When actor Colin Farrell’s son was diagnosed with the rare genetic disorder Angelman syndrome, he realized he had to spend more time with his son to give him the care and attention he needed. He has said that “being a father is more important to him than his career “ and that “his whole acting business is nothing in comparison.” He adds that “being a dad to these two boys is the most difficult, the most rewarding, the most meaningful and the most consequential thing that [he] will ever do.”
Like Colin Farrell, many men want to spend more time with their children, but face both discrimination because caregiving isn’t perceived as “manly” and structural barriers that make it more difficult for men to devote time to family. To treat this issue like the work issue it is (rather than a “women’s issue”), we need to redefine what it means to be masculine and change the way workplaces treat the role of fathers.
Research in behavioral science shows that to sway public opinion and shift norms, it helps to change the way systems are structured; if work systems are designed to support men in caregiving roles, beliefs will naturally follow. To destigmatize caregiver fathers and pave the way for gender equality in the workplace, flexible work rules and parental leave policies must apply to men and women both, and we need salient examples of fathers prioritizing their families.
Men are still seen as breadwinners and women as caregivers
Despite the progress gained by women entering labor markets in great force over the past 50 years (and largely beginning during WWII), stereotypes of men as breadwinners and women as caregivers persist. While women have taken on additional roles working, they haven’t so successfully shed their mothering roles. Their addition to the workforce hasn’t been met with commensurate subtraction of men. While women are empowered to take on new responsibilities at work, men haven’t retreated from work to take on the same degree of responsibility at home. In married couples where both parents work full time, women spend > 40% more time on childcare than men.
This inequality is not good for women or men. Men experience negative health effects from performing traditional masculine roles and feel pressure to be “manly,” but benefit from caregiving — more involved fathers are less likely to suffer from depression. Although men want to contribute more to family matters, they continue to face both perceptual and structural barriers.
Gender equity is not just a moral imperative. Prioritizing family needs can bring tangible benefits to companies. Companies with flexible work policies are more profitable, diverse, and have greater retention and productivity among workers. By supporting men and women with families, companies can show how much they care about their employees while simultaneously securing their own bottom lines.
Role models can help shift social norms
It takes courage to break from well-established gender stereotypes, but powerful role models can help shift social norms and make men more comfortable working as caregivers. Whether it’s a celebrity like Colin Farrell or a leader in one’s organization, having an example of a strong male with caregiver responsibilities can go a long way toward establishing norms around the importance of family.
Perhaps the best demonstration of the power of role models is Elvis Presley being vaccinated on the Ed Sullivan show. After this public display from the world renowned and adored celebrity, polio vaccination rates jumped from <1% to 80% in the US. In one study of male caregivers in film, researchers found that “humor, complicity, outdoor action and a general concern for the dignity of the care-receiver” led to greater acceptance of men as caregivers. Promoting the male caregiver image can be done through initiatives like the United Nations’ #HeForSheAtHome campaign to mobilize men as allies for gender equality. By endorsing role models like these, masculinity can be redefined to incorporate the caring role.
This resocialization is particularly necessary in a time when the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted women, exacerbating gender inequality. In contrast with previous pandemics, job losses have been steeper for women, with a 3% greater rise in unemployment. Even for those who have thus far held on to their jobs, 1 in 4 women are considering a downshift from the workforce or leaving altogether. Daycare and school closures, paired with inflexibility at work, have culminated in an impossible situation for many working mothers attempting to balance their work life with childcare and pandemic life. The solution is clear: it is time for men to take on a bigger share of childcare responsibilities.
Equity in the workplace requires equity in caregiving
Just as we need female doctors and male nurses, or female superintendents and male teachers, we need female breadwinners and male caregivers. It will be no small task to resocialize men to embrace caregiving, but we can start with innovations in the workplace that give men permission to prioritize family life. Encouraging men and women to make equal use of flexible work policies and parental leave may require informal support from managers, mandatory or opt-out leave, and many more Collin Farrells who put their parenting in the spotlight.
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.