A Global Focus on the Next Generation of Fathers

This past week, the United Nation’s High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development focused in on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5: achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. This is a pressing, and – unfortunately, given our slow progress – an ambitious goal.

One key target of SDG 5 is recognizing and valuing unpaid care and domestic work by promoting shared responsibility within the household and the family. Globally, on average, the time women spend daily on caring for the home and children is still three times what men spend. These gaps, which are largest in low- and lower-middle-income countries, not only hold women back in their paid jobs, but also limit broader social and economic development, as well as progress toward gender equality.

While we do want to focus on the responsibility of governments and institutions in shifting this dynamic, we also need to take a look at what’s going on at home. Globally, fathers are often given a proverbial or literal pat on the back for changing a diaper, giving a child a pep talk, or simply showing up. But, as SDG 5 highlights, isn’t it time we started asking for – and expecting – more?

Fathers shape our lives. It is undeniable. In all communities and at all stages of a child’s life, fathers have profound and wide-ranging impacts on their children that are as important as mothers’ when and if caregiving tasks are shared.

A growing body of evidence shows that fathers shape children’s perceptions of gender significantly – whether it comes to earning a living, taking care of someone else, or helping around the house. Unequal gender dynamics are often set and reinforced in girls’ and boy’s minds from a young age, and they must be deliberately addressed as we raise the next generation of parents – and in this case, fathers.

What children see in terms of women and men doing the daily caregiving and domestic work, such as cooking and cleaning, is particularly defining for how they act in later life. This work, often called “unpaid work,” is highly gendered and is the focus of MenCare’s recent State of the World’s Fathers: Time for Action report, produced by Promundo.

Newly conducted analysis from Dalberg shows that women around the world spend over 4.5 hours on unpaid work each day – although the quality and intensity of these hours varies widely. But in every country for which data is available, men do much less. In South Asia, women do 6.5 times more unpaid work than men do; while in the developed world, this ratio is closer to 2. Over the course of a woman’s lifetime, this adds up to spending over 5 years more time on this work than men.  This persistent unequal divide is one reason why, on average, women’s incomes globally are about one-fifth less than men’s for the same work and why women’s participation in the paid workforce continues to be lower than men’s.

The unequal distribution of care work is rooted in historical gender inequality and in how boys and girls continue to be raised today. It is perpetuated at the systemic level by three barriers: social norms; laws and policies; and economic and workplace realities; alongside a wide range of factors such as the availability of alternative care options (subsidized child care, for example) and the level of a country’s economic development.

Social norms, in particular, continue to categorize care work as “women’s work.”  These norms hold women and girls responsible for doing this work (and punish them when they do not fulfil these responsibilities); they also discourage men and boys from participating in this work (and punish or ridicule them when they do).

The need to redistribute this work more equitably is urgent. At the current rate of change, the International Labour Organization estimates that it will take us 75 years to get to pay equality between men and women. This is not just a women’s issue, although the benefits to women’s health, social and economic empowerment alone would justify action.

When men participate more equally in unpaid care, children benefit with enhanced physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development.  Men themselves benefit, through sharing the pleasures of child-rearing and building more meaningful relationships with their communities. Couples report happier lives, including better intimate lives.

Change is possible. International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) data sets show that, in nearly every country where data exist, men whose fathers participated in conventionally “feminine” domestic work are much more likely to carry out this work themselves as adults. Setting an example for our children, both sons and daughters, can kick start a cycle of more equitable caregiving.

There are a number of tools available to drive change. As the State of the World’s Fathers report identifies, there are actions to be taken at the community, national, and international level. We should be providing both mothers and fathers with caregiver support training (after all, no one is born knowing how to raise children), and recruiting men into caregiving and other health, education, and administration professions.

Countries should follow Iceland’s example and offer equal, paid, non-transferable parental leave for all parents. And governments could use income support and social security programs to promote equal involvement in unpaid work. By addressing the underlying barriers to unpaid work, these initiatives allow parents to set expectations and norms for our sons and daughters on what a gender equitable society looks like.

We call upon all people, but particularly fathers, to take action. Let’s raise our children to recognize and value care and domestic work, as well as the benefits that this work brings to our families and societies, and the way it pays forward, bringing equality to the lives of the next generation and bringing forward our global goal of equality.

This post is part of the “SDG Solutions” series hosted by the United Nations Foundation, Global Daily, and +SocialGood to raise awareness of ways the international community can advance, and is advancing, progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. As the international community prepares to gather at the UN for the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development from July 10-19, this series will share ideas and examples of action. Previous posts in the series can be found here.

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