctoral thesis). University of Manchester
OECD (2016) Gender Data Portal – time use across the world: www.oecd.org
OECD (2011): Data on childcare costs, see www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/may/21/child-care-costs-compared-britain#data
Tipping, S. Chanfraeu, J., Perry, J. and Tait, C. (2012) The Fourth Work-Life Balance Employee Survey, Employment Relations Series, No. 122, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills: London
Working Families and Bright Horizons (2017): Modern Families Index 2017: workingfamilies.org.uk/publications/2017-modern-families-index-full-report/
Working Families (2016): Shared parental leave: the perspective from employers January 2016, Working Families Briefing: www.workingfamilies.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Working-Families-SPL-briefing-paper-January-2016.pdf