Fathers’ involvement in the first year of their child’s life has a lasting impact and is crucial to how engaged they are in their children’s lives as they grow up, according to research being presented this week.
Dr Helen Norman from the University of Manchester is speaking next Wednesday at a Fathers Network Scotland seminar on how employers can “dad up” ahead of Father’s Day.
She will outline key barriers to dads’ involvement in their children’s lives and will say that the first year after birth is vital. Dads who work very long hours in that year are less likely to be involved in their child’s life later on, for instance. If mothers work full time dads are more likely to be more involved in childcare.
Other issues that influence women staying in work and therefore dads’ involvement include the availability of good quality, affordable, flexible childcare and quality part-time work which mean parents don’t have to drop out of the workforce or downshift. Another linked issue is the gender pay gap which makes it more likely that women reduce their hours or leave work when they have a baby due to the high cost of childcare.
Shared Parental Leave
One policy which aims to address dads’ involvement in the first year is Shared Parental Leave. Dr Norman says that while it is a step in the right direction and “sends an important messages about dads’ roles and about them being recognised as important”, the way the legislation is set out – for instance, the lack of dedicated fathers’ leave – and the lack of proper funding of it mean it is “flawed”. “Shared Parental Pay is one of the biggest obstacles. It is so low paid. Dads currently take paid annual leave so they don’t have to forego pay,” says Dr Norman. “Also it is reliant on mothers giving up their maternity leave. Scandinavia has much higher take-up rates because its provision is well paid and it gives individual rights to dads.”
Dr Norman gave evidence to the recent Women and Equalities Committee inquiry about dads in the workplace. She describes the process as very positive. “Everyone was saying SPL needs to be an individual right,” she says. However, she doubts there will be any legislative change soon in the shadow of Brexit negotiations.
In the meantime, she says employers need to be more proactive in promoting SPL – and flexible working. “Research shows that dads are not really aware of the policy or how it works,” she says. “Employers need to talk about it and walking the talk, highlighting positive role models.” She argues that it is in employers’ interests too. Research from Fathers Network Scotland, for instance, shows dads are more engaged at work and more productive if they take leave. “That messages needs to be shouted out,” says Dr Norman.
Another issue that she says employers could address is the very long hours many dads work in the first year after their child’s birth. That means addressing presenteeism and trying to limit long hours [which also carry a risk of burnout] as well as promoting flexible working. “Flexible working is still very much seen as a woman’s way of working. That legacy continues, although more women are going back full time, particularly those in managerial roles,” says Dr Norman. “More women request it. They are more likely to have their requests accepted. We need to normalise it from recruitment onwards and get past the idea that people who work flexibly are less committed.”
She adds that there are likely to be benefits to relationships if mothers and fathers work and share care more equally and she is investigating this at the moment. “Some research shows there is a link between healthier, happier relationships and greater equality at work and at home,” she says. She is looking specifically at greater paternal involvement and more equal sharing of housework in the first year has an effect on relationship stability over the longer term.
She is also researching parental involvement at different ages in a child’s life – when children are five, seven and 11 – and says it is clear that employment hours for both men and women are really important in the early years and not as significant as children get older.