Thoughts from Francine M. Deutsch's Study on Equally Shared Parenting

Passion for research makes you do strange things. The other day, I spent an hour at a train station flicking through “Men’s Health Dad”, and then bought the magazine to continue on the train. My excitement must have seemed somewhat bizarre, considering that I will never be a Dad, and will not be a Mom for at least a couple of years.


However, the magazine perfectly complements a book I had just read: “Halving it all – How Equally Shared Parenting Works” by Francine M. Deutsch. Deutsch is a social psychologist who investigates the role of gender in everyday life. In her book, Deutsch describes the results of an extensive study she conducted on “equally sharing couples”, that is, both partners work for at least 20 hours a week for pay and have at least one child under the age of 18 living at home. During hour-long interviews with 150 couples Deutsch explored the roles of both partners. 

Deutsch found that despite being educated and ambitious, women often make career sacrifices when a couple expects to have children together. More often than not, the woman is responsible for household chores and childcare. This holds even for partners that work an equal amount of hours, and earn an equal amount of money. Whilst many of the men Deutsch interviewed reported that this division of labor was desired by their partners, the women seemed more skeptical and uttered the wish for more satisfying careers.


Why, then, do many women agree to this model?


Outdated gender stereotypes and expectations seem to be the main culprit. We live in a world in which women have the same access to education and the right to equal work opportunities, but have retained outdated gender expectations. Many men still perceive their role to be the breadwinner, and perceive care work as failing at manhood. Similarly, women often feel the pressure to adhere to gendered expectations: A good mom is supposed to stay at home to spend time with the children. One interviewee from Deutsch’s study summarizes this discrepancy when he reports that he rationally agrees with equal opportunities, but that emotionally he would prefer a traditional stay-at-home mom for his children.


Frequently, these stereotypes are self-fulfilling prophecies. The assumption that the man is more ambitious leads many couples to make important decisions with the man’s, rather than the woman’s, career in mind. Even in cases where both partners have the same initial earning potential, many couples prioritize his career over hers, and hence create a situation where he earns more than her. This, in turn, makes the decision for the woman to stay at home appear economically sensible. Equally, many couples automatically assume that men are less skilled with children than are women. In accordance, many men engage less frequently with their babies than do their female partners. Missing out on valuable opportunities to practice, it is then not surprising that mothers develop better skills in these domains. 


Further, Deutsch observed that a couple’s commitment to gender equality seems to determine whether a couple achieves to create a gender-equal relationship. The story of two male professors with children illustrates this point. Whilst one argues that a professorship makes it impossible to work half-time, the other argues that the job provides him with great flexibility and hence the possibility to be more involved at home. Hence, not the circumstances as such, but rather the interpretation of these, spurred by the men’s commitment to gender equality, determined the degree of equality within the relationship. Similarly, men who believe that they can be as good as or better than their female partners at changing nappies learn a lot faster than those who believed that these tasks come more naturally to women. Again, gender beliefs and commitment to equality, not gender itself, seem to determine the degree of equality within a relationship.


Does all of this sound like something completely alien and irrelevant to our time and day? Something the generation before us might have struggled with, but surely not us? It should, as Deutsch conducted the described study more than 15 years ago, and allegedly great strides for gender equality have been made since. It is frustrating to see that the same topics are still relevant today. Deutsch herself stays optimistic. In a personal conversation with her, she pointed towards a global increase in couples who manage to overcome gender norms and regulations. In Sweden, for instance, the trend of being a “Latte Pappa” emerged: Many dads take extended paternity leave and meet with other dads for milk coffees in the mornings.


I am convinced that initiatives like the Men’s Health Dad magazine will spur this trend. It shows that men are as good (or bad) at parenting as are women, and that they can gain just as much satisfaction and pride from it. It communicates that childcare is a topic men can and should discuss – thumbs up Men’s Health!


~Please reference: Sudkaemper, A. (2016, September 14) Halving it all. Retrieved from www.antoniasudkaemper.com