It is like shooting fish in a barrel to say that men aren’t doing their share of care work. This includes the hands-on cleaning of our homes, the planning and logistics of who needs to be where and when, and the messy daily tasks involved when caring for children and elderly family members. While women are nearly as likely as men to be in the paid workforce, the 2021 American Time Use Survey shows that women perform unpaid household and care work amounting, on average, 5.1 hours per day compared with 4.1 hours for men. On average, 21% of men do housework, compared to 49% of women. And when it comes to caring for the elderly in our homes, 61% of caregivers are female.
The gap is closing, but it’s not equal. We need more than men grabbing the Swiffer or changing more diapers or Depends. The care crisis is also driven by the lack of affordable childcare and eldercare, a lack of support for low-income families, and a lack of paid family and medical leave for all workers and caregivers. In passing the Inflation Reduction Act, lawmakers again left child care, paid leave and other family support policies on the floor.
As a result, the U.S. continues to be one of only a few industrialized countries that offers no nationally guaranteed paid leave for caregivers — resulting in fewer than one-fifth of workers having access to paid parental or family caregiving leave. Meanwhile, we spend far less than all other high-wealth countries on child care and family income security.
The good news is that recent research finds that American men are increasingly aware of caregiving imbalances and are carrying out more of these tasks than they did in the past. Research by one of our organizations (New America) finds that men now report greater satisfaction with the amount of time spent with their children, and more men express interest in striking a better balance between their work and home life, even if they have yet to achieve it.
COVID was a watershed moment in terms of care work, and some men clearly stepped up: One study found that 10-15% of households moved toward more equitable division during COVID. Research one of our organizations carried out (Equimundo) found that both men and women increased their time use for care work during COVID.
As we think about solutions, we need to address the real reasons men aren’t doing their share of the hands-on care work. Research by Equimundo found that men fail in this regard largely because of perceptions of what others think about them — male co-workers, bosses, family members and even their belief in their own competence as parents and caregivers. In other words, men generally do what they think is expected of them.
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Recent research carried out by Equimundo and the Geena Davis Institute found that over the past 10 years, TV shows are as likely to show men doing caregiving as women. However, men are far more likely to be shown as incompetent caregivers, both emotionally and in the daily tasks of hands-on care.
One solution to our care crisis is to start teaching our sons that caring and caregiving, being emotionally responsive to those who need care, doing our share of the small and tedious things — these are all part of our responsibilities and identities as men.
We also need men to see that investing in care is investing in growing our national economy. This spring, Moody’s found that national paid leave and child care investments could boost U.S. GDP by $1 trillion over five years.
The political activism for care work at the local, state and national levels has nearly always been carried out by women. Their leadership is shaping a new and necessary attention to the care crisis in the U.S. But when it comes to being visible voices for care policies, men are too often missing in action.
In the public spaces that focus on families and family care like schools and day-care centers, men are in short supply. And care professions — nursing, elder care workers, health care workers — continue to be overwhelmingly performed by women.
As we look toward and beyond the midterm elections, we need men to aspire to care at home, and do more care work. And if we want to see our economy grow by creating policies that help families manage care so that all adults can work, we need men, like women, to focus on building and advocating for investments in the care economy. In sum, we need men to vote as if they can’t support their families financially without affordable childcare and without paid leave — because the truth is, they can’t.
Barker is president and founder of Equimundo. Shabo is senior fellow of paid leave policy and strategy at the Better Life Lab at the New America Foundation.