Why Are British Mums and Dads the Worst in the Developed World at Sharing Childcare?

15/06/2016 16:36 | Updated 15 June 2016

It's Father's Day in the UK this Sunday (19 June), and to mark it the Fatherhood Institute has published the Fairness in Families Index 2016 (FIFI), which uses a basket of measures to compare developed countries' progress towards gender equality.

Overall, the UK comes 12th out of 22 countries; a drop of three places since 2010. The top five countries in the 2016 index are all Scandinavian, with Sweden taking the top spot. Other countries more gender-equal than the UK include France, Italy, New Zealand and Portugal. Here is a list of the overall rankings:

1. Sweden
2. Denmark
3. Iceland
4. Norway
5. Finland
6. Belgium
7. Canada
8. Portugal
9. New Zealand
10. France
11. Italy
12. UK
13. Australia
14. Spain
15. Ireland
16. Netherlands
17. Switzerland
18. Greece
19. Germany
20. USA
21. Austria
22. Japan

Perhaps the most dramatic finding in the report is that UK mums and dads are the worst in developed world at sharing their childcare responsibilities. OECD figures show that on average, British men spend an average of just 24 minutes caring for children for every hour done by women. The UK was 15th out of 15 countries for this indicator; in Portugal, where the ratio is highest, men do 60% more childcare: 39 minutes for every hour done by women.

Slightly better news is that we're better at sharing housework than childcare: British men do 34 minutes of housework and cooking for every hour done by women, placing us 5th in the table (the UK was 5th out of 15 countries for this indicator). In Denmark, which leads on this indicator, men do 44 minutes for every hour done by women.

But what's crystal clear is that there's still a long way to go before the UK levels the playing field for men and women in the workplace and at home. And when one looks at some of the other key indicators, it's not hard to see why.

Our parenting leave system is still only the 11th most equal (out of 21 countries for this indicator), despite the introduction of shared parental leave in April 2015.

Our gender pay gap - which leaves British women earning an average of 17.4% less than men in similar full-time jobs - places us 15th out of the 22 countries measured. In first-placed New Zealand, the gap is 5.6%.

And it's still the case that relatively few men in the UK work part-time. They make up only 25.8% of the part-time workforce, leaving the UK 16th out of 21 countries. Portugal tops the table on this indicator, with men making up 42.1% of the part-time workforce. This matters because part-time working is strongly associated with undertaking caring responsibilities at home.

Why does sharing matter?

Why should UK plc care how able dads and mums are to share their caring and earning responsibilities?

Well there is strong evidence that children with positively involved fathers do much better, in a huge variety of ways, including the following:

  • Higher educational achievement
  • Increased emotional security
  • Greater capacity for empathy
  • Non-traditional attitudes to earning and childcare
  • Greater social mobility/earnings relative to parents'
  • More satisfying adult sexual partnerships
  • Higher self-esteem and life-satisfaction
  • Lower adolescent risk behaviour and criminality.

Couples are much more likely to stay together if they can find ways of sharing their caring and earning responsibilities.

Men and women who are happy with their work-life balance are more productive in the workplace, and better, more effective parents (surveys suggest it's dads who are the most dissatisfied, by the way).

And all of this is in addition to the gender equality argument, of course, which goes something like this: why do we claim to want women and women to be equal in the workplace if we then treat them like different species when they become parents? Why should so many of our daughters' careers fall off a cliff in their childbearing years, and so many of our sons be nudged into the role of 'secondary' parent by financial necessity?

So...what is to be done?

What can we do?

Well firstly, we need a major rethink of our parenting leave policy. There's clear evidence from around the world that the parenting leave design best suited to gender equality includes a substantial period (minimum three months) of non-transferable well paid leave for fathers, to be taken in the first year - with mothers having no more than six months of well-paid leave available to them in that first year.

We know that this would result in mothers spending less time out of the workforce (thus countering much of the discrimination they now face from employers) and would establish strong, positive attachments between fathers, as well as mothers, and their infants. As care patterns are established in the first year, and as fathers who undertake substantial care during that time tend to remain highly engaged once they return to work, this would set the scene for greater gender equality during that first year, and into the future. This is what happens in Iceland, the country with probably the world's most gender-equal parenting leave design.

Despite the introduction of shared parental leave last year, the UK is a very long way from this model.

An ideal to work towards would be six months' non-transferable, well-paid leave for the mother, and the same for the father. As an interim step, paying paternity leave at 90% of salary (capped) and introducing a similarly well-paid use-it-or-lose-it 'daddy month', to be taken later in the child's first year, would be a step in the right direction.

But sorting out parenting leave alone - crucial as that is - will not be enough. The UK also needs to strengthen its efforts to reduce the gender pay gap. Until men and women can be confident of finding jobs that pay the same rate, it will remain too easy for couples to slip into the 'traditional' model where the man brings home more of the bacon and the woman does the lion's share of the childcare, out of economic pressure rather than free choice.

We agree with the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee's recent Gender Pay Gap report, which argued that we should be obliging UK employers to offer all jobs on the basis that they can be worked flexibly unless they can demonstrate an immediate and continuing business case against doing so; and that the government should extend its requirement for UK companies to publish data about their gender pay gap to all firms employing more than 150 staff, from April 2018.

We also need family services that view men and women as equally capable of, and responsible for, bringing up children. The UK's public services - maternity and early years services, schools and social workers, for example - have been, and remain, almost entirely mother-centric. If dads are to take on a more prominent role in hands-on caring, we need services that are equipped to support them to do so. That's why the Fatherhood Institute is calling on the government to require early years, schools, social work and maternity services to publish data on their parental engagement, broken down by gender; and be inspected on this by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission.

None of these changes will, individually or together, lead to a gender-equal Britain overnight. But all the evidence suggests that they could make a huge difference. FIFI shows that since 2010, other countries have made much better progress towards gender-equality. Let's make sure that when the next FIFI is published, we're heading in the right direction.