Men’s participation in unpaid care - A review of the literature
This paper summarises the results of a comprehensive literature review examining the barriers and supports for men's greater participation in unpaid care.
Men and care: the current situation and the impacts of increased participation
Men - in a variety of ways and in a variety of situations - are involved in providing unpaid care. Some undertake a considerable amount of care, some relatively little. However, on average, men spend significantly less time in unpaid caring work and significantly more time in paid work than do women. While the amount of time men spend caring for children has risen dramatically in the last 40 years, women have also increased the amount of time they spend caring for children, and as such, the average difference between the time men and women spend in care has not changed significantly. Women still spend 2-3 times as much time caring for children and are more likely to undertake routine physical care tasks.
Most of the literature examining men as carers is focused on the care men provide as parents. The literature on the care of elderly people, the disabled or those in poor health focuses on female carers. Literature specifically on men providing care to other family members or friends, including for their spouses and parents, is significantly more limited and is often clinically based or comprised of smaller qualitative studies that focus on more micro-level issues, such as the specific care tasks that men undertake or the ways the division of care is negotiated between male and female siblings.
Men are in a diversity of parenting situations, including a significant proportion of fathers who do not live full-time with their children. However, across a variety of family types, fathers' participation in care has been linked to significant gains in wellbeing for children, including positive cognitive, psychological and social outcomes. A number of studies have found that these benefits remain even after influences such as income, maternal involvement and child health are controlled for.
However, a significant body of literature has found that, when men are involved in the care of children, they tend to do so in a secondary role. The literature suggests that men are more limited in their opportunities to experience providing independent care to their young children. Men's time with children is most often mediated by the presence of women, with some studies estimating that mothers are present for more than 90 per cent of the time fathers are with their children. Some researchers note that this may affect the ability of men to form independent bonds with their children, with this having implications for the quality of father-child interactions following marital dissolution.
Most men who are providing care to someone other than a child are caring for their spouses. Because of gender differences in longevity, men above the age of 75 are more likely than women of that age to be caring for an ill or disabled person in their own household, an experience that the literature notes is significantly different from the care provided within other relationships. Research indicates that the care men provide to their parents or other relatives is mediated by the care provided by the women around them, especially their wives and sisters.
Participation in unpaid care and in the paid labour force are mutually interdependent for both men and women, with the two facets of work impacting on each other in a number of ways. Participation in paid work limits the amount of time that is available for unpaid care. A more equal distribution of paid work and unpaid work, including care, by gender may contribute to reducing gender inequalities in employment and earnings outcomes. In order to meet care responsibilities particularly associated with children, many women scale back their involvement in paid work, either by working part-time, accepting a less demanding position or exiting the workforce. Greater sharing of unpaid care by men may allow women to avoid this scaling back and thus prevent the potential weakening of women's human capital and skills, as well as maintaining family income and overall lifetime earnings. In turn, this could have positive implications for the economy at a time when population ageing has amplified the need for the participation in paid work of those of working age. As women increasingly hold higher qualifications than men, greater participation in paid work by women may result in increased productivity, as well as avoiding an underutilisation of women's skills and a lesser return, both public and private, from the investment these represent.
Greater participation by women in paid work potentially allows men to increase their participation in unpaid care work. When women significantly alter their work patterns to accommodate care responsibilities, men may face greater pressure to support their families financially, with this having the potential to limit their subsequent choices around employment, education and their availability and ability to care for dependents in the future.
In addition to increasing women's labour force participation, there is evidence of other related economic benefits to increasing men's participation in care, including a reduction in women's poverty rates. The literature also suggests that improvements in the work-life balance and wellbeing of both men and women may also result from men's greater participation in care.
Barriers to greater participation
The need for women to manage pregnancy, recover from childbirth and establish breastfeeding means that men often begin parenthood in a secondary role. However, research indicates that the impact of biology in limiting men's care for their newborn children may establish a gendered pattern of care that continues after biological imperatives have receded and thus may impact on men's caring for children throughout their dependent years. The arrival of the first child often leads to a more traditional sharing of tasks in the household, with the gendered division of labour following birth often resulting in women's continued greater responsibility for childcare and men's lesser participation in care across the life course. These differences also flow through to variations in labour force participation by gender.
