Fatherhood and gender equality: the forgotten connection

At the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen this May, attended by 5,500 people, there were constant references to fatherhood. In the opening plenary session alone there were five mentions of it.

Fatherhood was present – invisibly – in another way, illustrated by this tweet during my own presentation:

Great talk from @DuncanFisher on ‘collaborative breeding’. Happy my husband is looking after our 3 kids so I can attend #wd2016. [@AliceKerrWilson]

Just as men have been able to run the world while women look after their children, so some women are now leading the way towards equality while men care for their children.

But the fatherhood theme was not developed nor discussed at the conference in any significant way. There was a session on “caring men” attended by about 40 (enthusiastic!) people, but it hardly compared to the session on “powerful men” that attracted between 2000 and 3000 people, as far as I could count!

I attended the “powerful men” session. I had a question that was not asked. When these men became powerful, who was responsible for the care of their children? Did they share the care or did they sub-contract the care to women? For me there is a critical question about power and influence: is it conditional on sub-contracting care to lower paid women?

One could ask the same question of powerful women worldwide. How did they manage the balance? Did they sub-contract to lower-paid women, or did they do all the caring themselves, or did they split it with family members, men included?

The answers to these questions, and how powerful men and women compare, would tell us much about the state of gender equality the world over, in developed and developing economies alike.

I do not want to propose that every individual family should choose to share care between women and men according to a particular formula. The diversity of human parenting is, according to anthropologists, a key strength of ours, and the best way to care for children is a negotiation between women and men. But it becomes a problem if this negotiation is prevented by an imposed fait accompli or if there are external obstacles to sharing – both of these problems are common the world over.

One of the powerful men, when asked what men can do for women and girls, said being a good father was not enough: you had to campaign against patriarchy, to be an “anti-patriarch”. I certainly personally can tick this box, but I challenge this view nevertheless. Suppose that a father and mother agree that the father should do 50% or more of the care of his children in order to support the career of the mother, and they did this in the face of multiple obstacles? I would argue that both these mothers and fathers are doing their bit for women and girls and I would salute them for it.

Five years ago, the UN commissioned a report on fathers and gender equality: Men in Families and Family Policy in a Changing World (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2011). It concluded:

Despite an increasing worldwide focus on the role of men in families and burgeoning research documenting men’s contribution to gender equality, the importance of their engagement for work-family balance, and the numerous positive paternal contributions to children’s development, policy-makers have been slow to recognize the need for effective public policy that is supportive of men’s involvement in their families.

I believe the neglect of these issues is hardly any different five years later.

The biology of fatherhood – the male caring instinct

Fundamental to understanding the connection between fatherhood and equality is biology.

Bonding with a baby, particularly skin-to-skin, triggers love hormones in men as it does in women. After this “falling in love” process, the father is more likely to be drawn in to practise care more regularly because he has discovered what intimate caring is like. His plastic brain changes permanently and he responds differently to babies and children for the rest of his life. A bonded father experiences a decrease in testosterone in response to a crying baby, priming him for his role as comforter. An unbonded father, particularly one with experience of the trauma of violence, such as in a war, responds in a different way – testosterone and aggression are more likely to increase. Babies are not safe if that happens – a shaken baby is sometimes the consequence.

And we also now know from research that fathers who care for babies are more likely to look after their children more later in life. There is, for example, a correlation between the amount of leave from work a father takes to look after a pre-school child and the extent to which he takes days off work later when his child is sick, a key measure of caring responsibility.

These biological and neurobiological changes are consistent with understandings from anthropology – that human parenting is a highly collaborative exercise. Men have played such a significant role in caring for babies and children throughout human history – and their babies’ lives have depended on it – that men have evolved exceptional innate caring skills.

But there is one key factor about men’s biology that is vital to understanding the gender equality dimension of fatherhood: the caring instincts of men can be switched on by proximity to a pregnant woman and/or a baby, but they can also remain inactive if a separation between father and baby is managed, as it so often is. For women it is different – the baby inside them inevitably activates the full range of hormonal and neurobiological changes that take place during pregnancy and parenthood.

I believe that the way we manage father-child bonding is a key issue in the global campaign for gender equality.

Patriarchy and the management of father-child separation

I believe that early paternal separation is a characteristic of patriarchy. I mean by patriarchy a system of beliefs and institutional arrangements that drive men and women in different directions, leaving women with less power and money than men. By this definition, I see the early separation of fathers and babies as the influence of patriarchy. It sets in motion a sequence of events that leaves women alone carrying the responsibility for caring for babies and children and I believe this then extends further – to women becoming mainly responsible for all caring of all kinds.

At the Women Deliver conference there were many references to “kangaroo mother care”. I heard only one person challenge this and propose it be called “kangaroo care” on account of the fact that fathers can also do it and, I would argue, need to do it. Defining it as a female activity – even if it is, by definition, for kangaroos! – is an influence of patriarchal thinking.

While kangaroo care was being framed as a maternal activity in Copenhagen, this entertaining video of kangaroo father care has been watched by nearly 10 million people. This video is a massive challenge to patriarchy!


A father and son with premature twins in a Swedish hospital.

I recently visited a USAID funded maternity hospital where the newborn babies of unwell mothers are put into cots and placed in a room guarded by nurses. The fathers wander up and down anxiously outside like lost souls, peering through the window to see if they can work out which cot contains their treasure. Local norms align with global finance to perpetuate a patriarchal pattern.

mamThe proliferation of maternal health apps that engage only with mothers, despite the evidence that family inclusive e-health works better, is another example of how local cultures and global finance unite to sustain patriarchal patterns.

But I see the influence of patriarchy going even further. Why have the new discoveries about fatherhood from biology, neuroscience and anthropology not spread like wildfire through the maternal and newborn health sector to transform our understanding of human parenting and release a new and huge resource for child health and wellbeing? What is inhibiting the spread of this valuable new knowledge?

A proposal: caring men on the plenary stage at the next Women Deliver conference

While I presented at the Caring Men workshop at Women Deliver in Copenhagen, I asked the audience if they would join me in proposing that next year at Women Deliver, active fatherhood should be discussed on the plenary stage. There was a cheer.

So here are proposals for Women Deliver 2017 – the telling of five stories that challenge patriarchy to its core.

  • Men in all their diversity who have found joy and fulfilment in caring for babies and children and how the mother of their children has helped them to do this (because active fatherhood is not an individual choice but a partnership between women and men).
  • Women who are achieving because their partner is sharing the responsibility of caring for children with them and what this feels like for both (the joys and the difficulties).
  • Men who have achieved influence at the same time as sharing equally the responsibilities of raising their children. What arrangements made it possible for them and the mothers of their children to achieve this?
  • The story of men and women who work with fathers who are neglectful and violent and how these fathers can be supported to change.

And, because I believe a foundation for patriarchal thinking is the idea that men do not have innate caring instincts, I would like to propose the telling of the story of fathers’ hormones and neurobiology.

Let us challenge patriarchal thinking at its foundation and open up a new world of opportunities – for women, for men and for children.

  • Great. I really like the way you’ve framed this. The only bit I wasn’t sure about was this: ‘That’s why in my country, UK, so many of the cases of shaken baby syndrome are inflicted by men who have mistakenly been left in the care of babies without any prior opportunity to adapt.’ This seems to imply that men are instinctively violent towards babies/children unless they have bonded with a baby at some point (most likely through being a father). Is it really as stark as this?

    • DuncanFisher

      Hi Jeremy, Thanks! I have amended the point because you are right. There is an increased RISK of shaken baby syndrome with an unbonded father – most unbonded fathers do not end up killing their babies!