Towards more involved fatherhood

How can we move beyond the current stalemate on parental leave to encourage more involved dads? A Global Institute for Women’s Leadership event this week discussed the question in depth.



The division of hours worked is a crucial issue when it comes to sharing care more equally between mums and dads, rather than social attitudes, according to a new study.

The study, led by Rose Cook at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, was unveiled at an event for International Men’s Day this week.

It found that attitudes to parenthood are changing, with more research showing the benefits all round of dads being more involved in their children’s upbringing – to dads, children and society – and that the gender pay gap is mainly a motherhood pay gap.

It found that early involvement of dads has an impact on lifetime involvement and that the more hours a mum works the more likely it is a dad will share childcare, although dads who work long, full-time hours are less likely to do so. Often dads work more hours after a child is born, more than men without children, while women reduce their hours, with presenteeism still being a factor in pay and career progression rather than productivity.

The report shows the importance of well paid and targeted parental leave, but that Shared Parental Leave is not realistic – or possible –  for many as the rates of pay are so low. Flexible working is also crucial, although many men think they cannot reduce their hours and there is less support for dads who work part time unless the mum also works part time.

Support and parental leave

The presentation of the research findings was followed by a discussion of the implications. Marvyn Harrison from Dope Black Dads said men have very few tools to be involved fathers, for instance, their own fathers may not have been involved parents. They need support, he said, and to understand how to build a good co-parenting relationship with the mother of their children even if they are no longer living with them.

Simon Kelleher from Working Families spoke about the reasons for low uptake of parental leave and the lack of access to enhanced leave or to any paid leave for some. He said the statutory rate is just 27% of an average week’s wages so men lose £1K if they take the full two weeks’ leave – and at a time when they face steep childcare costs and their partner is on reduced income. The Government needs to increase rates, he said, because many employers can’t afford to enhance leave. Working Families estimate it would cost £7bn to increase paternity leave by four weeks and extend eligibility, but Kelleher acknowledged that, politically, it would be a struggle to get that through.

Nitesh Prakash from global consultancy Bain & Company spoke about the advantages of equal parental leave – ie not Shared Parental Leave – when men and women get the same benefits. “Equal parental leave drives systemic change,” he said, adding that Bain & Company has an online tool, developed with Business in the Community, which allows employers to calculate the cost of enhanced equal parental leave for their company.

James Millar, author of Dads Don’t Babysit and former editor of, said it is hard to measure the costs versus the benefits because the benefits are huge and long-lasting. He said sharing parental leave makes for better relationships and happier people all round, but there seems to be a disconnect between what men say and what they do. He thinks we need to encourage men to share their experiences of being dads more, for instance, via Whatsapp groups. “Having conversations is the way forward,” he said, adding that it is also important to overcome the tendency to fall into banter and stereotypes.

Harrison said it is important to centre men’s self interest in being more involved parents – for instance, asking them to picture themselves as an older man who their kids won’t visit because they don’t know them. He added that it is not all about parental leave, but also about social attitudes towards men as carers. He had felt ‘erased’ when he took time off to be with his children, with people ignoring his role as a parent. He talked about microaggressions and said he returned to work soon after rather than staying on leave because he felt useful and people were excited to see him at work.

Equality backlash

Harrison also spoke from his perspective as a Diversity and Inclusion expert, saying men seem to be disengaging from the equality agenda because they see it as being about them being the cause of all the negative things happening in the world. He feels it is important to create a positive vision with them in it and to praise them for being more involved parents. Professor Rosie Campbell, who was leading the session, added that it is important that the language used to promote feminism is not exclusionary. Terms like ‘toxic masculinity’ don’t help, she said, as men take them personally rather than seeing them as something systemic. “We need to find space for sensible conversations,” she said. “Toxic workplaces are bad for both men and women.”

There was a brief discussion of reports that younger men are becoming more hostile to gender equality. The panellists blamed economic issues and social media, not just particular figures, but the language used on both sides and in society generally.  Harrison said we need to value that men might bring something different to parenting, such as rough play. He added that we could learn from other communities around the world where the family is more extended and sharing more encouraged. Millar said there are bad dad role models all around, from Daddy Pig to Homer Simpson, and these stereotypes need to be challenged.

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