It’s (literally) about time: men as part of the solution to closing the care gap

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By Ruti Levtov, PhD, Director of Research, Evaluation, and Learning at Promundo-US


This blog is part of a special series marking the launch of the updated
2019 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI)


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Photo: Sarine Arslanian / Shutterstock.com

Two hundred and ten years: That’s how long it will take to close the gender gap in time spent on care if we continue on our current trajectory, according to recent analysis by the International Labour Organization (ILO). In no country in the world do men and women spend an equal amount of time on care responsibilities, an inequality that restricts women’s participation and growth in the labour force, in political leadership and in other public spheres. It also limits the space for men to express their full humanity as nurturers, caregivers and equal partners at home. To achieve global development goals, to fulfill human rights and to enable all of us to live full lives, we need to urgently address this inequality.

It won’t be an easy road – the barriers are many to recognising, reducing and – as is the focus of this blog – redistributing care. While redistributing unpaid care responsibilities between individuals and the state is essential, we know that gender stereotypes held by individuals, communities, workplaces and governments continue to presume that women’s most important contributions are at home, and men’s are in the workplace. At Promundo, we are focusing on how we can deconstruct these stereotypes.

Many of the barriers to redistributing care responsibilities equally amongst men and women are at the policy level: despite evidence that paternity and parental leave taken by fathers can lead to greater long-term involvement in the lives of children and to positive outcomes for women’s health, labour force participation and earnings, too few countries provide paid leave for fathers. As the OECD’s latest Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) shows, just 91 countries provide paid leave for fathers, and it’s usually just a few days, especially outside of high-income countries. Moreover, the SIGI finds that while nearly all countries provide maternity leave, only about half comply with the requirements of the ILO’s Convention No. 183 on Maternity Protection, and just a quarter prohibit employers from asking about a woman’s pregnancy or intention to have a child.

To meaningfully redistribute care, leave policies need to be adequately paid, equal and non-transferable. When this happens, it changes the calculus for families – in terms of whose paid work is prioritised – and for employers – who won’t have an incentive not to hire or promote women because of the risk of taking leave. And leave policies are just the beginning. We need the universal provision of high-quality child care, support for elder care and care for the sick and disabled, and laws guaranteeing equal pay for equal work.

Inadequate policies are not the only barriers to shifting the responsibility for care work. Indeed, our policies reflect deeply ingrained social expectations about the roles and capacities of men and women. Equal leave – and equal caregiving – strikes most people as completely out of the realm of possibility. Around the world, care work continues to be seen as the domain of women: data from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) across 22 low- and middle-income countries find that between 10% and 98% of men believe that changing diapers, bathing and feeding children are a mother’s responsibility. Data included in the SIGI show that, on average, 51% of people across 80 countries think that children will suffer if their mother works for pay, ranging from 37% in Europe to 56% in Asia. On the flip side, perceptions of being a “real man” are inextricably linked to being a financial provider, as well as being tough and (in many places) emotionally distant and dominant.

Yet, this is not the whole story. New research shows that men experience similar physiological and hormonal responses to children as mothers do – men are essentially equally “wired” for care. Children who grow up in households where women work and where men share in the care work are likely to replicate these patterns in their own adult relationships. And, importantly, around the world men express a desire to be more involved.

Recognising these barriers – as well as the opportunities – Promundo and its partners in nearly 50 countries have been working through the MenCare Initiative to transform the gendered distribution of care and promote gender equality through community programmes, media and public awareness campaigns, and national and international advocacy. And we can see some results: in a randomised controlled trial of Bandebereho, a 15-week programme to engage men and couples in Rwanda, we found that nearly two years after starting the intervention, men who participated spent almost an hour more per day on caregiving and household tasks compared to men in the control group. Moreover, their wives reported less dominance by men in household decision-making and dramatically lower rates of violence against women. MenCare’s biennial State of the World’s Fathers report has also inspired policy debates around parental leave in the Netherlands, Brazil, South Africa and Washington, D.C. (USA).

Changing these underlying norms, and policies that reflect them, is hard. But it’s possible. And it’s about time – 210 years is simply too long to wait.

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