UK Men Want to Be More Involved Parents, but Traditional Gender Roles Endure

UK Men Want to Be More Involved Parents, but Traditional Gender Roles Endure

“Equal Lives,” a new report prepared by the UK organization Business in the Community in partnership with Santander, sheds light on the needs, perceptions, and attitudes of working men and women in the UK regarding the balance of work and caregiving. Overall, the report finds that men want to be more involved in caring for their children and elderly parents, but feel hindered from doing so by a combination of organizational and public policies and societal expectations around gender roles. Some of the report’s key findings include:

  • The majority of men (85%) agree they should be as involved in all aspects of childcare as women. At the same time, over nine in ten men believe it is equally acceptable for both women and men to take time out from employment in order to care for their family. …
  • Even in organisations which have familyfriendly policies, men report concerns for career, progression, finances and a feeling that their caring duties are not as recognised as women’s and less appreciated by organisations.
  • The ability to work flexibly is the organisational policy that both men and women find the most important when it comes to balancing work and care. However, takeup is significantly lower than its perceived importance.
  • Many men say they would be encouraged to use policies to support them with balancing work and care if they were confident that it would not impact their career prospects or if there were more visible examples from senior leaders in their organisation.

“This finding resonates with the conversations we’ve had in our ongoing research with men and couples who opted to take shared parental leave,” professors Emma Banister and Ben Kerrane note at the Conversation. Enacted in 2015, the UK’s Shared Parental Leave policy grants new mothers (or “lead parents” in same-sex couples) a year of leave to divide between themselves and their partners in any proportion they choose. Take-up of SPL has been disappointingly low, which critics attribute to a lack of public awareness and the common practice among employers of “topping up” the statutory minimum of parental leave pay for mothers but not fathers. Beyond that, Banister and Kerrane’s research suggests that the scheme may be hindering itself by replicating the gender expectations it is meant to ameliorate:

Those we’ve interviewed have called into question traditional gender roles, with our research suggesting that shared parental leave policy is already lagging behind this new generation’s progressive thinking. Parents have told us they find the maternity leave transfer model that underpins shared parental leave unhelpful. An employed woman still has the right to up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, but it’s up to her whether she wishes to swap some of this time for shared parental leave taken with her partner. It is one aspect of the scheme that has been blamed for its poor take up.

Equal Lives finds that many men consider that shared parental leave positions leave as “a woman’s prerogative”. The men in our own study felt they were “loaning” leave from their partner. They often described themselves as feeling like a “charity case”, or a “second-class parent”, beholden to their female partner to transfer some of “her” leave. The Equal Lives survey reported that 85% of parents under the age of 35 already consider caring to be an equal responsibility, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the men we’ve spoken to were indignant about the way shared parental leave works.

Previous research has also found that men in the UK are not sufficiently supported by their employers when they seek to play more active parenting roles. They often shy away from requesting leave or flexibility out of fear that this will reflect poorly on their dedication to their organization and harm their career progress and opportunities for advancement (a very real challenge working mothers have dealt with for decades).

Employers are not offering men opportunities to balance work and fatherhood risk falling behind the curve, as Millennial attitudes toward parenting responsibilities are remarkably different from those of their parents’ generation: Men under 35 are significantly more likely than older groups to want to be more involved in caregiving, the BITC report found. This is also true in the US, where fathers are playing a more active role in raising their children than ever before, and a growing number of men are becoming stay-at-home dads by choice.

Thanks to deeply-entrenched gender expectations, however, women still bear the majority of caregiving responsibilities, along with other unpaid work involved in maintaining a household. Ensuring that fathers and mothers alike are supported in balancing work and family helps both men and women, so gender-neutral policies around leave and flexibility for working parents and caregivers can help to advance gender equality within an organization and improve wellbeing and work-life balance for all employees.