A new report, released during the week of Father’s Day, finds that public policy and research often ignore men’s role in caregiving, and that paid parental leave is key to increasing gender equality worldwide.
The first-of-its-kind “State of the World’s Fathers” report examines data from 193 countries and was released by MenCare, a global campaign to promote responsible fatherhood coordinated by Promundo and Sonke Gender Justice and steered by Save the Children, Rutgers, and the MenEngage Alliance.
Some Democratic lawmakers are using the report’s findings to push for paid family leave in the United States, the only developed country that doesn’t have guaranteed paid maternity leave.
“Too often we focus on leave and child care as women’s issues, but these are family issues affecting both fathers and mothers,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) said at a press conference Wednesday.
The report finds that worldwide, fathers who take an active role in child-rearing and household duties are a benefit to their entire family. Involved fathers report being happier and have fewer mental and physical health problems; mothers are more likely to access important maternal health services both before and after birth; and children achieve more and are less delinquent in school.
Fathers matter not specifically because they are men, the report notes, but because children need nurturing caregivers, which research shows men are capable of despite gender norms to the contrary.
The best kind of involved fatherhood, according to the report, is one where the unpaid responsibilities of caregiving are equally shared between mother and father. Those values get passed on to the next generation—boys are better able to accept gender equality and become more involved in care work as adults, and girls have more freedom to work outside the home and aspire more often to less traditional, possibly higher-paying jobs.
Domestic violence also tends to be passed down to the next generation, but promoting equal caregiving seems to be one way to combat that. Research from Norway found that equitable homes had three times less domestic violence than father-dominated homes.
There are barriers to fathers being equally involved. Even though increasing numbers of men are involved in care work, the report notes, women still take on two to ten times more of that unpaid burden.
Part of this disparity is due to deeply ingrained gender norms that associate fatherhood with work and motherhood with child care. Another key factor is access to paid parental leave.
Global surveys find that most fathers want to spend more time with their children, and that they would work less in order to do so if they could. Many can’t, however; poverty and economic instability often mean that men spend more time working or finding work.
“Well-designed leave policies, when combined with free or affordable child care, show the strongest potential for shifting the care burden,” the report says.
The benefits of paid paternity leave have mostly been studied in wealthier countries, and conditional cash transfers and social insurance seem to be better strategies for poorer countries where most workers don’t have formal employment.
But the studied benefits of paid leave are significant, according to the report. Fathers in the United Kingdom who took leave after the birth of a child were 19 percent more likely to feed and wake up with the baby a year later than fathers who did not take leave.
One study from Sweden found that four years after the birth of a child, mothers earned 6.7 percent more for every month of paternity leave their partner took after the child’s birth. Mothers also report better mental health and reduced parenting stress when their partners take leave.
Ninety-two countries offer any leave that a father can take. Those policies are wildly different in terms of whether the leave is paid, how it’s paid for, which partner can take it, and how long it lasts.
Few fathers take leave if it isn’t specifically designed for fathers or isn’t adequately funded. The most effective programs, according to MenCare, are longer, specifically tailored to fathers, and use collective risk pools instead of relying on employers to pay for the leave.
These kinds of policies also help prevent a backlash against women in the workplace, where employers react to mandatory paid leave policies by hiring and promoting fewer women or paying them less in order to save money.
The collective risk pool model shows up in one prominent Democratic leave proposal in Congress, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), which would create a trust fund within the Social Security Administration funded by a 0.2 percent tax on wages.
“It is inexcusable that the U.S. is the only developed country without paid leave,” Maloney said. “Our leave policy should be the best in the world.”