What We Know About Masculinity, Fatherhood, and Caregiving

“Being present during childbirth allowed me to feel the greatness of mothers,” says Qiu Jiacheng, 28-year-old business consultant and new father from Shanghai, China, “It also helped me cultivate a stronger sense of responsibility.” 

Becoming a father can be a defining step into adulthood, and fathers who take a hands-on role in caring for their children, from the earliest days, often say it’s one of the most fulfilling parts of their lives. According to research conducted in advance of the 2019 State of the World’s Fathers, some 85 percent of fathers across seven countries said they would do anything to be very involved in caring for their newborn or adopted child.

However, when it comes to the day-to-day work – from the diaper-changes, to the cooking, the cleaning, and beyond – mothers are still doing much more than fathers are. Stereotypical gender norms all too frequently place women in the role of primary parent and encourage and excuse men who don’t take on their fair share. No country in the world has achieved equality in unpaid care work, and women are doing more paid and unpaid work combined worldwide as well. 

Reaching equality in how much work parents are doing, off the clock, is a key factor in reaching equality at work, in politics, and in education. 

What does our research say about the links between masculinities, fatherhood, and caregiving?

1. Rigid gender roles are still too common. Many still expect men’s primary contribution to family well-being to be financial.

Women and men alike are more likely to say that “financial care” – which includes earning enough money to pay for the expense of raising a child – should be a primary responsibility of fathers as compared to mothers, according to new data from the State of the World’s Fathers 2019 report. No similar trend exists for “emotional care” or “physical care,” suggesting that expectations of men as the default breadwinners and women as the default emotional carers of children are particularly strong. These stereotypes impact how decisions are made, and who has access to opportunities to work and to be a caregiver, within families and across societies.

2. Despite fathers wanting to be involved in childcare, they face barriers to taking the full amount of paternity leave offered to them.

Paid paternity leave, alongside maternity leave, is a powerful way to support dads to bond with their children from early on, and women want men to take it. Over 72 percent of women across six countries say that mothers would have better mental health if fathers took at least two weeks paternity leave, according to data from the State of the World’s Fathers 2019. However, even when it’s offered, less than half of fathers – across seven countries – took as much time as their country’s policy allowed. Fathers often worry what others will think if they prioritize their children over their work. They also worry that their income, and their family’s income, will suffer if they take parental leave. The study found that, in the US, 73 percent of fathers agreed there was little workplace support for fathers, and one in five men were afraid of losing their job if they took the full amount of paternity leave offered to them.  

3. When new fathers take paternity leave, they’re glad they did.

Across seven countries – Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Netherlands, UK, and US – fathers who reported taking longer paternity leave after the birth or adoption of their child were also more likely to report personal benefits in terms of mental health and life satisfaction. This includes interest or pleasure in doing things, and increased satisfaction with their overall life, job, and sex life for fathers in Brazil, the United Kingdom, and Japan, and increased feelings of hopefulness, and satisfaction with their overall life and involvement with their children for fathers in Canada and Argentina.

How can we transform norms around masculinities, fatherhood, and caregiving to close the unpaid care gap and achieve gender equality? 

To get to a world where more men are hands-on parents and more parenting relationships are equal, we can start by reflecting on the ways that strict ideas of masculinity and gender norms impact our ideas about fatherhood, and work to build stronger relationship and parenting skills. Promundo’s Program P, implemented with RWAMREC in Rwanda works with expectant fathers and fathers of young children, taking them through activities and discussions on gender and power, fatherhood, decision-making, violence, and caregiving. A randomized controlled trial (RCT) evaluation revealed that men who participated in the program were more than twice as likely as those who did not participate to listen to their partner and tell them that they appreciated them, and spent almost one hour or more per day doing unpaid care work and household chores. 

Acknowledging and reflecting on the role that social and gender norms play in holding back progress toward equality in care work is a first step, but this work must go beyond individual people. Governments must work with teachers, childcare workers, and health care providers to actively bring dads into conversations around parenting responsibilities and they must provide leave for all parents of all genders. Schools must teach children the importance of care from an early age, building on the evidence-based curricula. Workplaces must train their human resources staff and carry out workplace-based campaigns and employee outreach programs that create a workplace environment that fully supports women and men as parents and caregivers in addition to being workplace leaders. 

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