Iker is 4 and half years old and, like every boy his age, he loves to play, to jump and to run. At around three in the afternoon, he gets picked up from daycare and then spends all evening playing at home, a beautiful house in the centre of the island of Ibiza, Spain. He then gets fed and has a nap. Before going to bed, he has a quick shower. Then his mum, Cristina Rojano, 28, arrives home from work, just in time to put him to bed. “I wish it was different,” she says. “Ideally, one of us wouldn’t need to work, and we could spend all day long taking care of him.” She is convinced that Joan, her partner, would probably be the one to stay home should they cease to be in need of two salaries. But this would place him in what is still perceived as a minority group: a man taking care of a child full or part-time.
Far away, in northern Europe, winds of change seem to be stirring. Tabita Baggeson, a 32-year-old Danish woman, explains: “If I had to be out for a few days, I would probably have to make a list describing with more detail the needs of my baby, Sylvester. As I stayed one year with him before going back to work, I know much more about his routine than my partner. But I hope to change this eventually.”
Spain and Denmark present very different ratios of gender equality. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), Denmark is the EU-27 country with the second highest equality index, 73.6, just below Sweden (where 100 represents total equality). Spain has the same index as the EU average, 54. In other words, in Spain a woman is worth a little more than half a man.
Yet what women want in regards to their family is not necessarily different than men. It is plausible that both genders wish to spend as much time as possible educating and taking care of a newborn; the only difference is that in most European countries it is still expected that women take up most of the responsibility of the house chores, including taking care of children. This use of time, an index that measures the allocation of time spent between economic, care, and social activities, tells us a lot about the differences between the way men and women live their lives. And for the matter, it is the second most unequal area in the European Union, only after the power index. Again, Spain loses the battle: its time index comes in at a poor 33.8, whereas in Denmark it is 64,9. This means that Spanish women are spending more time cleaning or take care of their children, while their men are doing more sporting or cultural activities. In Denmark there is far more balance and equality between genders.
How do men feel?
However, there is still hope for gender equality. Many men throughout Europe are voicing their frustrations and demanding more time with their children.
“There is special bond with the mother and her baby through nourishment,” Juan Muñoz, 32, from Madrid says, “I find it unfair because us men are not part of this picture, breastfeeding is discriminatory.” When his father called to see how his grandchildren were sleeping, he couldn’t answer, he explains, because he had been sleeping when the newborn demanded to be fed, as he did every night. Him waking up would not help his wife in any way, he says. The role of nature is indisputable. Men claim they want to spend more time with their children, but they are not allowed to do so. And women don’t necessarily find their cries for help fair.
“Neither time nor society is going to change that women are the ones to get pregnant and who breastfeed, but this fact should not necessarily be used to justify why women are still largely responsible for household and care activities”, says Cristina Álvarez Pascual, research trainee at the EIGE. “Breastfeeding is only a part of it, and it happens only in the beginning. We need to change the perception that everything is in favour of women”, the researcher adds.
Parental leaves and gender equality
Public opinion in the European Union is also still very conservative and traditional: 36% of Europeans are opposed to the idea of men taking care of children while 70% believe that women should prioritise their family over their career, according to the 2009 Eurobarometer poll.
In this area, parental paid leaves play a pivotal role. Paco Abril, from the Association for Equal Men of Catalonia claims that ideally both women and men should have a paid leave of the same length. For Abril, having equal parental leaves would mean that women would not be “punished” for taking some time off work, as men would have the exact same benefit. A recent study from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows that policies that provide and encourage greater parity between paternity and maternity leave can support a more rapid return to work among mothers and help shift underlying gender inequality. “I had to put my career in stand-by,” recalls Baggeson. “Now, if I had another baby I would want my partner to be the one to stay home with him so that this wouldn’t happen again.” She returned to her TV production job position after one year (the length of the maternity leave in Denmark) after taking care of her one and a half year old.
It’s probably easier for children to fall back into a perpetuation of established gender roles once they are adults.
Whenever the leave is not paid, the woman will be the one making use of it, thus perpetuating the career break. In Spain, for example, where women can chose to give away 10 weeks of their 16 week-long maternity leave to their partner, only 2% chose to do so. The main reason, according to Álvarez Pascual, is that society has the perception that children are mainly a female responsibility. And the two weeks given to men to “help” the mother, like in Spain and Denmark, are not helping bridging the gap, hence not allowing men to take truly part in raising their children.
One family, one model.
There is hope!
Muñoz, the father from Madrid, was once the outlier in the Spanish society. He went from spending three days in a row taking care full-time of his now four-year-old daughter (he was a flight attendant; he met his wife while she was also on-duty) to spending only a few hours a day, whenever he is not busy with his own business.
“I asked my wife: ‘are you willing to give it all in order to raise our children, while I focus on my business?’ She said yes.” Before he started his own company, they used to do everything together. He would clean, cook and take care of the children as much as his wife, Paloma, 35. Not anymore. “If the baby needs to get changed, she is the one in charge,” he explains, “it is not my responsibility anymore; I’m too busy.” He doesn’t “feel guilty” though, because even though he offers less of his time to the children, he is now able to give them a “better life.” A cleaning lady, a luxury they weren’t able to afford before, does the household work. “Otherwise, it would be impossible. I truly admire these women that are able to have a full-time job, that have children and on top of that, are responsible of housework,” he says. “I cook on the weekends. It relaxes me. But, there is such a background story in putting a hot plate on the table… this is why she is in charge of us having a healthy diet,” explains Muñoz. Indeed, as the IMF report puts it, while men tend to engage in household work that takes place when they are not working – for instance weekends – women mostly assume responsibility for routine household work that needs to be conducted irrespective of other work pressures. Compared to the time when his daughter was born, and especially now that they have a new baby in the family, Juan’s role in the house changed. He does very little now. To him, his role now is that of providing higher economic standards for the whole family.
But this is not ideal either, claims Abril, from the Equal Men Association. “It’s not only a matter of equality, it’s a matter of being independent: men need to learn how to iron and cook as much as women if they want to be truly self-sufficient.” And, without an example at home, “it’s probably easier for children to fall back into a perpetuation of established gender roles once they are adults”, he adds.
EU policy has tried to close this gap, largely with little success. The complexity of working with so many different interests in each country and an implementation that is being hindered by budget cuts and the economic crisis has put gender equality issues off the agenda. In Spain, for example, the Government just pushed back a law that had been promised since 2009 that would extend paternal leaves from two weeks to one month, claiming that it was too expensive. To Cristina Álvarez, the researcher, this is just “an excuse.” There is still hope though: two European countries, Iceland and Norway, have introduced mandatory paternity leave.
Equality in household will only come when both partners are considered as having the same choices after the birth of a child. And, possibly too, when men decide to take care of them. “There’ll always exist the man that sits down on the couch with a beer in his hand watching the football game while his wife is busy cleaning,” Juan reflects, “but this is definitely not me.”
Teaser picture: Audrey Xavier Brulu/ Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)