Traditional gender roles in work and parenting can be rebalanced if women leave more care giving responsibilities to their partners, argues Associate Professor Lyn Craig from UNSW's Social Policy Research Centre.
There's a lot to be said for leaving men holding the baby. Our analysis of gender roles in parenting and work found that little has changed for Australian women since they began moving into the workforce in large numbers half a century ago. Whatever paid work mothers of young children do, they still shoulder most of the housework and spend more than twice as much time with their children than fathers, despite the best efforts of many couples to share the load (and the joy) more equally.
But there was one notable exception. When mothers work ''non-standard'' hours, such as weekends or evenings, fathers take on much more significant parenting responsibilities. This may seem obvious, but it isn't. When both parents are at home with children, the default primary caring role continues to fall to mothers.
This finding offers a clue to how parents might finally make progress in rebalancing the gender equation and in reducing the extraordinary associated stress load on women.
Research shows fathers would value more time with their children and mothers are equally keen to reduce their time in the home, but entrenched structural barriers mean we have consistently failed to achieve the gender flexibility in parenting and work that has emerged elsewhere in the world.
Arguably, we are already busy enough as workers and as parents, let alone both. Why? First, because Australians on average work longer than their counterparts in all developed countries, with some 2 million now working 50 hours or more a week.
At the same time, parenting expectations have exploded. In the 1990s, neuroscience identified infancy and early childhood as critical periods for development, and early learning as laying the foundation for educational success. Now mothers, especially, are overloaded and stressed; nurturing their children's cognitive development with educational toys and extracurricular activities, organising social events, tending to their physical care, keeping house and fitting in paid work.
We analysed data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics time-use survey of 2006 to tease out associations between work-family balance strategies and parents' time in paid work, domestic work and childcare. In 62 per cent of households with children under 11 both parents were in paid work, but in almost 70 per cent of those the father worked full-time and the mother part-time, retaining most domestic and child-rearing responsibilities. Most parents felt constantly rushed, which isn't surprising.
If paid work and housework are combined, mothers spend an average of 70 hours a week working and fathers 69.3; but the division of work reflects traditional gender roles. Fathers spend an average of 6.4 hours a day in paid work (including holidays and weekends), compared with 2.8 hours for mothers, but only 1.6 hours alone with their children and two hours on housework, compared with a mother's average of 4.6 hours and four hours.
This doesn't mean fathering attitudes haven't changed. As Steve Biddulph wrote in yesterday's Herald, fathers are now much more likely to seek close emotional ties to their children. And parents have tried many combinations of work and child-rearing to achieve a better balance.
But not all are equally effective. For mothers, the ''solution'' of working from home translates into starting work later and finishing earlier, usually meaning a lower income and longer hours of domestic work and childcare. Almost no mother of young children in our study was working full-time hours and building a career from home.
It was only when parents ''tag teamed'' that fathers really came on board. If fathers care for children at home while mothers work weekends or nights, they take on more hands-on parenting responsibilities, rather than the usual ''fun'' role of play and recreation. In this arrangement alone some gender balance is emerging, albeit at the cost of a couple's time together.
The real barriers to change are workplace practices that offer little genuine flexibility in work hours.
But short of a workplace revolution, what can parents do to rebalance gender roles? A first step might be for mothers to get out of the house regularly. It's beneficial for fathers, babies and young children for men to build parenting skills and competence, which will only happen if they are left holding the baby.
This is an edited extract of Lyn Craig's presentation, co-written with Abigail Powell, to the Australian Social Policy Conference.
This opinion piece first appeared in The Age