The Dollars and “Sense” of an Involved Dad — Economics & Gender Equality

The Dollars and "Sense" of an Involved DaddyI already wrote about the necessity of dads getting more involved in childcare in order to lower the “maternal wall,” but a few recent articles make interesting points about the economics of the situation.

As Catherine Rampell wrote in The New York Times Magazine last weekend (“Lean In, Dad: How Shared Diaper Duty Could Stimulate the Economy“), women hold the majority of undergraduate and advance-graduate degrees in this country, but without policies that make it easier for them to balance career and family they either drop out of the workforce or don’t occupy positions that fully utilize their talents. As a result, our economy suffers.

Solutions seem to come from across the Atlantic, where some European countries offer mothers flexible-time work options and long maternal leave, and men get paid paternal leave as well. But a closer look reveals problems exist even with these policies.

European employers shuffle women into “mommy track” or “pink-collar” jobs, roles that won’t lead to positions of power, authority, or management, and that are often less-demanding (and essential), and are only part or half-time. What’s more, women opt to take these positions when offered — who wouldn’t? — in effect, hobbling themselves career-wise. In an article on the downsides of flex time for Slate’s The XX Factor (“The Flex Time Ruse“), Dwyer Gunn described how in the Netherlands less than ten percent of women in the workforce hold full-time jobs. These women are able to balance working with family life, but they make less and don’t advance to the same level as their male counterparts. “In contrast,” Gunn writes, “women in the family-unfriendly U.S. are both more likely to work full-time and more likely to work in higher-level, managerial positions.”

The same holds true of paternal leave policies. On Wednesday, in “How Should Parental Leave Be Structured? Ask Iceland.” Gunn explained how Iceland has, since 2000, offered three months of paid leave for mothers, and also for fathers, and also for both to share that’s potentially nine months of paid leave total. The law went over so well, the country recently changed it to allow five months for each parent, plus two months of shared time. But while 90% of men take paternal leave, most don’t take advantage of the shared time, and so women still spend more time at home with their children than men. Perhaps as a result, men in Iceland earn more and are better represented in management positions.

Other countries are changing their laws regarding paternal leave as well. As Rampell wrote in the Times, “countries like Sweden and Norway have recently introduced a quota of paid parental leave available only to fathers. If dads don’t take it, they’re leaving money on the table. In Germany and Portugal, moms get bonus weeks of maternity leave if their husbands take a minimum amount of paternity leave. All these countries have seen gigantic increases in the share of fathers who go on leave.

Rampell imagines that a father staying at home with a newborn for even a few weeks will have an impact down the road on the way the couple splits domestic and childcare chores, and she points to a study that shows this indeed is the case. What’s not known is the positive impact a dad’s engagement in childcare will have on the children. Our conversation about how men and women both have a responsibility to “lean in” at home as well as at the office may seem quaint and dated to a generation who will grow up with fathers that took time off to be with them and shared responsibility for doing work around the house.

I certainly had a model of that with my own dad, who assumed the majority of the cooking responsibilities when my mom started a job that had her coming home later than him. He and my mom both worked in the garden and took pride in maintaining the house. And though my mom carried most of the load when it came to cleaning inside, he insisted that my brother and I chip in and praised us for the help we provided. (My dad also had no qualms about washing dishes himself.) I was raised with no stigma that domestic duties were “women’s work.” In fact, splitting up the housework seemed like what families did. Everyone played a part: father, mother, and kids.

Of course, that was a result of my parents’ attitudes, and what we’re seeing in Europe are government policies that attempt to shift men’s attitudes toward child care with incentives. Here in the US, hackles tend to raise when we talk about government shifting social policies. Our government works slowly. The many restrictions now placed on tobacco only came about once societal opinion had turned against smoking over the course of several decades. We prefer a government that reacts to the citizenry, not one that tells us what to do.

So the fact that we’re having these conversations now is a hopeful one. Perhaps in some years’ time we’ll see enough of a change in our society’s attitude, and successful plans for maternal and paternal leave spearheaded by forward-thinking corporations, that government policies which make it easier for men to stay at home and women to work will be put in place. I’m optimistic. I only wish change could happen sooner.

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