A commission

This will sound like boasting. But I sometimes wonder how my life came to this. 

Last week I was able to help a relative writing a university essay about a certain Hollywood film by putting her in touch with the director of said smash. That’s weird.

This week the fruits of my turn as an expert witness were published. Call it imposter syndrome. I don’t think of myself as an expert in much at all. But, looked at dispassionately, as author of two books on gender stereotypes and editor of a website campaigning for equality I guess I am.

Over a year ago my partner and I gave evidence to the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood. We were invited by Sam Smethers, chair of the Fawcett Society to share the insights garnered from our @GenderDiary project that culminated in the book The Gender Agenda.

The commission included some powerhouses in the field of gender stereotypes. David Lammy MP and Professor Becky Francis chaired. Stick a pin in the list of commissioners and you’ll come up with quality. For example: Mary Bousted of the National Education Union, neuroscientist Gina Rippon, Justine Roberts of Mumsnet, Owen Thomas of Future men and the gang from Let Toys be Toys and The Fatherhood Institute. 

So it’s no surprise that the resulting report – titled Unlimited Potential – is quite brilliant. Clear, well researched, and full of straightforward recommendations.

It is surprising to spot your own influence running through some of the sections. Surprising and gratifying. 

It’s worth dwelling on what’s in the report. 

Why challenge stereotypes?

First – why challenge gender stereotypes? As the report says, “There is a clear, positive, case for the benefits to our economy, to society, and to us as individuals as a result of challenging gender stereotypes.”

  • Girls are put off taking up STEM subjects
  • Boys develop lower reading skills
  • Children who hold gender stereotyped views have poorer wellbeing
  • Boys self esteem is boosted by using literature that challenges gender stereotypes
  • Girls are more likely to feel their are valued for their looks causing eating disorders and leading to suicide attempts
  • Boys are constricted by the stoic and breadwinner role models leading to higher male suicide rates
  • Challenging gender stereotypes can reduce violence against women
  • Gender stereotypes contribute to abuse and harassment of LGBT people
  • Gender stereotypes interact with and compound the harm caused by stereotypes about race.

All this by page seven of the 93-page report.


That’s the case against stereotypes. But, like The Gender Agenda, it’s not about pointing to the problem and whining. It’s about proposing solutions. And there are plenty of them in Unlimited Potential. None of them overly difficult or expensive. But each radical and potentially world changing. And all backed by evidence, research, testimony and expertise.

Here’s some of the stand out recommendations;

  • Government ought to issue new teacher training guidance that includes knowledge and understanding of stereotypes and how to counter them. Anyone who remembers No More Boys and Girls on TV will welcome that one. 
  • Early years ought to have a focus on challenging gender stereotypes. This one appeals. Anyone who’s read The Gender Agenda may remember the tale of our first visit to a nursery in which the manager pointed to the corner with the toy cars and dubbed it ‘the boys corner’. 
  • Ofsted should include challenging gender stereotypes as part of its inspection framework. A few years back we spoke to a number of campaigners about how to take the work of No More Boys and Girls forward. The answer was that schools wouldn’t be interested when they’ve other things to worry about in order to scoop a decent rating of Ofsted. The solution is simple – throw smashing stereotypes into the Ofsted mix.
  • Get more men in early years. They can be role models that show caring is not the preserve of women.
  • Design toys for children not by gender. Obv.
  • Kids are all watching YouTube these days. But what are they watching? We can monitor and regulate gender stereotypes on TV and in ads. YouTube ought to encourage new content creators that challenge gender stereotypes. And research should be commissioned into gender representation in video games, kids TV, books and clothing with regular audits.

Dads Don’t Babysit

Now, I was invited to give evidence to the commission off the back of The Gender Agenda. But coming out of that project I was struck by how stereotypes constrict boys as well as girls. It was an element I had not expected. I thought I was doing it to bust the limits my daughter would face. I ended up pondering the limits my son was subject to. And so I came to write Dads Don’t Babysit. Because it became clear to me that equal parenting is the way to give dads more choice in how they live their lives, free women from an overbearing domestic load and unlock equality more widely.