A significant body of literature indicates that long hours in paid work are a major barrier inhibiting equality between men and women in both unpaid care and labour force participation. Long hours of work lessen the availability of men to engage in care, and research indicates that men who work very long hours are less likely to engage in a variety of specific care activities.
Workplace culture also remains a major barrier to men's participation in unpaid care work, with this highlighted in both New Zealand research and the international literature. Workplace culture and employers' attitudes are cited as barriers to taking up entitlements that aim to encourage men's greater participation in care, including in the Nordic countries, which are commonly held up as the pinnacle in gender equality with regard to the care of children.
Perceptions of men as peripheral to care and differences in labour force participation patterns by gender contribute to gendered occupational segregation. When men are viewed as secondary to care, professions that are dominated by men are not obliged to offer working arrangements that facilitate the combining of paid work and care. Because of this, women may choose to work in professions, or specialities within professions, that allow them to meet their care responsibilities, with a resulting clustering of women in professions such as teaching and nursing, and the continuation of a reinforcing cycle of occupational segregation and gendered pay differences. The gender pay gap also acts as a barrier to men's participation in care by resulting in unequal rewards from paid work for men and women and thus influencing the division of paid and unpaid work between couples.
Gendered government policies can act as a barrier to men's greater participation in care. For example, parental leave policies that are contingent on mothers meeting eligibility criteria, or rely on mothers' willingness to transfer leave to their partners, mean that some fathers are unable to access leave to care for children.
Particular obstacles to participating in care are faced by fathers who do not live in the same household as the mother(s) of their children, with most of these fathers finding themselves in a secondary carer role. While some separating couples do negotiate equitable caring arrangements, post-separation custody decisions and other applications of family law such as supervised access may also impact on the ability of men to participate in the care of their children. In addition, the justice system, particularly imprisonment, may also have a significant impact on men's caregiving activities, both directly through time away from children and indirectly through the impact of imprisonment on lifetime earnings, reductions of which are correlated with men being less likely to live in couple families raising children.
Women have some influence over the time men spend in the care of their children, because mothers are partners and sometimes facilitators in the father-child relationship, both in intact relationships and in separated or divorced families. As noted, women's preferences about paid and unpaid work may also impact on the need for men to support their families financially, with this having implications for men's hours in paid work and availability to undertake care.
Gendered ideologies about appropriate roles for men and women are also a significant barrier to men's greater participation in care. Gendered assumptions and expectations of men and women shape what constitutes appropriate behaviour, such as perceiving women as the 'nurturers' in families and men as peripheral to the nurturer role. This flows through to non-parental care, with research showing that family members, especially those of older generations, act according to strong gender norms and thus discourage sons from performing traditionally female caring tasks.
Research indicates that norms about fathers can act as a barrier to men's participation in the care of their children. A study in New Zealand reported beliefs amongst new fathers that there are pervasive negative stereotypes regarding fathers and fathering, with reports of domestic violence reinforcing these misperceptions. Norms about the roles of fathers may also act as barriers to men's greater participation in care, with some research finding that fathers tend to be viewed as a support person for their partner, rather than as a parent in their own right.
There are numerous other barriers to men's increased participation in care, many of which may appear insignificant or minor in themselves, but send out negative messages about men as carers. These factors work in the same direction to undermine the validity of men as carers and thus together form a significant set of mutually reinforcing barriers to men's greater participation in care.
Supports for men's greater participation in care
Policy level initiatives to support the greater participation of men in unpaid care have focused on parental leave policies, in part, because the birth of a child is a critical juncture where gendered inequalities in the division of paid and unpaid work, including care, become of major importance.
