A new study has revealed that fathers who raise girls are less likely to hold traditional views about gender roles. Here, Simon Hooper, aka Father of Daughters, explains how becoming the parent of four girls gave him a deeper understanding of what feminism is all about – and why men need to get involved in the push for equality.
In the days before I was outnumbered by girls, the word ‘feminism’ didn’t hold much value or meaning to me. It was just a word that conjured up images of angry women burning bras who hated anyone with a Y chromosome. Because it was also a word that sounded a bit like ‘feminine’, I assumed it was ‘a girl thing’. It wasn’t something for me to worry about.
Today, I don’t pretend to be an expert on the struggle for gender equality or to have all the answers. But as I’ve grown older and the number of little women that hang off me has increased to the point that I, as the sole male, now only account for 17% of my entire family, I’ve come to have a greater understanding of ‘the F word’ – including what it means to me as a father of four daughters, and what it means to me as a man.
Of course, it shouldn’t take having wives, or sisters, or daughters or mothers for us to want equality between the sexes. Being a member of the human race should be enough to make you believe everyone should be treated equally.
But as a white, middle-class male, I’m the beneficiary of every bias there is going – and there’s no doubt that having four daughters and being married to a brilliant woman has made me more aware of the struggles women face.
Some of these struggles are small. Recently, my eldest daughter decided to play mixed touch rugby at school. She was the only girl on the team and I was so proud of her. But when she came back from a match, she told me that the boys wouldn’t pass to her. This took her out of the game and, in the process, put her off trying again.
I realised at that moment that while I want my girls to be judged on what they are capable of and the content of their character, not whether they have a vagina or a penis, that isn’t always going to be the case.
Becoming a father has also made me aware of bigger ways that inequality affects both men and women, and how feminism can help all genders. With the arrival of each new red-faced daughter, my desire to get a better balance between work and family life grew. I would have liked nothing more than to be able to spend those first formative months with each of my daughters, as they learned about the world around them and got to know us as more than just the ‘big people who feed them’.
But financially, it wasn’t feasible – and so my wife stayed at home while I returned to the office.
When shared parental leave was introduced in the UK in 2014, it looked as though it might finally be possible for parents to split childcare in whatever way feels right for them. But many people still can’t see a way to make it work. Recent research suggests that only 1% of eligible parents actually took up shared parental leave between March 2016 and March 2017.
Part of this, I think, is down to a stigma that’s attached to fathers taking parental leave. Although many companies now support the scheme in theory, I know I saw it as potential career suicide when my twin daughters were born in 2016. Frankly, I was afraid to take several months off work in case someone else stole my job (or worse, the company realised they could cope without me just fine).
This fear of losing out might have all been in my head, but that in itself was almost irrelevant. Fear is not a good thing for parents who are already struggling to keep their heads above water financially. Fear means that those that could take advantage of shared parental leave choose not to.
And if parents decide they can’t afford to split childcare, that can result in women being denied the opportunities that us men have to develop their careers. There’s a reason why many women still face maternity discrimination in the workplace: employers have developed the misplaced assumption that becoming a mother potentially equals becoming a less committed employee. If more men felt able to stay at home to look after the kids and share in the domestic daily grind, it stands to reason that this assumption would begin to fade away.
In an ideal world, women and men would be able to share flexible working, parenting and domestic responsibilities, and embrace their roles as active parents and fulfilled professionals. There has to be a sweet spot somewhere on this scale that satisfies everyone – and that only comes from gender equality.
By the time my girls grow up, I hope that (in the nicest possible way) ‘feminism’ no longer has any use in our day-to-day vocabulary. I hope it’s seen as one of those archaic terms people used in the olden days, consigned to the scrap heap of redundant language along with other words my kids don’t know about like ‘cassette’, ‘floppy disk’ and ‘dial up broadband’.
However, I fear we’ll still be talking about it for years to come unless we all work together to change the way we think. I know that the word ‘feminism’ only engages a certain percentage of the population. I know that many people, male and female, still feel as though it’s a movement that doesn’t apply to or include them – just like I did, once upon a time.
So I’ve got a suggestion. Rather than thinking of it as something exclusive and scary, we should just start thinking of feminism as ‘equality’. Or ‘fairness’. Because it’s not just for women. It’s actually a state of mind; a way of thinking that does away with bias or prejudice based on sex. And in a strange way, it’s actually men that need to understand and embrace it most of all. If we don’t do our bit, equality between the sexes will remain this unicorn-like creature: a mythical entity that we talk about, but are never able to touch.
And once we understand that gender equality benefits everyone, then we can start to give our daughters – and sons – the chance to be the successes they all have the potential to be.
Simon Hooper will be appearing at Stylist Live on Saturday 11 November, at the discussion ‘Men on Parenting’. Stylist Live brings everything you love about Stylist magazine to life across three days of experts, interviews, comedy, food, beauty and fashion exclusives. 10-12 November, Olympia London. Find out more at live.stylist.co.uk
Images: Phillipa James Photography