In this blog, Dr Helen Norman, Professor Colette Fagan, and Dr Nina Teasdale examine the political and economic influences which dissuade involvement in childcare by fathers. They explore what might encourage greater involvement, and suggest ways to embed this in local and national policy.
- National policy focuses on helping mothers rather than fathers to adapt their employment hours and schedules after having children.
- Research shows that if a father shares childcare equally in the first year of parenthood, he is more likely to be involved when the child is aged three.
- Well paid paternity and parental leave is pivotal for providing fathers with the opportunity to care for their children during the first year of a child’s life, as are flexible working hours.
Women do most of the work involved in looking after children and other family members. In the UK mothers spend more than double the amount of time on childcare than fathers. There is no regional data for time spent on childcare but the situation is likely to be similar for families across city-regions due to the design of national work-family policy combined with the lower earnings of women. Although attitudes about gender roles are changing – with many UK fathers agreeing that they should be as involved in the child’s upbringing as the mother – childcare responsibilities between parents remain unbalanced.
So, why are fathers less involved in childcare? One reason is due to national policy, which focuses on helping mothers rather than fathers to adapt their employment hours and schedules after having children. This will affect how families arrange work and care.
- Mothers are entitled to take up to a year of maternity leave (39 weeks at Statutory Maternity Pay and 13 weeks unpaid) compared to only two weeks of paid paternity leave available for fathers.
- Shared Parental Leave allows eligible parents to share up to 50 weeks’ leave and 37 weeks’ pay previously only available to the mother but it is rarely taken up because the policy is too complicated, mothers are reluctant to give up part of their entitlement, and it is too low paid (at £148.68 a week or 90% of average weekly earnings if they are lower). In Greater Manchester, men have lower wages than the national average (11.5% less than the median figure for England in 2016) so the even lower pay of Shared Parental Leave will deter Greater Manchester fathers from taking it up.
- Childcare is expensive and costs continue to rise. In the Northwest of England, the average cost of full-time childcare (50 hours per week) for children aged under two was £177.06 in 2015 – equivalent to 38% of average full-time gross weekly earnings in Greater Manchester at that time (the Greater Manchester average full-time weekly wage was £472). This discourages the lower earner (usually the mother) from returning to work after having children because it isn’t financially worthwhile. The statutory early years childcare entitlement provides 30 hours of free childcare a week but only covers 38 weeks of the year for children aged three and four (and some two year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds). Although take-up for 3 and 4 year olds is near universal across the Northwest of England, it will be difficult for many mothers in Greater Manchester to find a job which is compatible with these hours, plus there is a childcare gap between the end of maternity leave and the start of the free provision.
- The ‘Right to Request’ flexible working allows parents to request a change to their hours of work, days of work or place of work to fit in their caring responsibilities. Yet flexible working continues to be more commonly taken up by women, particularly mothers, in the form of part-time work. On top of this, national data shows that men are less likely to make a request for flexible working and are more likely to get their request rejected when they do.
What influences fathers to get involved at home?
Our research using the UK’s Millennium Cohort study shows that if a father shares childcare equally in the first year of parenthood, he is more likely to be involved when the child is aged three.
We also found that 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 rather than long full-time hours (ie 30-40 hours per week as opposed to 48+ hours per week).
So to get fathers more involved in raising their children, it is important to provide the conditions which facilitate work-time adjustments from birth onwards.
What needs to be done?
Well paid paternity and parental leave is pivotal for providing fathers with the opportunity to care for their children during the first year of a child’s life as are flexible working hours, which are more compatible with family life. One way of increasing take up of Shared Parental Leave is through running a campaign to promote it with local employers, and providing better resources for them to use (eg, see Making Room for Dads), as this may help to raise awareness and clarify fathers’ rights.
However, it is important that these provisions are combined with other measures to support maternal employment such as good quality, flexible and affordable childcare. Although the free early years childcare entitlement will benefit some families, childcare provision could be designed in a more targeted and cost effective way across Greater Manchester so as to channel support to those on low wages given the prevalence of households stuck in low paid work.
It is also vital to step up efforts to reduce the gender pay gap. Although the Greater Manchester gender pay gap is lower than the national average, which reflects lower overall wage levels, it still stands at 8.2%, which perpetuates the 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.
This article was originally published in On Gender, a collection of essays providing analysis and ideas on taking a gendered lens to policy in Greater Manchester and devolved regions across the UK. You can read the full publication here.