Father Figure

How Good Dads Can Change the World

As well as fighting for women’s equality, we should be lobbying for men to be equal partners at home. The financial and cultural benefits would change our world.

Tony has been accumulating identities. He’s the son of Mexican immigrants; his father was abusive. He’s a high school drop-out. He was a gang member and then an inmate who’d been jailed for gang activity and the use of a deadly weapon. Gang tattoos are still inked onto his face, like scarlet letters.

But on that cold night in southwest Chicago when we interviewed him, a symbol of his most powerful identity is sleeping peacefully in his lap. Tony is also a father, 19 when we spoke to him. He says his one-year-old daughter is the reason he changed.

Tony isn’t unique among men formerly involved in gangs or those men who have lived in America’s high-risk neighborhoods yet managed to stay away from the violence. And his story isn’t so different from men we have interviewed in slums in Rio de Janeiro or in conflict zones in Africa and other parts of the world.

Caregiving transforms men: in one of the largest studies ever on gang violence in the U.S., researchers followed 1,000 low income young men in high-risk neighborhoods in Boston over forty-five years starting in the 1950s and found that being a father was one of the strongest factors for men to stay out of gangs and criminal activity.

The same picture emerges from middle class men in the U.S., Canada, and the Nordic countries. Evidence is piling up that as men do more of the caregiving, violence against women falls. Delinquency declines. The health, happiness and well-being of men, children and women improve. Couples report better sex lives. Women’s income increases. And battles between the sexes diminish.

We also have a growing body of biological research showing that fathers, like mothers, are hard-wired to care for children. Analogous to women’s hormonal changes when they become pregnant, breastfeed and care for children, men’s bodies respond with similar hormonal shifts.

Human evolution has left men as deeply wired for emotional connections to children as women are. When fathers hold and play with their children, oxytocin and prolactin kick in, priming them for bonding. These are the same hormones that are released when women are breastfeeding. The more we care for children as fathers and mothers, the more our bodies respond to the task, literally pulling our attention and energy to caring for our child.

With all we now know about the importance of fathers, and the ability of men to care for children, caregiving is, for the most part, still seen as women’s work. This status quo has a cost: debilitating poverty, persistent gaps in women’s pay compared to men, poorer societies and fewer educated children in the U.S. and around the world. Just to give one example of the power of equal caregiving: economists estimate that the U.S. GDP would be 9% higher if women did as much paid work as men.

How do we encourage more men to do the caregiving? Paid paternity leave is certainly one way. For the last 20 years several Scandinavian governments have offered on average one year of shared, paid parental leave that either parent can use. In Sweden parents can use those days up until the child turns 12.

During the time either parent takes leave, they are paid at 85% of their salary via the country’s social security system. Sweden and its neighbors have learned the following: parental leave must be paid, there must be a portion reserved specifically for fathers, and workplaces must create a culture that supports men in taking leave.

Some seventy-plus countries currently offer some paternity leave or parental leave days reserved for the father. But outside of a few European countries and Quebec, this leave is usually two weeks or less and usually unpaid.

In short, fatherhood gets little attention in policy debates. It gets scarce mention in UN reports on the burden of unpaid care work on women, and it seldom shows up in the reports of international aid organizations that work for women’s empowerment in the global South.

Try to find a father in the logo or in the reports of UNICEF, the UN agency dedicated to children’s rights. With all the years of women’s empowerment and the push for gender equality, we still have trouble imagining that men can do the care work, that they matter for children, and that they matter for women’s equality.

Getting men to do their share of care and domestic work is a key overlooked strategy in reducing poverty. Women are now 40 percent of the global paid workforce and half of the world’s food producers.

Women’s incomes have increased relative to men’s although they still lag behind: globally women earn 22 percent less than their men counterparts. The main reason: women and girls still do the lion’s share of the care and domestic work—two to ten times more than men.

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This unequal care divide keeps girls out of school, holds women out of the paid labor market or in part-time work, cuts women off from the social world and continues to be the single largest driver of women’s unequal pay relative to men.

In middle and upper income countries—the U.S. and Europe—we have achieved something closer to pay equality and something closer to equality in terms of who does the domestic and care work. In these regions, men are now doing between 30 and 45 percent of the care work.

