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Still the Odd Man Out

Interview with Katharina Micheel
Copyright: photobac

Population Europe: Most European countries are facing low birth rates. What role do fathers play in this?


Katharina Micheel: One crucial development is the increasing labour market participation of women. That puts into question the traditional gender arrangements. And it’s linked to the questions of gender equality and gender equity. The role of fathers has changed from solely a supporter to a co-nurturer, yet there is ambivalence in most countries because, nevertheless, traditional attitudes are still common.

Especially in traditionally oriented societies like Poland or Western Germany a growing share of individuals - women as well as men - have no desire to have children or are postponing fertility. But still the desire to have children is more common among women than men. For men this often only develops once they’re in a stable relationship, and the decision of whether or not to have children becomes even more difficult for them when they are expected to be active fathers. In this case men are confronted with a problem that women have been dealing with for a long time: balancing work and family life.

PE: Did you find any indicators suggesting that fathers would like to become more active in the family?


KM: All in all little is known about whether men wish to be more active in their families. But from Germany we know that the share of active fathers is increasing, especially since the implementation of the new parental allowance, the so-called “Elterngeld”. One out of four fathers of children born in 2010 claimed paternal leave, but this number has to be put in the right context because still 75% of these fathers take only the minimum leave. At the same time 96% of women claim parental leave - so there is clearly a gender gap.

Looking at gender role attitudes in general, certainly a modernisation can be observed over the last decades. But the extent of this differs between countries. Overall, traditional attitudes are losing grounds when it comes to general statements like:  “A child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works”. But considering everyday life, with the birth of the first child many couples are likely to fall into the traditional division of duties.

PE: What is stopping the fathers?


KM: I think it’s a mixture of reasons. Paid work is, of course, one of the central arguments that is always brought forward when it comes to the question of why men are not more deeply involved in family and household. In the majority of cases, men are the ones who earn more money. So when just taking into account a financial point of view, it might seem plausible to argue this way.

But aside from careers and the labour market we also have to keep in mind the normative dimensions. In societies or companies where only a few men are involved fathers and take paternal leave, even if they’re no longer seen as  “newcomers” they still are the “odd men out”. Their role is highly undefined and they may be seen as having joined the women’s world when taking paternal leave. Additionally parenthood is sometimes perceived as not having equal value to paid work.

But not only in peer groups and companies can the role of fathers be considered undefined; this happens in families, as well. When a couple becomes a triangle, a lot of issues have to be discussed. An everyday life has to be created – we can call it “doing family”, as was coined by researchers in Munich. It’s a whole new task: a man might be insecure or anxious about fatherhood. Or the mother is a so-called “gatekeeper” who tries to keep the father from their children, so she actually doesn’t want the man to be involved in family life. That happens as well.

PE: Who could be the agents of change?


KM:Clearly the individuals could make the change happen by negotiating a different and more egalitarian share of duties and tasks. But this is not likely to happen if they feel that the obstacles are too great. Here it seems to be important to create a more family-friendly environment. Employers can play a role because both men and women are facing problems to balance work and family life. They could provide more flexible possibilities to make combining work and family life more attractive. Additionally, of course, policy measures like adequate childcare facilities can help to break barriers. And increasing support for fathers involved in childcare is one central dimension. We know that existing structures can only be overcome in the long run. But empirical studies show that pro-egalitarian measures also have an effect eventually.

Whether and to what degree men are active fathers is also defined by the feedback they get. If they anticipate that they will receive a lot of negative feedback and consequences as active fathers that is clearly a barrier. If nobody in the environment is encouraging them to be an active father, they are most likely not going to be one.

PE: Finland seems to be the big exception, what is different there and how could other countries learn from this?


KM: Finland demonstrates by far the most egalitarian gender role attitudes and a considerable modernisation over the last decades.  A lot has changed in the minds of the individuals. Only around 11% of men agreed to the statement mentioned before, that a child is likely to suffer if the mother works. Surprisingly, the share of men that agree with the statement is even lower than the share of women! So we have another exception here. Notably Finland, France and Eastern Germany, the least traditional societies, provide high levels of institutional childcare. This shows again that the problem of balancing work and family life seems to play a crucial role. On the normative level parents there might feel less pressure when, for example, making use of public childcare, while in other societies parents might feel the need to justify why they are not staying at home with their children. This is still very common, for example, in Western Germany and Poland. So it’s important to release parents from this pressure and to decrease the power of the problem to balance work and family life. Those are among the central issues that we are facing when we debate low birth rates and how to raise them.

PE: Could you make a prediction as to which European country is most likely to see more active fathers in the near future?


KM: It is difficult to make such a prediction, but I think a lot of changes are happening in Germany. And if we are able to deconstruct the barriers and make it more attractive to be an active father, Germany has the chance of having more active and involved fathers in the future.

Katharina Micheel (née Becker) is research associate at the Federal Institute for Population Research, Germany. Together with Norbert Schneider she contributed the chapter Fatherhood in times of gender transformation - European perspectives" to the book "Fatherhood in Late Modernity" (edited by Mechtild Oechsle, Ursula Müller and Sabine Hess).

Interview: Isabel Robles Salgado / Population Europe