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Fighting for fatherhood, the other glass ceiling

What are the invisible challenges facing men who want to be engaged fathers or simply care for children? Abhijit Patil

Washington father Aaron Dickson’s video in which he takes his three-year old daughter on her “first date” went viral yesterday attracting acclaim (which is great) and disgust (which is disappointing).

With more than 8 million hits, many have applauded this father’s simple desire to treat his “princess” to a special first date.

But a good number think the romantic build-up in the video that leads to Daddy taking his daughter on a date is more creepy than cute.

The fact that many have remarked that the video is “creepy” and “doesn’t seem right”, indicates – to my mind – the kinds of challenges facing fatherhood. You can judge for yourself here:

Creepy or cute?

The face of fatherhood is changing for the better in terms of parenting equality between the sexes, but challenges remain. The tone of many of the negative responses to the video suggest we still see something suspicious when we see a man around children. Take the following instances:

  • Male child carers are treated differently, as the Aussie Childcare Network forum attests.

  • Australian journalist Tracy Spicer wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year that she does not want her children flying unaccompanied to be seated next to a man.

  • A well-meaning campaign countering child sex abuse in the US, showing a man holding a child’s hand, appears to encourage people to report him if “it doesn’t feel right”.

  • US journalist Lenore Skenazy documented multiple examples of how men are treated as potential predators in her 2011 article Eek, A male! for the Wall Street Journal.

The negative responses to the “daddy-daughter date” video seem to suggest suspicion extends even to a father and his own child. Network Seven’s Sunrise anchorman David Koch revealed today in response to the controversial video that, while coaching his daughter’s basketball team, he was told he could not comfort or touch any girl that fell over and hurt herself. As Kochie put it, this is “haywire”.

It appears the prejudice against men as capable of child-care is deeply embedded.

A book that I co-authored with Charles Areni, launched this week as a part of Sydney Ideas, covers some of the facets of what we term “the other glass ceiling”. The original glass ceiling metaphor first used in 1984 by magazine editor Gay Bryant highlighted the invisible challenges facing women in their climb up the corporate ladder.


The “other glass ceiling” highlights the invisible challenges facing men who want to be engaged fathers or simply care for children.

Fatherhood is regularly seen as a kind of second-place. Men who prioritise parenthood are still seen in some way as peculiar.

In our book, we develop the idea that fathers are often treated like “the second parent”, an echo of Simone de Beauvoir’s plaint that women are treated like “the second sex”.

A subtle part of the challenge for admitting fatherhood as equal to motherhood is that, at least in the beginning of a child’s life, the mother’s involvement with her child is physical and visceral. But it is an error, a mistake, to assume the father is necessarily less involved and treats his role any less seriously.

Part of the solution may be for fathers to “step up” to their role, to challenge the promulgated stereotype that dads are either absent or dead-beats.

Mothers (and society at large) need to “let go”, to allow fathers to take on this priority, to be engaged in child-care.

For now, passion-fuelled prejudices remain. Negative sentiment has “gone over the line,” as Kochie put it. Plato had Socrates say:

[Y]our zeal is invaluable, if a right one; but if wrong, the greater the zeal the greater the evil. (Crito 46b)

In this respect, the argument is exactly the same as that which motivated the original glass ceiling metaphor in the 80s.

Much has changed, but until a father can proudly share his pride in his darling daughter without unfounded sexist remarks being given airtime, we know we have a long way to go.

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