Building a father-friendly world

Gender equality for dads

Emma WatsonOriginally published in the Herald newspaper

I WAS never much of a Harry Potter fan, but I believe Emma Watson’s first major speech as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador was more powerful than any spell she cast as Hermione Granger.

The 24-year-old actor this week inspired hundreds of thousands of us men and boys to pledge to fight gender inequality in the HeForShe campaign and, perhaps of greatest significance, she showed it was as much about our liberation as women’s. [Watch the full speech here]

“Gender equality is your issue too,” she told the men in the packed chamber at UN headquarters. “I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society despite my needing his presence, as a child, as much as my mother’s.

“I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help, for fear it would make them less of a man. In fact, in the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 and 49, eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease … We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are.”

Thank you, Emma Watson. It’s an uncomfortable truth, dwarfed by the grievous inequality women across the world still face in business and public life, but true nonetheless. And, as with Ms Watson’s father, this is nowhere more destructive than in our essential role as parents.

CARDBOARD CUT-OUTS

Let’s ignore the tedious TV stereotypes casting dads either as vicious wife-beaters or inept clowns like Homer Simpson. Most of us love our kids and partners as passionately as life itself but are weary of the humdrum sexism of the “mother and toddler group” (what about fathers?) or the patronising midwife.

A dad I met last week was politely asked to leave the ante-natal class he was attending with his disabled wife. In my support role for the charity Fathers Network Scotland, I hear such stories all the time.

“It scares me that we still live in a situation where people assume parenting is mother’s work,” said 31-year-old Chris Turnbull, who recently set up Barrhead Men and Toddlers group as a remedy, one that is mirrored in similar groups across Scotland.

For the country’s estimated 13,000 single fathers, the outcome of anti-male prejudice can be much harder to reverse. In the past year, the charity One Parent Families Scotland intervened in 11 cases to reunite children in care with fathers who had been overlooked as carers when their mothers proved unable to parent them.

“It’s not about dads, this is about improving things for the children,” says Neil McIntosh, manager of the charity’s children and fathers service. “Research shows that if a child has access to both parents the outcomes are more positive.”

WIN-WIN

The good news is that dads have changed radically in recent decades. Once a rarity at the birth of our children, the vast majority of us are now present in the delivery room and slowly taking our places at the school gates, in toddler groups and early years education.

It’s not happening fast enough, but gender stereotypes are fading as we work with employers and policy makers.

The Scottish Government is pushing for explicitly “dad-friendly” policies and services at the heart of its parenting policy, backed last May by a comprehensive report by the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee.

Our statutory two-week paternity leave is also to be hugely expanded next April by shared parental leave legislation, which will give mums and dads the choice of how to split their 50 weeks between them.

“Other than breast-feeding, I’ve yet to find something that dads aren’t able to do,” says Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire and one of the architects of the legislation.

Like Emma Watson, she believes in a win-win strategy: that when men are free to make real choices, things will change for women as a natural consequence.

“You want more equality in the workplace? Get more equality in the home.”

Amen to that.

This article was originally published in the Herald Newspaper. To sign the HeForShe declaration, go to www.heforshe.org