Have Covid equal parenting advances stuck?

Two studies on gender norms and Covid look at how any advances in equal parenting can be consolidated.

equal pay with gender sign instead of the 'q'


Covid accelerated working from home, but did it change how we parent and, if it encouraged more equal parenting for some, did those patterns stick?

A webinar yesterday hosted by the Women’s Budget Group sought to address these points. It began with a report from the Caregiving dads, breadwinning mums project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, which highlighted how parents with a strong commitment to equality can help to drive policy on parental leave and childcare forward amid inertia in government.

The project looked at gender norms in parenting – mums as primary caregivers and dads as breadwinners – and how these are preventing greater gender equality.

The project compared traditional parenting arrangements, equal parenting arrangements and those where traditional norms were reversed.  It  drew on analysis of a survey of 5,605 parents of children under 11, undertaken in February 2020 and interviews with 30 couples during the pandemic. It aimed to answer three key questions about the impact of role reversal on parenting practices, the economic, structural and psychological factors that make people resist gender norms and the consequences of different forms of parenting for wellbeing and relationships.

The project found that couples feel forced to identify someone as the main carer and that equal sharing of parenting is constrained by parental leave policies, long hours working and limiting flexible and part-time options as well as childcare availability and cost.

Findings and recommendations

One finding was that 25% of dads in traditional arrangements felt forced into their roles while only 30% felt they chose this division of responsibilities (compared to 46% of the fathers who were primary caregivers). The project also found that mums in traditional arrangements had significantly lower wellbeing than those in other arrangements. Role reversers shared childcare more equally while mums who shared childcare more equally were the most satisfied: 83% reported that they were satisfied or very satisfied (compared to 60% of mothers in traditional arrangements and 52% of mothers who reversed roles).  They were also the least likely to want to change their arrangement. They saw it as a conscious choice. Both men and women who shared childcare equally were likely to reduce their hours at work.

The report makes four recommendations. The first is around the need for equal parental leave entitlement [not Shared Parental Leave which, for various reasons around pay levels and its structure, is not popular] on the grounds that gendered policies on leave do not align with equality. The second concerns removing barriers to flexible working, especially for dads and for senior roles. Many parents, primarily women, found they were having to arrange their working pattern around a partner’s more rigid schedule which ended up exacerbating inequality. The third is for employers – the need for greater clarity about their policies and flexible working cultures so employees are more aware and approaches are consistent across the organisation. The fourth is for quality affordable childcare from when children are six months old and for better wraparound care for school aged children.

Dr Ana Jordan from the University of Lincoln, one of the co-authors of the project report, said the government’s gendered policies did not fit with what parents want. She said those who had more equal parenting arrangements were strongly motivated and their experiences could be used to apply gradual pressure for future policy change.

Did Covid enable dads to increase their involvement in childcare?

Jeremy Davies from the Fatherhood Institute spoke of the Institute’s lockdown fathers study of 2,000 dads of under 12s. The study, based on the first months of lockdown, had shown how dads had increased their involvement in childcare and housework as a result of being confined to their homes. A follow-up analysis compared data from 2014/15  on time spent on childcare and housework with Office for National Statistic figures from 2022. It found that in 2022 dads are spending more time on childcare – 65% of the time mums spent on childcare compared to 54% in 2014/15. There was an 18% rise in the number of minutes a day they spent on childcare while mums’ time on childcare reduced by 3%. When it came to housework, the average number of minutes dads spent on housework had increased by 14%, with mums’ time on housework reducing by 3%. The amount of time mums spent on paid work increased: up from 67% of the amount of time spent by dads to 75%.

Davies said the figures showed that, through working from home, mums and dads had gained time for other activities and that they had spent this time differently – mums on more paid work and dads on more childcare and housework. The amount of time both mums and dads spent working from home had increased, with dads significantly more likely to spend more time working from home in 2022.

Davies called on employers to support dads and mums working from home or working flexi hours and for those who employ shift workers to give more advanced notice of work schedules and enable more shift swapping. He added that it was important to make the case that not promoting more equal policies and seeing childcare and flexible working as a women’s issue was limiting economic growth.

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