‘Traditional’ gender roles in the home are in many cases less entrenched these days; many modern couples enjoy two incomes, split the housework, share childcare and undertake equal parenting. The pandemic, however, brought into sharp relief that despite the progress made, the vast majority of the domestic load still falls to women. We invited UCL’s Dr Charlotte Faircloth on to Raise Her Up to share her research findings and ideas for helping parents to spread the load more equally.
Gender equality at home
So, where are we in the journey to gender equality at home? ‘Despite women making up half of the workforce, they are still the ones carrying the domestic load, which incorporates the running of the household, as well as raising children,’ clarifies Dr Faircloth. ‘The pandemic magnified this issue. Without schools and nurseries, childcare was, in the majority of family settings, picked up by mothers.’ The stats bear this out: 67% of women took charge of their children’s home schooling, compared to 52% of men.
Indeed, according to OECD research, mothers are nearly three times more likely to take on the majority of additional unpaid childcare responsibilities than men, at 61.5% to only 22.4% of fathers.
At a time when men undoubtedly want their children to grow up in a more egalitarian world, why are couples still manifesting this domestic imbalance when it comes to household chores and childcare? If less than a quarter of fathers undertook the majority of the childcare during the pandemic, we’re far from the equal parenting that our young people need to see to move away from falling into gender stereotypes themselves as they become adults.
“Despite women making up half of the workforce, they are still the ones carrying most of the domestic load”
Showing equal parenting at home is a vital step in bringing about gender equality. If a child sees both parents taking the same approach to the way they are brought up, they grow up without the dangerous and one dimensional stereotypes that cast women as the nurturers and men as the providers. ‘Equal parenting can be about showing the different ways in which parents pull their weight in the family home, and how different those contributions can be whilst still being equal,’ suggests Dr Faircloth. ‘If one partner goes out to work and one stays at home, both need to be recognised and validated for what they bring to the relationships and home environment, whether that is financial, or unremunerated work.’ Dr Faircloth goes on to explain that equal parenting can take many forms and has to be adapted to couples’ preferences. ‘For many parents, work is important for their sense of identity. And when both parents work, it’s helpful to recognise that it can’t always be 50-50 and they might have to pick up the slack at busy times.’
Fundamentally, though, to prepare our children to expect equality in the home in later life, it’s important that girls and boys see what goes into the successful running of a household from a young age. ‘I don’t just mean, ‘now it’s your turn to empty the dishwasher’ and helping out with chores,’ Dr Faircloth clarifies, ‘it’s more about appreciating the logistics and the management that are required around planning meals, shopping, booking holidays, coordinating things between family members.’ Indeed, it’s this kind of cognitive and emotional labour, the so-called ‘hidden load’ of organising playdates and booking dentists’ appointments for example, that is primarily carried by women, and which ultimately skews the balance in the majority of families and households.
Addressing the gender imbalance in parenting
So how can couples address the gender imbalance in parenting? If you feel that you’re not managing to strike the balance in your parenting and home life, Dr Faircloth has a few suggestions.
‘Having children takes a huge amount of work, and between you, you might find that you perceive different tasks as easier or harder, or less or more important,’ she points out. That means that clear and open communication to avoid resentment building up is key.
“Both partners need to be recognised and validated for what they bring to relationships and home environment, whether that is financial or unremunerated work”
‘Some might see having the kids all day on Saturday as leisure time, but I would find that quite hard work,’ Dr Faircloth says, ‘so partners should look at the activities that go on in the household and recognise what takes the most work, the most time, and how to best support each other.’
For example, one partner might see gardening as a hobby, whilst the other views it as essential household maintenance. In other households, the washing might build up and not be seen as a priority until family members begin to run out of clean laundry. In all cases, compromises need to be made and preferences respected, with a view to showing the children you are raising that the household is not primarily mummy’s domain.
The debate around shared parental leave, meanwhile, continues: would encouraging greater take-up of parental leave be the significant societal shift to help couples to truly achieve equal parenting and balance in the home? Taking shared parental leave undoubtedly has a major positive impact on matters related to gender equality for those couples who opt for it: mothers are out of the workplace for less time, meaning they maintain their level of professional seniority and continue to have access to new opportunities. Fathers get to spend more time with and be more visible to their children. When it comes to childcare when parental leave is over, both parties are equally invested and more likely to be prepared to go part-time if this is an option financially. However, Dr Faircloth explains, taking shared parental leave is not the silver bullet that we might believe it to be: ‘in reality, shared parental leave is only available to a very small proportion of people who are eligible, as it requires both partners to be employees of organisations that can support you. If one of you is freelance, or doesn’t work, you are excluded. And even within the sector of people who are eligible, there are fairly low levels of uptake.’ Why would this be? ‘Part of the problem is that historically, the policy has been based around a transfer of maternity leave, so it’s up to the mother to give her leave to the partner.’
“Housework is a shared benefit, and it shouldn’t fall on one person: we should all want to feel like we’re contributing as much as we can”
In this regard, the UK lags behind countries like Scandinavia, where the emphasis is on both partners taking leave: the mother gets three months, the father gets three months and then they have three months to split between them. If they choose not to take it, they lose the financial benefit and incentive of it. ‘This makes a bit more sense in terms of providing couples with the scope to make choices that fit within their own lives,’ Dr Faircloth explains.
There’s work to be done by all, at government and policy level, and within our own homes. We know that we are our children’s number one role models and that they learn their first important life lessons from us. While taking shared parental leave may not be an option for everyone, sharing the domestic responsibilities certainly should be. A last word from Dr Faircloth: ‘It goes back to the question of recognition around labour and trying to make everybody feel like a valid participant in that, because it’s a shared benefit, and it shouldn’t fall on one person. In the grand scheme of things, we should all want to feel like we’re contributing as much as we can.’
What’s Coming in Raise Her Up?
We are preparing for a second season of Raise Her Up! We have some really exciting contributors lined up including Motherland’s Tanya Moodie on her career in acting, psychologist Dr Nihara Krause on How To Say No, breast cancer surgeon and survivor Dr Liz O’Riordan on The Lowdown on Breast Health. Season 2 goes live on Wednesday 7th September.
Mental Health campaigner Natasha Devon MBE will launch her first YA novel, Toxic, at Notting Hill & Ealing School on 5th July. Catch her podcast episode on 6th July to hear about the research that went into the book which tells the story of how one girl copes when a friendship turns toxic.
We welcome flexible working campaigner Anna Whitehouse later this season. We were so excited to hear her personal story that led to her activism work and the latest from her Flex Appeal campaign. Watch this space for her episode, which will be out in July.
Grace Barrett, our guest on the How To Be An Anti-Racism Ally episode, has written a young adult novel available to pre-order now. Friends Don’t Tell, which she has co-written with her Self-Esteem co-founder Nadia Mendoza, is a thriller which tells the story of what happens when two friends’ visit to a festival goes wrong… A page-turner for 12-14 year olds this summer.