I think us mums and dads owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mumsnet. It’s one of the few organisations with the muscle to put together a coalition of parent-focused institutions and successfully survey 20,000 mums and dads about the real costs of childcare.
You will probably have seen the headlines in the papers. The results of this survey showed 97% of respondents felt childcare was too expensive with 33% claiming their outgoings on childcare exceeded the cost of their mortgage.
This survey also broke new ground. Over the years I have seen successive politicians, from feminist firebrand Harriet Harman to Brexit bad-boy Nigel Farage claim childcare is a women’s issue.
This has always struck me as a daft, oxymoronic approach. If you treat childcare as a women’s issue, it simply remains a women’s issue. It ignores the fact it’s an employment issue, an education issue, a career progression issue and a gender equality issue so should be of equal interest to both women and men.
Mumsnet worked with an impressive coalition that included women’s interest groups like Pregnant Then Screwed and the Fawcett Society as well as gender neutral bodies such as Working Families and the Trade Union’s Congress.
In an attempt to give men a voice and to engage with this subject, The Fatherhood Institute and Music, Football Fatherhood also joined the coalition. Their members and supporters were asked to complete the survey and both organisations went out of their way to get men to participate.
How did men respond? Well, I have been given a sneaky peak at the data. Unfortunately the response from men was underwhelming. Very underwhelming.
Of the 20,000 people who participated in the survey, a less than staggering 528 were male. That, as I worked out using my newly acquired GCSE maths skills, equates to 2.64%.
I thought that what Mumsnet and its partners were doing was radical. That response suggests the majority of fathers did not agree with that sentiment.
I’ve always attempted to push positive masculinity and fatherhood. I’ve repeatedly made the point that men are often treated as second class citizens when it comes to parenting. On this occasion I feel there is no defence: Fathers were handed an opportunity to have their voices heard and with the exception of 528 of them, they didn’t seize it.
The sad thing is, the small number of men who did take part in this survey provided some fascinating insights. Take, for instance, the impact on men’s careers.
I was astounded to see 56% of men thought they would have more seniority at work if they didn’t have childcare considerations. While the figure for women was much higher at 82%, I thought the figure for men would be in the low tens. It shows that employers’ attitudes are not as family, fatherhood (or indeed motherhood) friendly as you might imagine.
It was also fascinating to see that men and women have, with only minor variations, made considerable sacrifices to meet childcare costs. In percentage terms, the numbers of men and women using foodbanks, taking on second jobs and feeling like they can’t spend time together as a family because money goes on childcare were almost identical. It suggests the stereotype of the dad who spends his weekends watching football at the pub with his mates doesn’t hold much water.
There was also some fascinating dad about working culture. Of the men who responded to this survey, 16% said they had been furloughed because of childcare commitments, compared to just 12% of women. In total 40% of men and 50% of women have been denied the right to work flexibly and 24% of men and 21% of women were discouraged from applying for promotion or salary increases because of their family comitments.
What this survey seems to show is that men and women are both making huge personal and financial sacrifices to meet childcare costs. The burden is phenomenal on both mothers and fathers.
It also points to a working culture that is massively dysfunctional. Pregnant Then Screwed has done a superb job of highlighting discrimination against women, yet this survey shows that more men than women have been discouraged to apply for promotions or pay rises once they became parents and similar numbers struggle to access flexible work. If men don’t speak up about these issues, they won’t get the recognition they deserve.
This was a major opportunity for fathers to have their voices heard. The male participants, however, were completely swamped by the female participants so the narrative has stayed the same: Access to affordable childcare and its impact on family life and working culture has been portrayed as a women’s issue. When the results of a large survey like this are published and only 3% of the respondents are male, it’s difficult to make the case that many of these issues affect men as well as women.
Even so, I have some hope for the future. This was the first time I can recall men being asked for their opinions on childcare. Male participation was never going to be massive, but if there’s a next time, I’d like to think more men might sit up, listen and engage with the debate.
Come on boys, this survey showed you’re making massive sacrifices for your families. If anything is ever going to change, if the world is going to become a better place for us all to raise families, if we want to make the world more equal for women and ourselves, we need to engage with surveys like this and coalitions like the one set up by Mumsnet and friends. While I am hopeful for the future, this was an opportunity missed.