In our recent article in Perspectives on Politics, we looked at women’s stalled progress toward full equality with men and saw how women’s traditional responsibility for carework creates formidable obstacles. We can implore women to “lean in,” but who’s going to stay home with a sick kid? Usually, it’s mom. Many commentators argue this is simply the result of women’s choices and therefore isn’t really a problem. But this is far too simplistic. Our choices are shaped by the options available and by the social forces that have influenced what we come to desire in the first place.
To begin with, there are ideological pressures. In our society, women are encouraged to prioritize children over career in ways that men are not. Meanwhile, fathers find their parenting skills and commitments undervalued and their role as breadwinners assumed. For example, the Census Bureau counts mothers as the “designated parent,” and codes time children spend with their father as time spent in “childcare.” Parental leave policies often stipulate that leave must be taken by “the primary caregiver,” literally legislating against equally-shared parenting. Data show that men who decide to do more childcare work, especially full-time, do not find much support for their choice. Meanwhile, only 16 percent of respondents in a 2012 Pew survey think that full-time working mothers are ideal for young children. The choices that feel right to men and women are shaped by these ideological forces. Acknowledging this does not make those feelings less real or less legitimate (as mothers ourselves, we can testify to this!) but it does show us how they actually come to be.
Material conditions also play a role. Mothers are less likely than men or than women without children to be hired or promoted. For women who are able to take time off after the arrival of children, they earn dramatically less when they return to work—20-30 percent less annually. And many mothers do not in fact “opt out” of paid work but rather find themselves pushed out of jobs they would otherwise like to keep, ending up in dead-end jobs with less opportunity for advancement. These material realities end up reinforcing women’s traditional responsibility for carework. For example, school schedules are generally organized around the idea that there is a full-time caregiver at home. Then there’s the fact that a woman is likely to earn less than her male spouse. Families often make a very logical choice for the mother (but not the father) to pull back at work, regardless of what their ideal arrangement might be. Many of these dynamics also apply in same-sex couples, as the lower-paid partner takes on traditionally “feminine” tasks.
The results of these choices have been pretty dismal for women and for the possibility of a genuinely democratic society. Long after formal equality was declared, women are still far less likely than men to hold positions of authority throughout the decision-making centers of society (e.g., workplaces, the media, and the formal institutions of government). The overall result is that women are not participating as fully as men in shaping the landscape in which both genders are making decisions about work and family. This reinforces the original dynamics that led to unequal power in the first place.
To be clear, this does not mean that in an ideal society all women would engage in paid labor rather than work full-time raising children. But in a truly equal society, desires about work and family would be distributed more evenly across the genders, and women would participate equally as peers with men in all social spheres. But how to achieve that goal? Given the array of forces at work here, it can often “make sense” to choose in ways that maintain women’s inequality. In our work, we wanted to think of how to make gender equality the easier path to choose.
How can public policy structure the environment so that gender equality makes sense to all of us? One way to do this is to create “nudges” that make it easier to make choices that support equality. The idea here is that in every situation there is a default option. Right now, the default—created and reinforced by myriad policies and structures in our society—is for women to specialize in carework and men to specialize in paid work.
What would nudges in the other direction—toward equality—look like? We must design and implement family policies with gender equality in mind. For example, if there is unpaid/low paid leave or if leave is allotted to a family rather than individuals, the result is that only women take family leave, maintaining the traditional gender division of labor. But, in Sweden, paid “nontransferable family leave” (in which a certain proportion of leave is reserved for each parent separately) has resulted in the vast majority of men taking family leave.
The benefits extend far beyond infants’ relationship with their father. Early research shows that men continue their increased participation in carework after that initial leave period. The policy has also helped increase women’s participation in paid employment, which allows individual women greater say in their own futures and is a necessary condition for having more women in leadership positions in business, politics and civil society.
Experiments with paid leave programs in NJ have shown how inexpensive such policies can be—nowhere near the overall price tag for this year’s single day of World’s Best Dad tchotchkes. So let’s celebrate Dad by celebrating all parents — and giving our children, the future moms and dads, more freedom to make their own choices about work and family.