By Clara Alemann
I read with initial disappointment an article discussing the results of Scandinavian policies that foster dual earner/caregiver families and active fatherhood. The study concluded that after more than thirty years of family-oriented public policy (paternity leave, joint custody in the event of divorce, workplaces that allow for a good work-life balance, equal pay for men and women, etc.), Scandinavian fathers have increased the time spent caring for their children but mothers still devote more. The study notes that some aspects of the sexual division of labor remain, with men more responsible for paid work and mothers more responsible for child care. Women’s roles have changed more than men’s roles; paid work is no longer optional for women, but shared involvement in child care is still optional for men.
At the same time, in a Norwegian study on gender equality and quality of life, 70% of men and 80% of women say they are satisfied with the level of equality achieved and the dramatic reduction in domestic violence. According to the aforementioned study, this is associated with equal participation in decision-making between the father and mother and a greater involvement by fathers in child care and parenting tasks.
Clearly, changing deep-rooted beliefs and social norms regarding gender roles is a long-term process. Policies and laws can do a great deal, but they must be accompanied by a sustained, widespread education effort. We need to reflect, both individually and collectively, on those standards and practices that are not conducive to a society that promotes equal opportunities, a decent life, the enjoyment of health, and the development of one’s potential for each member of society, regardless of gender, race and socioeconomic status.
There are probably behavior patterns that never change or that take decades to do so; however, the Scandinavian countries have created the conditions necessary for this change to be a real option. Namely, mothers and fathers can choose how to share responsibilities of child care and paid work, without subjecting each other to a single alternative based on a rigid sexual division of labor. The most important thing is that these policies have made a positive impact on the quality of life of parents and their children, not because they necessarily share the ideology of gender equality but rather as a result of the practical experience of everyday life and the well-being associated with more equitable family relationships.
The good news is that several research studies and experiences, with the Scandinavian example possibly being the most extreme, show that changes to social norms and, consequently, practices at the individual and family level are possible and do occur. There are several valuable initiatives to promote active fatherhood that are being carried out . Don’t miss the video!
Clara Alemann is a consultant in the Division for Gender and Diversity. She works on the analysis of the determinants of poverty and the integration of gender and diversity in the design and implementation of social protection studies and operations, focusing on the areas of sexual and reproductive health, conditional cash transfer programs, early childhood development, and youth at risk.