We recently welcomed Charlotte Butler, Founder of DEI initiative Altogether Different and Paul Morgan Bentley, Head of Investigations at the Times and author of The Equal Parent, to a panel discussion alongside Bubble CCO, Sarah Hesz. During the session, panellists shared their unique perspectives on gender in parenting, and the steps we can take to share the load.

Even before the arrival of children, we create internal narratives that perpetuate the notion of women as the primary caregivers. For many women, considerations for how they will manage after having children are a big factor in their career choices. Many actively seek out more flexible or family-friendly employers well ahead of their decision to become a parent. This professional sacrifice continues post-pregnancy and as women return to work. The ‘maternal wall’ explains how women returning from maternity leave suddenly find their competency in question as people believe that new mothers are somehow less committed to their work. Research has shown that job applicants who didn’t reference having children were twice as likely to be invited to an interview.

Working in recruitment, Charlotte witnessed this first-hand and saw how men were paid significantly more for the same role as women who had taken maternity leave “and never caught up”. During the conversation, Charlotte recounted a study which showed that two-thirds of men felt too frightened to ask for flexible work and are ‘punished’ for taking on the same responsibility as their female counterparts. The reality is that men too are experiencing microaggressions for leaving work to take care of their children. Phrases such as ‘daddy daycare degrade the role of a father and lead to a feeling of shame for working dads. This kind of ridicule encourages fathers to keep tight-lipped about their parenting responsibilities, turning an opportunity for progress into an unspoken taboo.

Being same-sex couples, Charlotte and Paul have both been confronted with unique challenges that have provided insight into the gendered roles we continue to perpetuate. Paul recalled how when his son was born, medical professionals often asked him where his son’s mum was during routine medical appointments. These sorts of institutional assumptions are ingrained in our society; when children are unwell, schools and nurseries typically call the mother first – and not the father. Charlotte similarly recounted one example of a school Whatsapp group for dads which was used for social events. As a same-sex couple, she observed that her family wasn’t included or represented in these situations. Similarly, she remarks how she often receives questions about the division of labour in her household – for example, who takes out the bins or does DIY. Her response? “I actually really like doing DIY so I do it, but then I put it back to them and say, so is your husband amazing at DIY? And they’ll say, Oh, no, you know, he doesn’t put the shelves up”

So what do we do about it?

1. Avoid making assumptions

“We get mistaken for, you know, sisters or friends, or we get assumed to be not a family just because of the way we look”

When you meet new families, avoid making assumptions about the makeup of their family. This is more inclusive not only for LGBTQIA+ families but also for single parents or widowers who may find these comments upsetting. Try to avoid assuming there are two parents in the family in the first place and as a rule of thumb, use language such as ‘partner’ instead of assuming someone has a husband or wife.

2. One-on-one time

“As someone who’s a bit of a control freak, I wanted to show I was really good at this. I found it very tough to ask for help”.

More responsibility tends to fall on an individual parent, especially if they spend more time with the child. This can lead to a de facto relationship where one parent always does certain activities such as bedtime, meaning the other parent may be at a loss when they’re left on their own. It can also be tough for the primary caregiver to step aside in these situations.

Paul’s main advice to combat this is to ensure each partner spends one on one time with their child. The key is not to confuse this with being a helping hand or doing a lot of things – but actively having times when the buck stops with you. This also can help you find your own rhythm and routines so that you can find what works for you instead of trying to emulate how your partner does things.

In Paul’s words; “Don’t copy. Do it your own way”

3. Communication is key

“Until we can all have conversations about labour at home, then it’s not so much the glass ceiling, it’s the sticky carpet”

Communication is important in all relationships – but particularly when you’re busy parents with a million and one things to think about. If one partner starts feeling resentful or that they’re taking on more of the burden, this can lead to a build-up of tension and frustration. The key to combating this is to establish communication channels between yourselves that help you to divide and conquer. In Sarah’s home, she has a whiteboard on her fridge which divides up what needs doing so that she and her husband are clear on their responsibilities.

4. Loud parenting

Paul observed how, when he first returned to work, he felt he had to lie to his teams about taking time out of work or leaving early to take care of his son. Many parents face stigma in the workplace that, just because they have children, they are somehow less committed to their work. 

The solution? Paul and Charlotte put the onus on senior members within organisations to engage in ‘loud parenting’ – meaning they’re open and unapologetic about their parental responsibilities. He identifies that by normalising these things from above, vocally and in the open, it makes it okay for colleagues who are more junior to do the same.

5. Keep the conversation open

“We always focus these conversations on women and that has made sense. But actually, if you’re constantly going through events where there are 30 women in a room talking about how this stuff is at home, nothing changes.”

Most importantly, we need to keep talking about it! These kinds of conversations need to be widespread and engage all genders to facilitate change. Progress is undoubtedly being made – but there’s still more to go.

Paul’s Book, The Equal Parent, is available to order now.