I have two young kids, and love discussing the joys and challenges of fatherhood with different audiences. I’ve been grappling with a dilemma ever since we first heard news of alleged sexual assault and harassment stalking Canberra’s corridors of power. If it’s a father’s role to help raise kind, confident and respectful individuals who treat people with equality, why doesn’t our community encourage men do this to their best ability? Do we really entrust men with the emotional and social development of their own children?
I’m still struggling with these questions, but here’s what I do know. We assume men are not willing, interested or capable carers of their own children. I find this so incredibly frustrating because recent studies demonstrate men want time to be dads first and foremost. A survey of almost 900,000 millennial dads found 83 per cent believed family was more important than career. Even before COVID-19, the Diversity Council of Australia found that young fathers wanted more flexible work conditions, with 79 per cent of those surveyed wanting to choose their hours and work a compressed week. Apparently most Australians also believe parenting should be shared equally between partners.
If men really want more time raising their kids, what exactly is stopping them? I explored this challenge with an expert panel at the University of Canberra’s Equals Now Symposium. During the conversation, it became clear we have in fact three sizeable systemic barriers stopping men from being active fathers: cultural tropes, workplace rigidity and outdated public policies.
Our culture encourages men to be breadwinners and not carers. We assume kids learn about life while dad works. This includes even the trickier lessons around love, intimacy, heartache and relationships, where positive role modelling and honest, ongoing conversations with young people are so crucial. Fathers tend to do twice as much paid work as childcaring. COVID-19 didn’t uproot this presumption, with significantly less men continuing flexible work practices after the 2020 lockdowns compared to women.
During the panel, Charles Jenkinson, a specialist training in Cardiothoracic Surgery and fatherhood advocate, explained that the reality of the breadwinner label is a relentless pressure to work, “I think the biggest example of this when was when [my wife] had to take an overseas trip, and I was really struggling, in the workplace, being a solo parent for the week. When I asked people at work if I could just come in fifteen minutes later, after I’d been chastised because I couldn’t get my daughter to daycare in time, I was told, you’re the Training Specialist, you have to suck it up and get on with it.”
If our attitudes are to change, so too must our workplaces. Most organisations do not have targets for men’s engagement in flexible work, and about 48 per cent of workplaces still offer no paid parental leave. Yet Coleen MacKinnon, founder of Inclusivity Quotient, a consultancy engaging men in workplace gender equality, argues that many industries are now far better at supporting fathers, “the most significant trend, which is a game changer, is shared care or equal, non-gendered parental leave. It’s a policy that incentivises men to care for their children and women to return to work. A father can access extended paid parental leave in the first year of his child’s life, typically about 12 weeks, if his wife is returning to full time work.”
Positive workplace changes are crucial but incomplete without national policy reform, where Australia remains a laggard by OECD standards. Government provides a meagre two weeks of ‘Dad and Partner Pay’ at minimum wage. Our commercialised early childhood education system stands in bleak contrast to the free, universal access of primary school. Andrew Hunter, Adviser to the Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive by Five Initiative, argues that to progress further, more men must advocate for better policies that invest in caring, “you can’t remove fatherhood from the way we think about the modern Australian family, it would be like taking wetness out of out of water. For me, the modern Australian family of 2030 is one where both parents participate equally at home, and they participate equally in the workforce”.
Men can be amazing carers. When they actively care for their children, they become more emotionally open and nurturing. They better role model gender equality at home by sharing the parenting load, managing the household, and supporting their partner. In turn, they help display a healthier, more inclusive version of masculinity to their children. That is change Australia sorely needs. Normalising men as carers is one of the most enduring and positive changes we could make to the country right now.
Rob Sturrock is a father of two children, advocate on fatherhood, gender equality and healthy masculinity, and is the author of Man Raises Boy: A revolutionary approach for fathers who want to raise kind, confident and happy sons