As a former journalist, I feel pain when people say you shouldn’t believe what’s in the news. Sometimes, however, I have to concede that news reporters get things a bit wrong. One example was a series of recent news reports about a decline in the number of stay at home dads.
This occurred a few weeks ago and there was some circumstantial evidence to support the claim. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) had released data showing the number of men who were “economically inactive because they were looking after family or home” had fallen to the lowest point since 2014.
The novelty of being a new man was, apparently, not as appealing as it once had been. Feminism was going into reverse.
Women who had once proudly worn trousers were now burning them and donning twinsets and pearls and long skirts with thick woolen stockings. Schoolgirls were voluntarily removing themselves from science and mathematics lessons in favour of needlework and home economics classes. Men, meanwhile, were abandoning family life for the pub / football / workplace.
Okay, okay, I made that last paragraph up. No one has been burning trousers and men have been taking up no more space in the pub than usual. I’ve had my fun so I’m now going to get serious.
When these stats were published, I was asked to respond by the Huffington Post. I wrote this article, making the point that men might, through economic necessity or choice, have been taking on part time jobs or working in the gig economy. I argued they weren’t abandoning their children.
This is where I have to make a very geeky point of accuracy. That first set of ONS figures refer to people who are economically inactive. Very, very few people can genuinely claim to be economically inactive and it can happen for a variety of reasons such as looking after an ill spouse, ill grandparent or coming into a large sum of money. It doesn’t simply apply to people looking after young children.
Sure, there may well have been a fall in the number of economically inactive men, but what about men who are working part-time so they can take on caring responsibilities? I said in my article that a rise in one would lead to a fall in the other.
As luck would have it, the ONS has just published new data. The data proves there was substance to my theory.
The stats show the number of men with young children working part-time has almost doubled in the past twenty years. The figures were small to begin with but this will turn into a complete geekfest if I go into detail so you can read it for yourself here, on the ONS website.
Although the figures were small, there has been growth. I say this is a success story. Men are finding ways to combine childcare responsibilities while remaining in the workforce. Maybe even Government polices like shared parental leave are beginning to have an impact?
The very same statistics also show that more women than ever before with children aged three to four are working full-time. So long as mum has made a choice to work full time and is supported by a partner, I would consider this a success story as well.
Let us also spare a thought for single mums and dads who have to combine full-time work with family life. How they do it, I do not know.
I’ve long argued the real trend is not an increase in stay at home dads. The real trend has been an increase in the number of guys working part-time or working compressed hours so they can spend more time with their families.
Sure, this latest trend has been reported in the media. The focus, however, has been entirely on the increase in full time working mums (here’s one example).
We have a situation where more women are working full-time than ever before, men are seemingly getting more confident about working part-time and (one blip in ONS data aside) the number of economically inactive men has also increased. This is not revolution.
It is, nonetheless, reason to feel some confidence for the future. There’s much more to be done. A man’s request for flexible working, for instance, is twice as likely to be turned down as a woman’s and I’ve personally known women face horrendous discrimination simply for getting pregnant.
Look closely at the data, look very closely, and there is a good story to tell. That’s my interpretation of events. Unfortunately it seems unlikey you will see this reported on the television, hear it on the radio or read it in the papers.
What do you think? Are employers slowly seeing the benefits of retaining female talent? Do men identify themselves less by occupation than previous generations? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts.