Deborah Orr: Feminism's next challenge: to take men out of the workplace and put them in the playgroup

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The Independent Online

It might be considered a little odd that Harriet Harman, the Minister for Women, was chosen to relaunch a government-sponsored charity that exists to lobby for men. Yet when the campaigning group Fathers' Direct opted to restyle itself more grandly as The Fatherhood Institute, it was Harman, not, say, Ed Balls, the minister for children, schools and families, who cut the ribbon round the new stationery.

The Fatherhood Institute, after all, believes that in many areas only lip-service is paid to the parenting needs of men. It points out that fathers are institutionally discriminated against in a thousand tiny ways, every day, from being obliged to walk into rooms signed "mother and baby changing" or, even more intimidatingly, styled "mother and baby group". It asserts, fairly gently, it has to be admitted, that when it comes to taking part in family life, men are discriminated against all the time, to the detriment of their children.

This may seem like a funny set of ideas for a woman so ardently feminist that she's nicknamed Harriet Harperson to subscribe to. Some of this rhetoric, after all, could be heard just as comfortably falling from the lips of the militants at Fathers 4 Justice, who despise what they see as a sinister bias towards women in matters of parenting questioning the conventional idea that a small child might be better off staying mainly with its mother after a break-up (as most women prefer it), and seeing any feminist assertion as a declaration of misandry.

But that would be to misunderstand the aims of the Fatherhood Institute, which can be described as tending more towards gender blindness than gender war. The Fatherhood Institute wishes to drag British dads into the 21st century, by orchestrating a change in the way men see themselves. It offers a positive and supportive response to the gains of feminism, rather than a conservative and punitive one. It is not afraid to admit, as women sometimes are, that the advances gained by females in the workplace over the past 35 years may have brought much-needed liberation, but have put a worrying squeeze on the amount of time a child spends in the bosom of its family.

It is not afraid to admit this because it does not offer a solution whereby women are placed back in their breeding boxes, then nailed into them. It is keen to highlight research that consistently reports that half of working men would prefer to work more flexibly and become more involved with their children, and presses hard for maternity and paternity rights to be equal.

The extent to which such a fortuitous mind-shift would chime with the aims of feminism is huge. Even for the most successful and talented women, career-breaks or even flexible working for a limited period damage future employment prospects. It's a large part of why the gender pay gap, despite entrenched legislation against workplace inequality, still runs at 17 per cent between men and women working full-time.

If the responsibility for bringing up small children was taken up by men as seriously as it was by women, all this would change. Women would be discriminated against less in the workplace simply because they would be no more likely than men to put their families before their employment prospects. Both genders would be considered likely, for a period of their lives, to take their foot off the work pedal, and pick their kids up from nursery for a trip to the park.

The catch, of course, is that men are already afraid of damaging their employment prospects by sticking their necks out for their families in the way that women still do. Half of men may say they would like to work flexibly, but women are 63 per cent more likely actually to do so. And that's not just in Britain: even in those European countries where men's paternity rights are far more advanced than ours, take-up is small. Iceland is way out in front of everyone else, with 16 per cent of eligible men taking up their right to work flexibly. Next is Finland, with just 3 per cent.

Some of this low take-up can be explained by recourse to the dreaded biological model, which decrees that women simply want to look after their young children much more than men do. But what the biological model never explains is where post-natal depression figures in the nurturing imperative, or why women with small children report feelings of loneliness or isolation. It really does make sense, most couples would agree, for mothers and fathers to share the care of children, for the sake of everyone's mental health. But that doesn't make it happen.

So are young men just lying when they say that they wish to care for their babies more, and are old men just lying when they say that their great regret in life is not having been able to spend time with their children when they were small? Maybe lying is a little strong. No one actually lies, after all, when they tell the researcher that they really want to learn a musical instrument. They just don't ever do it.

Partly, it's just that since the pay gap does exist, it makes more sense for the woman to work less, because the man earns more. Mostly, when men take time off to look after a baby, it's because they are the lower earner. Since the pay gap is smaller among young people and in some sectors even reversed maybe that will gradually change. But I'm not that optimistic.

A report by Jean Edelstein, for the think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, suggested late last year that "feminism has gone soft". She contended that work-life balance and gender-related pay gaps had been mistakenly focused on by feminists at the expense of "hard" feminist issues such as sexual violence and the subjugation of women.

This had happened, she said, because such issues "are violent and frightening ... seem systematic and insurmountable, and, above all, are not usually a part of the daily lives of middle-class women..." I don't think she's wrong. It is frightening to think about the increasing number of women who are raped in Britain, and the decreasing number of rapes that are prosecuted. It is depressing to consider that through the years of feminism, there has been little let-up in the amount of domestic violence that women bear, but a swing away from the provision of safe places for women to go.

But I think things are worse than Edelstein herself understands. It seems to me that all the issues she characterises as "soft" are actually feminist aims that tend to advance the economy, increasing the skills pool, expanding the workforce, bringing more disposable income into the marketplace, forcing a seismic leap in the price of family homes, providing cheap labour (mothers in part-time work being the least well-paid of all). Perhaps it was market forces that changed women's lives as much as feminist campaigns. And perhaps it's those same forces that make it harder to change the lives of men.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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