But even there, we have yet to shatter the glass ceiling for women. Expensive day care pushes women out of the labor market while men continue to work outside the home. Men’s incomes go up. As their careers get repeatedly interrupted, women’s incomes hit a wall. The pay gap has lessened somewhat in recent years—and quite a bit in some sectors of the economy—but it has proven stubbornly resistant to change.

A recent U.S. study found men get a “daddy bonus” —employers seem to like men who have children and their salaries show it. A study over 15 years in the U.S. finds that men’s salaries increase 6% for every child they have while women’s salaries (who work full-time) decrease by 4% for every child they have. Why? Some of the gap has to do with the fact that men work more hours after having children, while women shift to jobs with more flexibility and fewer hours.

But most of this gap, say the researchers who carried out the study, is due to discrimination. Employers—both women and men—think mothers are distracted by family duties. They not only believe that fathers won’t be distracted by these duties (because they don’t do as great a share), but they believe that fathers are more responsible and motivated workers than childless men.

In Scandinavian countries this discrimination has been dramatically reduced. As colleagues in Norway have told us, an employer who interviews prospective employees in their late twenties or early thirties knows that the odds are about equal that, whether those interviewees are male or female, they are likely to take the generous family leave at some time in the next few years.

Men will likely take less, but still, in the case of Norway, more than 90% of men who are fathers take at least six weeks of paid leave. Family leave–for men and women–has become a fact of life, a government-sanctioned benefit as sacrosanct as paved roads and public transportation.

So, how do we achieve such equality in the U.S. and other parts of the world? Certainly paid paternity leave is part of it (and in the U.S., we need paid maternity and paternity leave). But we need to start even earlier and go much deeper. We need to start with how we raise our sons and daughters. Boys are taught early in life to devalue care, to be hyper-competitive, super-achieving men. In the process, we get straightjacketed into emotionally distant, competitive lives. To break this cycle, we have to promote men’s caregiving early on.

Programs like Roots of Empathy (based in Canada) or Program H, our curriculum for work with young men and young women that has been implemented in schools in more than 20 countries around the world, do just that. They provide opportunities for boys and girls to question out-dated notions of manhood and womanhood, and provide opportunities for both to practice involved caregiving in the classroom and beyond.

Another obvious entry point is during pregnancy. In Rwanda, Brazil and elsewhere, Promundo, the organization we’re affiliated with, is engaging fathers via prenatal visits. In addition to providing basic information about the birth process, men are encouraged to take on a greater share of the domestic work and the care of children.

Before we started this work in Rwanda, men said they needed hands-on experience; none of them had ever held babies before and their wives said they didn’t trust their husbands to hold babies. So we asked a women’s cooperative to make dolls that weigh about the same as real babies. The men use the dolls to practice the basics of caring for babies.

In one of the activities men practiced putting the dolls gingerly on their backs to carry them. These are young fathers, rural farmers, usually growing banana or coffee or subsistence crops. They had rarely seen their own fathers carry small children unless their mothers were ill.

A few months later, after their children were born, we visited the men and women again. The men were holding their babies. The women looked on, smiling. We know from evaluating the intervention that when men do a greater share of the caregiving, women have more time to work in income generation activities, which in turn means more income for the household and reduced child poverty.

Indeed, study after study affirms the benefits of involved fatherhood for women and children. Children in households with more equitable participation of men show better health and development. Girls raised in households with more equitable fathers show lower rates of unwanted sex. Men who report stronger connections to their children tend to contribute more of their income to their households, so their children are less likely to grow up poor. Women are more likely to recover sooner from birth and less likely to experience post-partum depression. In the global South, women and children are more likely to get life-saving health care when men are involved and support prenatal care.

And caregiving is good for men themselves. We have richer, healthier lives and more meaningful relationships of all kinds. We learn that our job is not everything. We value women as being our equals.

Where we’ve seen change happen—men embracing caregiving in Scandinavia or Africa—the shift feels irreversible. You don’t have to spend much time in Oslo or Stockholm to see what it looks like when men do a nearly equal share of care work. There are parks filled with men pushing strollers and coffee shops where fathers meet their friends, babes in arms. Everyone expects men to do their share of caregiving.

In Rwanda, as we watched the young fathers hold their babies, we saw a contented look in their eyes. We thought of the research confirming the changes that happen in men’s bodies when they care for children. And we thought back to that winter night in Chicago when we interviewed Tony, the former gang member, who smiled softly as he told us that his daughter was the reason he would never return to “that life.”