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School of Social Sciences

Dads and data

A project at The University of Manchester is gathering evidence for changes to parental leave, childcare and pay that would better enable fathers to be involved in the care of their children.

Dr Helen Norman a Research Fellow in the University’s School of Social Sciences is leading the project, which uses data analysis as a window into a real and emotionally resonant issue for many families.

“It’s an ESRC-funded [Economic and Social Research Council] project that’s exploring what makes fathers involved in their children’s care as the children age from nine months to seven years old,” says Helen. “We’re looking at what shapes fathers’ involvement in terms of employment, their attitudes, what their partner does, and socio-demographics.”

The project analyses complex statistics and other data, with the project team having derived measures of fathers’ ‘involvement’ in childcare. Although the research is complex and data-driven, the picture it paints is of very familiar caring tasks and how they’re shared within families. 

Defining 'involvement'

“We’re defining fathers’ involvement as the nurturing tasks involved in the taking care of children,” says Helen. “The project has mainly used a longitudinal survey called the Millennium Cohort Study. Our variables measure what fathers do with their children, like looking after them on their own, changing their nappies when they’re babies and taking them to the park when they’re older. We use statistical techniques to combine all these variables together to create overall, summary measures of ‘paternal involvement’. We’ve also done some interviews with fathers to help us refine these measures. We asked dads if the measures made sense, and we also asked what being an involved father meant to them.

“What we’re finding is that in the early years, when children are nine months and three years old, fathers’ employment hours have an important effect on how involved they are at home. If the dad is working standard full-time hours of between 30 and 40 a week, they’re more likely to share childcare equally with the mother during these early years compared to if they work very long full-time hours. The hours their partners work are also really important – if the mother works full time when the child is nine months and three years old, the father is also more likely to be involved at these times.

"Our analysis also shows that, in some cases, the employment hours of the mother have an even stronger influence on the probability of dads being involved than the dad’s own employment hours – which is interesting. This suggests that supporting the mother back into employment and ensuring the father does not work long hours during the early years of parenthood is important for fostering fathers’ involvement in childcare. 

Dad kissing daughter

Father involvement has been shown to have a positive effect on fathers' own wellbeing.

“We also find that if a dad is sharing childcare in the first year of the child’s life, he’s more likely to be involved when the child is aged three, five and seven. That suggests that providing the conditions for dads to be involved in the first year is important because that affects how involved he is as the child gets older.

"We also find that if the dads take leave immediately after the birth, they’re more likely to be involved when the child is aged three, five and seven. If he has more egalitarian gender role attitudes – by agreeing that children don’t suffer if the mother returns to work full time - he’s more likely to be involved when the child is nine months old. Dads are more likely to be involved if they’re more highly educated. They’re also more likely to be involved if they have a boy rather than a girl and that effect seems to get stronger as the child gets older.”

Does Shared Parental Leave help?

Policy, says Helen, is particularly important in fostering the conditions for fathers’ involvement. This means in particular; limits to long hours of work, supporting mothers back into employment and providing conditions for dads to be involved during the first year of parenthood through well paid parental leave and flexible working. Helen told us that the introduction of Shared Parental Leave in 2015 has somewhat improved the conditions for fathers’ involvement but there is still work to be done:

“Shared parental leave is a step in the right direction because it’s recognising the importance of the father’s role but take-up’s low because of the way it’s been designed. 

“...providing the conditions for dads to be involved in the first year is important because that affects how involved he is as the child gets older.”

“It’s not very well paid so many fathers can’t afford to take time off; it’s reliant on the mother giving up a portion of her maternity leave and lots of mothers don’t want to do that; and also it’s framed in gender-neutral terms as ‘Shared Parental Leave’, which means it is not an individual father’s right to take it. When policies are framed in that way – so that either the mother or the father can take it – it’s often the mother who takes it up in practice. So, although it’s a step in the right direction, take-up is low, especially if you compare it to the Nordic countries where fathers have an individual right to well-paid parental leave, which has led to a much higher percentage of around 80%+ fathers taking it up.

“Legally, fathers are allowed to request Shared Parental Leave in the UK but it’s a really complex policy. The technical guide from the government that accompanies it is 66 pages long! A lot of companies don’t really know how to implement it.

Recommendations to government

“Attitudes towards gender roles are becoming more egalitarian but there’s still a widespread belief that dads should provide an income for their families, and very young children suffer if their mothers return to work full time. I know from other research with employers – conducted by Working Families - that men who try to take up leave in workplaces are often met with resistance from colleagues or managers because it’s not seen as the ‘norm’. So I think attitudes in some workplaces can be a hindrance as well.”

Based on their findings, Helen’s research team have made recommendations to the Women and Equalities Select Committee:

“The government has launched a ‘Fathers and the Workplace’ inquiry and invited calls for evidence. We submitted evidence which has been published – and is available to download from our project website. Our policy recommendations included reforming parental leave so that it’s an individual father’s right that is properly paid – equivalent to at least 80% or 90% of earnings.  It is also important to improve access to flexible working for men because women are still more likely to request and take up flexible working, particularly in the form of part-time work.

"Enabling women to go back to work full time is important and this is where affordable, flexible, good quality childcare is key, as is stepping up efforts to address the gender pay gap. It tends to be seen as financial logic for the lower earner – usually women - in two-parent households to reduce their working hours or drop out of employment to take primary responsibility for childcare.

“Other research has shown father involvement has a positive effect on the child’s wellbeing and development, and the father’s own wellbeing. Our own project explores whether paternal involvement in the first year of the child’s life affects the stability of the relationship between the mother and father over the longer term. Our research shows that when the father looks after the child on his own – without the presence of the mother – at least a few times in a week, the parental relationship is less likely to break down up until the child is at least age seven.”

Helen’s current research focuses on two-parent, mother/father households but she plans to extend it to analyse data from different family types. A follow-on project with Dr Emma Banister from the Alliance Manchester Business School will explore how more ‘fragile fathers’ (eg young, step, gay, non-resident and divorced/separated fathers) negotiate work and care.

What do you think? Are you a parent or do you have an opinion on father involvement? Join the conversation - tweet us at @OfficialUoM