Treat Fathers Like Idiots...

There has been a lot of speculation about how men won't take up the opportunity of shared parental leave because the money is not enough for them or because childcare is not seen as a man's job. These are valid concerns but I think it goes even deeper than that.

There's a lot in the news at the moment about men now being able to take time off work for antenatal appointments, and shared parental leave has been around in some form since 2011. It's clear that some legislative work is being done towards supporting and encouraging equality in parenting.

The reality of the situation, however, is less rosy. Many women still feel they are the primary caregiver to their children - whether or not they work outside of the home. Even in families where mother and father both work full time, the majority of domestic chores and parenting responsibilities still falls on the woman. And the number of men who have taken up the opportunity to take parental leave remains disappointingly low.

Of course there are exceptions. You probably have a friend whose partner is really good with the night-time wakings. Or perhaps you're one of the lucky ones with a domesticated husband who does the bulk of the cooking and cleaning (I actually used to have one of them too). You may even know of a full time dad amongst your circle of acquaintances.

But although these domestic set-ups are not that uncommon we still consider them unusual and surprising. Society is geared up towards them not being the case. Cleaning and kitchen products are marketed to women, dads' sessions at children's centres always run on Saturdays (if they run them at all) and jokes abound about men sleeping through the night - undisturbed and unaware that their children are not.

At work, men are not usually the ones who rush away from the office on the dot of 5 for a regular childcare pick up. And they're not usually overlooked for projects or assignments on the basis of them being a father, and therefore not able to spend a night or two away from home.

This last point is important because women are often overlooked, either consciously or subconsciously, for opportunities based on their employer's assumptions about what she will or won't be able (or willing) to do now she's a mother. Those same assumptions are not generally applied to men when they become fathers.

I blame it on Peppa Pig. Well, I can't blame the whole evolution of society on it, but it certainly highlights, and even contributes to, the pressure put on mothers both in the workforce and in the home. Put simply, Daddy Pig is a buffoon. A well meaning father who loves his kids but always seems to end up doing something silly - usually in the pursuit of showing off or over-estimating his own abilities.

I struggle with my own assassination of the premise of Peppa Pig for two reasons. First, I quite enjoy watching it - not to the point where I'd watch it on my own of course, but because like all the best children's TV programmes, it works on several levels in order to entertain the adults they know will be watching alongside their youngsters. And secondly, it's funny because we can relate to the likeable character of Daddy Pig. And this is my biggest struggle because I value comedy and satire. I don't want to come over all 'political correctness gone mad' to the point where we shouldn't reflect real life or laugh about recognisable situations for fear of offending someone.

But I also feel strongly that basing humour on outdated stereotypes - male or female - can be damaging to the fight for equality. And I worry that programmes like this help to keep it ingrained in the societal psyche that men should not be left in charge of the kids - that parenting is a job for mum. Dads are there for light comedic relief and causing DIY disasters with their power tools.

At first glance this portrayal of men as the weaker sex appears to be awfully modern and even empowering to women - but it's the complete opposite. It's exactly the thing that keeps us trapped in the vicious circle of doing it all in order to have it all. It drives men to hide behind a belief that they're either not capable, or simply shouldn't be expected, to lead on the care of their children. And it's self perpetuating. The more we reinforce the 'man as buffoon' caricature, the more acceptable it is for fathers to be a tad hopeless and for mothers to have to step in and take control of the whole sorry situation. And if that is considered acceptable, then we can't expect equality.

There has been a lot of speculation about how men won't take up the opportunity of shared parental leave because the money is not enough for them or because childcare is not seen as a man's job. These are valid concerns but I think it goes even deeper than that. No one likes to do something they're not good at - it's demoralising and demotivating and we're far more likely to avoid doing it. No one wants to be a laughing stock, and yet through cartoons, articles, and blogs, we constantly reinforce the - mistaken - fact that men are a bit rubbish at looking after their own children.

If we want gender equality in parenting and in the workplace then we should stop poking fun at men - particularly in front of our impressionable children.