The care gap: How can government get men to do more?

This interview of Gary Barker, President and CEO of Equimundo, a MenCare global co-coordinator, was originally posted on Apolitical.

The care economy raises a huge range of problems and opportunities for governments, but one issue that is more or less constant across the world is the uneven distribution of unpaid care work: this tends to fall far more on women.

If we could shift that burden so that it falls more evenly, the potential benefits are huge. Freeing up women to enter the workforce can turbocharge an economy. Sharing labour more evenly can avoid numerous physical and mental health concerns associated with overwork.

Central to policymakers’ response to this issue must be the question of how to assume more care responsibilities, freeing up women’s time to do other things. Gary Barker is co-founder of MenCare, a global campaign to promote men’s involvement as equitable, non-violent caregivers. As part of our care economy spotlight, Apolitical asked him what he had learned on the subject.

What are the benefits to engaging more men in care work?

The benefits to having men do more unpaid care work could fill up pages.

First, in terms of child development the benefits are clear of having an additional caregiver — and typically in most households that second caregiver is a man. Children thrive when there are more caregivers and fathers matter for being there, being present, providing hands-on care.

Second, there’s advantages for women. The key driver that keeps women from being in the workplace the way they’d like to be is the unfair, unequal, unpaid care burden on them. When men do an equal share of care work, women can be in the workforce.

Third, for men themselves the data is really clear as well: we’re better human beings when we’re connected to children — whether they are biological children or others in the household. We live longer, we’re healthier, our mental health is better, and we report that our relationships are better when we have the work conditions and the other social conditions that encourage us to be taking on more care work.

Fourth, where men do more of the hands on caregiving there’s all kinds of bigger stuff that happens on a macro level. Economies tend to look better because women are able to work. Rates of violence look better because we pass along a notion that men are not just about violence.

What’s an example of a risk involved in getting this wrong?

In no part of the world have we achieved full equality for women in all the indicators that matter, in terms of income and women’s participation in politics and leadership. We know that the home, and domestic activity, has been a source of identity, of life, of connection for women, even as it has been a driver of inequality.

So we’ve got to be careful as we talk about this that we’re not saying: “Oh, mothers’ caregiving doesn’t matter anymore, because we’re bringing dads and fathers and men to the rescue.” Instead, this is about saying: “how do we share this work equally?”

Through initiatives like Program P and MenCare+, you’ve a lot of experience training men and those around them to become more involved in care work. What have you learned about how to make that effective?

We have learned the importance of sort of a dual approach, both working with men directly and working with the institutions around men.

On the one hand, you provide men with hands-on, real time experiences that support them in becoming competent caregivers.

It’s still easy to fall back into a notion that women are the default caregivers — there’s still a belief that men just don’t know how to do this very well. That becomes a really uncomfortable but fixed status quo: it means women keep doing the care work, and men sit and say “Yeah well, I tried but I can’t do as good a job as her at it so we just let her do it.”

So in educating men you have to provide concrete, real time experiences that get men to feel competent as caregivers but also for others around men to see them as a competent caregiver.

The other aspect of the dual approach is changing the systems that interact with families and individuals to say “we expect men to do this — we believe in their competence as caregivers.”

That might mean encouraging men to be present during a prenatal visit, as we’re proposing in many parts of the world — of course when women want them present. Or it might mean pointing out to a workplace that they can’t offer unequal amounts of parental leave for fathers and mothers without reinforcing a status quo that says mothers do more.

Beyond educating men or training others to educate them, what are the most important interventions at the level of government policy that might encourage men to take up more care work?

I wish we had more effective policy levers. But definitely non transferable leave between parents, flexible work schedules, remote working possibilities, all these things we know have an effect when implemented well in middle income households and settings.

They need to come together with workplaces that say “we expect you to take the leave”, and I’d go as far as to say make some of the days of leave mandatory, or adopt the Swedish model where you get days you can use up until your child is older.

When it gets to lower income households and settings, we’ve got less experience of what works.

One question is whether there are ways we can connect this to cash transfer and poverty alleviation programs.

For example, could you adapt Brazil’s Bolsa Familia program, which reaches some 12 to 14 million households via a monthly transfer made to the mother on a debit card, to be an ally in engaging men to do more caregiving?

Sometimes with cash transfers, men say “Oh, she doesn’t need to go to work” because the family receives enough money to live on without the woman working. Could we do some nudging with those kinds of programs where we try to change that?

What similarities do you find in this issue when working across a very broad range of territories?

In most of the world there’s still the deeply held belief that the care of others is secondary work and that it’s the work of women and girls.

And the second class status and the second class attention that is given to unpaid care and child care is found nearly everywhere.

It is sometimes said that the goal is to reduce the amount of care work to be done to zero. But while the goal should be to reduce some of it — with a better stove or a better apparatus to do the cleaning at home — the goal is not to reduce it to zero. Because we are care junkies: as human beings we need a huge amount of it to be healthy and to grow and develop.

And that’s a global similarity: we don’t take care and caregiving seriously enough. It is what makes our households and our work lives possible and happy.