The way we think of fatherhood is changing. Recent social, economic, technological, and demographic changes have considerably modified men’s attitudes about, and engagement in, their role as parents. These changes include, among many others, a gradual erosion of the male-breadwinner model and traditional division of household labor, a shift in men’s central priorities to include work-family balance, and a growing number of stay-at-home fathers—some by necessity and others by personal choice. A growing body of research is shining light on how the involvement of fathers not only contributes to gender equality, but also has important positive influences on children’s development and family health and well-being.
Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) research fellow Marc Grau-Grau and WAPPP Co-Director Hannah Riley Bowles organized a meeting in June at Harvard Kennedy School focused on these very questions. The event, “Elevating Fatherhood: Policies, Organizations, and Health & Wellbeing,” was funded by the Social Trends Institute and organized with support from the International Center for Work and Family, and focused on fatherhood through three lenses: health and wellbeing, public policy, and work organizations.
Looking at fatherhood through the lens of health and wellbeing, four leading medical practitioners and scholars, Michael Yogman, Craig Garfield, Raymond Levy and Milton Koltelchuck, illuminated positive implications of paternal engagement for children’s health and developmental outcomes prenatally, perinatally, and through infancy, childhood, and adolescence. These include associations between paternal engagement and decreased likelihood of premature birth, reduced infant mortality, increased school readiness and academic performance, and reduced behavior problems. The medical scholars also presented evidence that paternal engagement is positively associated with mothers’ health—for example, reductions in postpartum depression—and with the wellbeing of fathers themselves, in terms of increased engagement in healthy behaviors and decreased participation in risky behaviors. The experts proposed innovative strategies for the medical community to encourage pataernal involvement from the time of pregnancy, including more prominent depictions of engaged fathers in the wall art and information brochures in obstetric and pediatric offices, prenatal fathering classes, and better information collection on indicators of positive fatherhood engagement to inform research and practice.
Through the lens of public policy, five scholars, Alison Koslowski, Margaret O'Brien, Elin Kvande, Xiana Bueno Garcia, and Alexandra Macht, reported on the multinational landscape of family leave policies and cultural norms that facilitate and impede fatherhood engagement. The experts concluded that men are more likely to take advantage of paid leave when it is specifically for fathers (and not mothers) and is culturally supported. The scholars discussed the challenges of how to expand leave benefits to the vast number of parents who are not now eligible (like the self-employed or insecurely employed) and how to strengthen cultural support for providing and taking paternal leave.
Finally, through the lens of work organizations, five experts, Mireia Las Heras, María José Bosch, Jamie Ladge, Sabrina Tanquerel, and Brad Harrington, analyzed the impact of organizational leave policies, management practices, and work culture on fatherhood involvement and job satisfaction. As with the policy scholars, the organizational scholars concluded that men are more likely to use paternal leave policies when they are paid and culturally supported. They also presented evidence on the value of family-friendly work policies (like flexible work arrangements) for employee engagement and stress reduction. The main challenges the experts raised were how to foster and spread family-friendly work practices and cultures and how to increase men’s use of family leave and flexible work policies.
In order to promote further research and engagement with practices, this community of experts will publish a report on their findings and practical suggestions through the Social Trends Institute and an edited volume to be published by Springer on supporting fathers.
“We enthusiastically support this initiative led by WAPPP fellow Marc Grau-Grau to support fatherhood engagement through evidence-based advice for practice,” Bowles said. “Supporting fatherhood engagement contributes to the health and welfare of families and enhances gender equality for men and women.”