The Nordic countries stand out for their generosity in this policy area. Cross-national examinations of their policies and those of other European countries have showed a positive correlation between the 'father-friendliness' of leave provisions and the amount of time fathers spend caring for their children. In addition, a number of studies have shown that men who take parental leave are more likely than men who do not take leave to engage in care for children after the leave period.
However, evaluations of the impacts of parental leave policies on the distribution of unpaid care work are not overwhelmingly promising, showing that, while men take up leave that is ring-fenced solely for their use, women still use the vast majority of leave. This suggests that, while having many other benefits, parental leave policies that are able to be allocated between partners at their discretion, are compensated at a low rate and are relatively long in duration are a questionable tool for advancing greater participation of men in care activities and, in fact, may undermine gender equality. While offering a range of positive impacts, policies that do not mandate the equal sharing of leave between men and women can act to reinforce women's lesser participation in the labour force and cement gendered and traditional inequalities in the patterns of paid and unpaid work.
Evaluations of leave entitlements aimed at supporting the greater participation of men in care work have, however, highlighted the role of government policy in changing attitudes both generally and within workplaces in particular. Where implemented, such policies establish a norm validating men's participation in care and sanction as legitimate leave from work to care for children. Some researchers note that granting entitlements to leave for care purposes reduces the risks associated with the use of such leave and thus allows fathers to circumvent workplace cultures that deny men's family and care responsibilities. Policy initiatives limiting working hours have a similar effect.
Family-friendly working arrangements are a second common support that facilitates men's participation in care. Nevertheless, as long as these tend to be taken up mostly by women, such arrangements can also act to reinforce women's primary status as carers and secondary status in the labour market by lowering their labour market experience and time devoted to paid work. To the extent that these arrangements are gender neutral, men are also permitted to utilise them to assist with care responsibilities. However, labour market segregation (that, in turn, is perpetuated by women self-selecting into occupations where family-friendly working conditions are available) means that men are likely to be in better paying jobs characterised by work cultures that are unsympathetic to men's care responsibilities, meaning that men may feel less able to use such arrangements even when they are available.
Implications for New Zealand and conclusions
A key issue that arises when considering the literature on caring is the overall goal for men's participation in care. Supports for increasing such participation are dependent on whether the ultimate goal is equal opportunity or equal outcomes for men's care, or whether an increase in such care, independent of gender equality, is the desired goal.
Overall, the survey of the literature shows that there are a significant number of barriers to men's greater participation in care. These include policy settings that reinforce traditional divisions of paid and unpaid work, cultural norms and ideologies about appropriate roles for men and women, workplace cultures and practices, and the applications of family and criminal law, all of which undermine the ability, and possibly desires, of men to participate in care work. There are also a vast number of more subtle and minor barriers, which together form a mutually reinforcing set of conditions that act to impede men's participation in unpaid care.
To encourage men to participate more in care, a key focus of governments internationally has been on parental leave, with the Nordic countries implementing the most extensive provisions. The history of the progressive implementation of leave schemes to support men's participation in unpaid care shows that there was initially significant resistance in some Nordic countries to the notion of the 'daddy months', but that the implementation of the policy changed attitudes around the division of unpaid work.
The evaluations show that ring-fenced leave entitlements for men increase their participation in care, even when the leave period is over. However, even where leave entitlements are the most generous, when the division of such entitlements is left to individual couples, men take up only their sole entitlement to leave, and thus the overall division of care work remains largely unchanged. New Zealand's parental leave evaluation found a similar pattern, with women using the vast majority of entitlements, and both men and women reporting that it was more important for mothers to use the available leave.
The literature suggests that there is no silver bullet that will address men's lesser participation in care and that, even in the Nordic countries, entrenched gendered patterns of care remain. However, the literature also suggests efforts to remove such barriers to men's participation in care could reap rewards.
The literature also indicates that there is a role for policy in setting norms about men's involvement in care. A policy package that includes ring-fenced leave entitlements for men and incentives for sharing leave may further this change. However, the literature highlights the need for recognition of competing policy priorities, with the result that family-friendly legislation may further reinforce barriers to the participation of men in unpaid care.