So I was particularly gratified to see recommendations around dads and supporting parents to challenge gender stereotypes.

The report calls for equal parental leave and a longer, better paid period of non-transferable leave reserved for dads. Employers should strive to create ‘dad friendly’ workplaces modelled on the work of the University of Birmingham team who created a ‘Fathers at work’ toolkit.

And, because research shows that gender stereotypes can be crystallised around the point people become parents, midwives, health visitors and other health professionals ought to be trained to spot stereotypes, challenge them and enable parents and parents-to-be to challenge them. 

Wanging around

There are many more recommendations in the full report. I really hope campaigners and policy makers are paying attention. For even taken together the proposals do not add up to an expensive package. Particularly in the face of the sort of figures wanging around in the fight against coronavirus.

The government talks about building back better. Returning to pre-pandemic ways will be tempting. ‘The before times’ will hold the attraction of a comfort blanket. But we must press for change, for something better. Unlimited Potential offers a ream of ideas to achieve that.

We know that gender equality brings many benefits. I like it in the name of fairness. But it also swell the economy and brings with it better mental and physical health. Any government around the globe that wants to grow its economy, improve health and create a better society – and surely all administrations want to do that in 2021 and beyond – can achieve all of that via gender equality. To ignore steps that would improve gender equality is an explicitly sexist choice. 

‘Powerful’ evidence

It was a thrill to take part in the process. One of the commissioners has been good enough to suggest our evidence was ‘powerful’. Which makes me think the shadows of what we said can be seen in great chunks of the report. Fundamentally though the credit lies with The Fawcett Society who stepped out of their comfort zone to look at an issue affecting not just women and girls but society as a whole (of which, of course, women and girls are a part).

The title sums it up why it matters. If you want limited potential for your children that’s easily achieved. But please step aside and let those of us who want more make the case for Unlimited Potential.

Photo by BBC Creative on Unsplash

Dads Don’t Babysit: more relevant than ever

Two years to the day since the publication of Dads Don’t Babysit, my second book, it’s more relevant than ever.

So relevant it’s hard to choose which bits to focus on in particular.

Pondering this I flicked open the latest edition of The New Statesman to browse during a lunch break.

And ‘letter of the week’ gave me all the answers I needed.

A chap called Jim Simmons had written in to explain that having spent the last 10 years spending three hours a day commuting he had no intention of going back to that pattern after experiencing a different way of doing things through lockdown that brought benefits including increased productivity, more family time and a healthier diet.

Two years since publication day, the letter spoke to two key themes of the book. Firstly, why had Jim not changed his way of working before if it was so miserable? The options were there, he could’ve applied for flexible working at any time. Secondly, now that he’s seen the light how do we embed those changes to ensure maximum benefit for all?

Ahead of its time

Dads Don’t Babysit was ahead of its time. That might sound bumptious but it’s self evidently true. My co-author David Freed and I called for men to embrace different ways of working in order to spend more time parenting. 

Our reasoning was that equal parenting unlocks benefits for men, women, children and society. It’s all in the book but in short men are happier, healthier and more productive; women are unchained from the parental drag that hampers their career progress and earning potential; children achieve more at school bringing attendant benefits and carry a more gender equal outlook with them into adulthood. And all that adds up to billions on the national GDP. Handy when there’s a helluva a recession about to bite. 

Covid has forced a lot of men to work differently. And all that we predicted has come to pass. Not in every household of course. But there’s a growing body of evidence that productivity has held up through the pandemic. (And bear in mind parents were dealing with homeschooling and the fear of global disease in that time. Remove those two shackles and imagine how productivity could soar.)

Many dads, like Jim Simmons, report they’ve enjoyed having more time to commit to their family, and to spend on their own mental and physical wellbeing. As the headline on Jim’s letter put it,  folk like him are ‘Never going back’. 

