Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Why don’t men care?

Caregiving is neither a male nor female responsibility - it’s what helps to make us all human. It’s time we reshaped society and social norms to make equality possible. 

Village chief in Burundi playing with his child as part of a community discussion about the role of men in caring for children. Credit: Gary Barker/Promundo. All rights reserved.

In 1999, while conducting interviews with young men involved in gangs in Chicago, I met Tony. The son of immigrants from Mexico, Tony had spent time in prison for gang activity. The tattoos on his face marked him as a gang member, and he was undergoing a painful process of laser surgery to have them removed because of the harassment he faced from police, former gang members and rival gangs.

Tony was bitter, both at the gang members who didn’t end up in prison and at a world that treated him like a walking problem.  He was a marked man wherever he went, seen as either a potential criminal or a potential rival. He couldn’t get a job because of his prison record.

On the cold winter evening that we talked, his life didn’t look very promising. I asked him, “How will you stay out of the gang and not go back to that life?”

Tony pointed to his young daughter, who was sleeping in his lap. “Her, man, she’s the reason,” he said.

Tony is not unique. In one of the largest studies ever carried out on gang violence in the United States, researchers followed almost 1,000 low-income young men in Boston aged over 45 years. They found that being married, a father and strongly connected to their children were key factors in keeping men out of gangs and criminal activity. The same conclusion emerged from interviews I carried out with young men who participated in gangs in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The evidence is clear: caring for children and for others transforms men. But if that is the case, why don’t more men care?

The answers are both personal and political. At the personal level, many men don’t see caregiving as their role. Maybe they grew up in households where women and girls did all the care work, or maybe they simply follow the dominant social norms. Either way, too few men are prepared to accept an equal share of caregiving responsibility.

At the political level, both men and women need help to do caregiving in the form of affordable daycare, flexible leave, paid maternity and paternity leave, and other forms of support.

Both levels need to be addressed simultaneously. Personal commitment to doing care work is vital, but it easier for some men and women to translate it into action because of their position in society. That’s why action on the political side of the equation is just as important.

At the same time I was interviewing young men like Tony in Chicago, my own daughter was born. I was working on my doctorate in child development, studying brain development and attachment, and sharing care-giving responsibilities with my partner.

One day, as I was leaving class early, some of my fellow students said, “You’re leaving to be the babysitter.” They said the word “babysitter” in a condescending tone.

“I’m not a babysitter, I’m a caregiver,” I told them slowly so they could understand me. They looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language.

Getting men to do half of the world’s care work means changing what it means to be a man. It’s also one of the keys to ending violence against women and children. It’s essential to achieving equality for women. And research shows that in taking on more responsibility for caregiving, men’s lives improve as well.

According to the World Health Organization, one in three women worldwide has experienced physical violence from a partner. A vast majority of countries have made it a crime for men to use violence against their wives or partners, but, with a few exceptions, there is little evidence that violence against women is declining.

However, research is consistent in affirming which men are more likely to use violence in this way. In surveys that Promundo and its partners have carried out, men who witnessed their fathers or other men use violence against their mothers when they were children are twice as likely to commit similarly-violent acts later on. Men who believe that they are entitled to sex with women are more likely to commit rape. And men who have themselves experienced violence as children are more likely to use violence when they are adults.

Which men are less likely to use violence against women? According to the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (or IMAGES), the answer is clear: men whose fathers didn’t use violence; men whose fathers treated their mothers with respect, and shared decision-making responsibilities with them in the home; and men whose fathers cared for them when they were growing up. What men do as caregivers every day can either strengthen or interrupt these violent cycles.

One of the few countries where violence against women has declined is Norway. Since the late 1980s, Norway has promoted equal pay for women, extensive family leave, and, since 1993, paid paternity leave. Twenty years later, violence against women and children had decreased by a third, partly because these policies have enabled men to do more of their share of caregiving. Now, Norway is ranked as one of the most gender-equitable countries in the world nearly every year.

There has been nothing short of a global revolution in many aspects of gender equality over the past 20 years. According to the World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report, women now make up 40 per cent of the paid workforce, and half of the world’s food producers. With some exceptions, girls today are as likely as boys to be in primary school. Fewer women die during childbirth. There are more women in politics, in business, in government, and working outside of their homes than ever before. 

But with all these changes, who still cares for children? In the Global South, women and girls do two to ten times more of the unpaid domestic and care work than men.

In the Global North, men do between 20 and 40 per cent of the care work, at least in Europe according to a 2012 study by the European Commission. But while men’s incomes continue to rise, women’s incomes hit a ceiling, and expensive daycare pushes women out of the labour market. After having children, women are far more likely to move to part-time work.  According to the same study, the result is a Europe-wide gender pay-gap of 16 per cent, and in the US, a gap of more than 20 points.

The implication of these statistics is unambiguous: if we want equal pay and other forms of equality for women, then men have to do more of the caregiving.

The benefits to children are also evident. Girls raised in households with more equitable relationships are less likely to experience unwanted sex. Men who have stronger relationships with their children contribute more of their incomes to their households, so their children are less likely to grow up in poverty. Women are more likely to report safe and calm birthing processes, to breastfeed and to seek prenatal care when their partners are more involved in birth, pregnancy and caregiving.

About 80 per cent of men in the world will be biological fathers at some point in their lives, and the rest will have parents or other children who also need caring for. But what many men don’t realize is this: getting more involved in caregiving is good for everyone, including men themselves.  

A recent article in the Lancet confirms that men lead women in every one of the top ten causes of premature death and chronic health problems. Men are four times more likely to commit suicide and two times more likely to drink or smoke too much compared to women. In Europe, men die five years earlier than women on average. Women have cancer more often than men, but men die from cancer earlier. Why? Because men don’t go in for preventive health care, and they don’t take care of themselves when they get sick.

The IMAGES study, for example, found that men were more likely to go to a prenatal visit with their partners than they were to visit a doctor for their own health needs. Building on this finding, the Brazilian Ministry of Health enacted a “prenatal protocol for men.” When men accompany their pregnant partners to prenatal clinics, health providers encourage them to make another appointment for a check-up for themselves.

What does men’s health have to do with their caregiving responsibilities? Studies from Sweden and the USA have found that men who report close connections to their children live longer, have fewer mental health problems, are less likely to abuse drugs, are more productive at work, and report being happier than men who are not connected to their children. Caring for others helps men to care for themselves, and men’s lives are made richer and happier when they do.

Gender equality and reducing violence against women are impossible to achieve without equality in caregiving. The daily care of others is as important as anything else that men or women will do in their lives. Indeed, developmental psychologists, evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists have all affirmed that human beings are hard-wired to care for, and live in close social connection with, one another. But caregiving is still seen and organized primarily as the work of girls and women. It’s time this was ended.

Caregiving is neither male nor female; it’s what helps to make us all human. 

About the author

Gary Barker is the founder of Promundo, an international NGO that works to engage men and boys in gender equality and ending violence against women. He is Co-Chair of the MenEngage alliance and Co-Coordinator of the global MenCare fatherhood campaign. He is currently writing a book on the global fatherhood revolution together with activist and author Michael Kaufman.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.