Beyond breadwinners and authority figures – dads enter the 21st century

Fatherhood poster boys. Paul Buck/EPA

Fathers’ active participation in family life will likely be one of the most important social developments of the 21st century. Times have changed since fathers were often seen in terms of breadwinners and authority figures. Today’s children wish for a relationship with their daddy as a loving father, a pere de coeur, not just a father of duty, a pere de devoir.

In many places across the world fathers are expected to be accessible and nurturing as well as economically supportive to their children. Images of caring fathers are now part of everyday culture, in advertising and depictions of sporting icons.

The new State of the World’s Fathers report builds on increasingly global focus on fathers’ role in the family. The first UN report on this subject was published in 2011 and the first international conference on fatherhood was held in Asia in 2010.

Fathers, work, and paternity leave

Working conditions, in particular excessive hours, can be a barrier to active fatherhood. In rich income countries the debate about work and family time in the 1990s was dominated by discussion about a culture of long working hours.

But our ESRC research shows that fathers’ working hours have declined over the past decade and more fathers are sharing the “breadwinning” with their partners.

There is growing evidence that employment-based family support measures such as maternity and paternity leave after childbirth and parental leave to care for children in the early years has the potential for improving children’s health. A large 2005 study on parental leave arrangements and child health outcomes for 18 OECD countries (16 in Europe) from 1969-2000 suggested that infant mortality and morbidity gains associated with maternity leave (for example greater uptake of infant immunisation, breastfeeding initiation and duration). More research is emerging on the benefits of fathers taking parental leave, particularly in the Nordic countries – including boosts in fathers’ involvement in care of infants, cognitive outcomes for children, improvements in the quality of couple relationships and even fertility gains.

Left holding the baby: not such a bad thing. Dad by Shutterstock

Statutory leave provision for fathers at the time of a child’s birth (paternity leave) or later, in the early years of a child’s life (parental leave), are significant policies for increasing male participation. The complexity, scope and speed of policy change in this area since the late 1990s has been striking.

In some countries, a section of parental leave during this period is reserved for fathers only and cannot be transferred to mothers, so-called “daddy days” or “father’s quota”. In some countries fathers are entitled to a couple of months of paid leave to care for children that cannot be transferred to partners. In the case of Norway, the time is linked to a use-it-or-lose-it system: if the time is not taken by the father, the family loses it (a combined bonus/penalty arrangement).

In January 2007, Germany also radically broke away from a leave policy that tended to encourage mothers to stay out of the labour market for three years after the birth of a child. The government added two highly paid daddy months for fathers onto a shorter 12-month maternity leave period. The reform had the explicit aim of increasing the take-up of leave by fathers and recently published data by the Federal Statistics Office show that the proportion of fathers taking leave has risen significantly from 3.3% in 2006 to 29.3% for children born in the second quarter of 2012.

Fathers and mothers need explicit nudges to change behaviour and non-transferable well paid entitlement to fathers’ increases choice and incentivise fathers.

Parental leave policies

The Iceland 3+3+3 month model has significantly shifted male behaviour in a relatively short period of time. Introduced early in 2000, by 2006 more than 90% of Icelandic fathers now take parental leave. Ingólfur V. Gíslason, an associate professor at the University of Iceland, said there have probably “never been more Icelandic fathers active in caring for their children than there are today.”

Britain is a relative latecomer among affluent countries to paid leave for fathers. British fathers were only given a legal right to take two weeks paid paternity leave after the birth of a child in 2003, several decades after European neighbours. Maternity leave that begins at 52 weeks into a pregnancy remains one of the longest in the world.

Under the new Children and Families Act 2014, fathers in the UK are now entitled to access any unused maternity leave after two weeks but only at a low flat rate of £138 per week. The government has claimed that this legislation “enables fathers to play a bigger part in bringing up their children”. However, it is predicted that only 4-8% of eligible fathers will access unused maternity leave. Families will inevitably lose out if they switch from more highly paid maternity leave.

Despite the spin, this new UK legislation contains no provision to introduce an individual non-transferable paid entitlement to fathers, which is the accepted evidence-based approach to incentivise partners as shown elsewhere. Expanding national policies and programmes to promote a stronger engagement of men in family care activities through the life course will help modernise work-family policies to catch up with the changing role of women.

In the 20th century, many post-war public policies created systems and services which assumed a full-time home female carer, supporting a full-time male breadwinner – a work and family model that no longer fits the circumstances of 21st-century families.