Can Single Fathers Advance the Stalled Gender Revolution?
By Aimzhan Iztayeva | September 14, 2021
Aimzhan Iztayeva is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota.
Despite the substantial progress that women have made in narrowing gaps in education and work experience, they are still paid just 80 percent of what men earn. The pandemic has only exacerbated these disparities, particularly for women of color. Such stubborn persistence of inequality has led some to claim that the gender revolution has stalled.
Scholars identify work and family as key sites that resist change because of the ways traditional beliefs about gender, breadwinning, and caregiving impact how people navigate work and care demands. Breadwinning, commonly associated with fathers, expects a fulfillment of the ideal worker norm with little time for involved childcare. Caregiving, commonly associated with mothers, emphasizes time-intensive investments in the “concerted cultivation” of children.
These competing expectations result in different labor market outcomes for mothers and fathers. On the one hand, existing research has documented how mothers receive extra scrutiny of their performance at work and are more likely to be perceived as not committed enough to their job. This negatively affects their employment prospects, possibility of promotion, and wages – a motherhood penalty. On the other hand, research shows a hiring preference and a significant wage bonus for married, educated fathers. It is assumed that such men deserve high-paying jobs to provide for their families – a fatherhood bonus.
Gender scholars have theorized that gender equality can be achieved by encouraging men to undertake a larger share of the primary caregiving. But some men – like single fathers, whose numbers have increased about ninefold in the U.S. since 1960 – already participate significantly in caregiving. Can their experiences inform a family-friendly policy context that, in the words of Nancy Fraser, “would promote gender equity by dismantling the gendered opposition between breadwinning and caregiving”?
Including Single Fathers in the Fight for Gender Equality
It appears that single fathers with primary caregiving responsibility encounter barriers in the labor market similar to working mothers. Findings from interviews I conducted with single fathers with full or shared custody in the Midwest indicate that these men prioritize caregiving and their role as parents. As a consequence, numerous participants experienced job-related penalties such as reduced earnings or a loss of employment because employers continued to expect an uninterrupted work commitment. These findings represent another piece of the puzzle to eliminate the gender coding between caregiving and breadwinning and create a policy context that supports all working caregivers.
These findings represent another piece of the puzzle to eliminate the gender coding between caregiving and breadwinning and create a policy context that supports all working caregivers.
The idea of including men into the fight for gender equality is not new. If the goal is, indeed, equality, centering the extent to which men – particularly minority men – also suffer from patriarchal oppression is crucial. Moreover, it is impossible to tackle cultural norms that underlie women’s subordination without changing the attitudes among men and boys. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued in 2001, “Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.” Single fathers’ disadvantaged position in the labor market underscores the need for family-friendly policies.
The Push for Equal Custody Rights and the Fathers’ Rights Movement
However, while there may be a benefit in making men part of the solution, such a proposition assumes that men, too, believe in gender equality. In the case of single fathers, this assumption may not be straightforward. Some of my interview participants were less interested in discussing their work-family reconciliation and more concerned about the custody law, their divorce experience, and the amount of child support they were required to pay. These statements were particularly strong among white men I recruited via the Fathers’ Rights Movement page on Facebook (9 out 30 interviewees in total).
The Fathers’ Rights Movement emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in response to rising divorce rates. At that time, advocates in the Fathers’ Rights Movement objected to the fact that sole child custody was almost universally granted to the mother. This maternal preference took the form of the “tender years doctrine” – a formal legal doctrine which presumes that the mother is the more suitable custodian for children. Fathers’ involvement in the childcare post-divorce was primarily financial. And although courts currently use the “best interest of the child” guideline to determine custody assignment, the Fathers’ Rights Movement calls for 50/50 equal shared parenting reform.
In their analysis of this seemingly gender-neutral claim, many scholars argue that the discourse of the fathers’ rights activism often propagates and disseminates an antifeminist sentiment. According to the movement, the system – the law, the courts, and professionals involved in assessing, mediating, and facilitating child custody arrangements – is governed by a feminist agenda and promotes the interests of women at the expense of men. But in privileging the interests of fathers, the movement’s discourse creates a risk of overlooking the well-being of victims of domestic violence for the sake of equal custody. In such cases, granting custody rights can compromise women’s safety who are stuck in a continued relationship with their abuser. Domestic abuse is one of the most common “final straw” reasons for divorce, and is frequently found to continue after separation, particularly in the form of emotional abuse and stalking.
In addition, fathers’ rights groups typically portray men and fathers as victims, while children’s mothers are often depicted as vindictive, dishonest, and willing to do anything to have full custody while receiving as much child support as possible. These sentiments were widely shared among the interviewees I recruited through the Fathers’ Rights Movement Facebook page. Their narratives frequently emphasized the extent to which their involvement in children’s lives was reduced to child support, the size of this support and the lack of accountability over how the money was spent by the ex-partner. Interviewees felt the main reason why they were not given a larger custody share was because it would decrease the size of the child support.
How Can We Move Forward?
The Fathers’ Rights discourse that victimizes men and vilifies women is certainly alarming. But at the same time, the movement emerged and exists in a context of an ongoing transformation of gender roles. The “new fatherhood ideal” – the expectation that men should be highly involved in parenting and domestic labor and develop a nurturing and emotional bond with a child – is one of the cultural shifts that shapes contemporary fatherhood. By resisting the monetary obligation instead of custody rights, the fathers in my study demonstrate they are no longer content with a primarily financial form of caregiving.
It is crucial to recognize the uneasiness that exists between single fathers’ demands for equal custody and feminist efforts towards achieving gender equality.
It is crucial to recognize the uneasiness that exists between single fathers’ demands for equal custody and feminist efforts towards achieving gender equality. Women and men continue to occupy different locations and roles in the society, especially in terms of earnings. Demanding gender symmetry in custody law while women continue to be treated unjustly outside of family courtrooms has multiple negative implications, as in case of the victims of domestic violence.
At the same time, single fathers’ experiences in the labor market in many ways mirror those of women and single fathers’ interests are aligned with women’s more closely than it may initially appear. Recognizing that the ideal worker expectation penalizes both men and women demands broader social, cultural, and institutional changes that remove individual responsibility in resolving the tension between caregiving and breadwinning. To transform policy, we need to move beyond a narrow focus on custody rights and include single fathers in broader conversations about gender inequality in all its manifestations.