Women won’t just be able to press on with their career because their partner is taking on more of the mental load. They’ll also likely bag more promotions now attention is being focussed on the fact that those that work remotely or part time are more likely to be overlooked for promotion.

In Dads Don’t Babysit we pointed out that in the world as it is men’s voices carry. Sure enough, as long as women were being disadvantaged by working flexibly this was not a priority issue. Now men must work from home and are feeling the same problems, they speak up and it’s getting addressed. 

It’s not how these things ought to be solved. But, as long as they are, I’ll take that. (I’m reminded of Julia Gillard’s comment in this podcast – that I produce – that as long as we’re moving in the right direction any amount of compromise is palatable. Of course what made Julia a better leader than the current crop is that she knew what to her was the right direction and consequently she could compromise while weaker leaders U-turn.)

The impact of lockdown upon children will take longer to measure. But it’s likely those with two parents at home offering support to their homeschooling and bolstering their emotional resilience will fare best no matter their economic circumstances. I’m not sure who is going to measure the gendered outlook of the children of coronavirus (Hello academia, I am available to take on this project with a bit of funding and that!) but I’ll bet any amount of pints of English beer that such a study will find a more equal outlook among boys and girls.

The paternity gap

So, let’s look at Jim’s issues. Why had he not previously considered and taken up flexible working? The obvious answer is that no-one gifted him a copy of Dads Don’t Babysit when it was published in 2018.

But he also fell into the paternity gap. With only two weeks of statutory paternity leave the state sends a clear message that men are a ‘nice to have’ when it comes to parenting rather than a crucial part of their baby’s first year. 

Consequently when mum returns to work it appears to make sense that she continues to shoulder the bulk of the childcare. Anyone who practises something five days a week for nine months will be better at it and more confident in their ability than the person who’s only been doing two days a week at the same task. Combine that with the likelihood that the father is the higher earner at home and you’ve a recipe for a gendered split in the household. (Hello gender pay gap you utter stain on any society that tolerates you. What’s that? Liz Truss sacked off gender pay gap reporting at the first opportunity in the spring even though most companies had done all the research and could publish without it significantly impacting their workload as lockdown began. Uh-huh…)

Jim’s unlikely to know any other dads that work flexibly either. Less than 10% of dads have formal flexible working arrangements. Fewer dads ask for one, those that do are more likely to be refused than a woman making the same ask. Because bosses assume a mother returning from maternity leave will want to alter her work pattern and factor that in to their plans. A man however is expected to work even harder now he’s a family to provide for. That’s a fundamentally sexist outlook. And it means that dads tend to increase their earnings upon parenthood, women suffer the motherhood penalty to their pay packet. *sarcastic voice* Well done everyone.

Gendered society

One could say that Jim hadn’t considered flexible working before because he’s not as smart and forward thinking as me. That’s for others to decide. I think he’s just another victim of a gendered society.

But he’s been woken up. 

Thousands if not millions like him have been alerted to the gains of flexible working. It’s notable in his letter that he dwells on the benefits to himself rather than his partner and family but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume The New Statesman edited his letter that way. This is, after all, a publication that notably misses Helen Lewis’s feminist input editorially. Her writing may have been replaceable (as is the case for any writer) but her influence is notable by its absence. (A piece on activist footballers earlier this summer that focussed on men and didn’t mention Megan Rapinoe – who faced down actual bullying by the misogynist President of the United States – is by dint of that omission incomplete and irrelevant.)

But if Jim’s letter was presented as is it’s an interesting insight into how we campaign for change. We appeal to men’s self interest. I wish it wasn’t so. It appears that might be the only way to go. (As I mentioned above, I’ll compromise along the way and campaign in any way alongside almost anyone if we get to the right end point.) It’s important to know what works as we move forward and try to embed the changes that have been forced upon us by coronavirus. Like everyone else I wish it hadn’t taken something so awful to get us here. But now we are here we have a duty to those victims of the disease to make a better future.

The manifesto

There was an eight point manifesto in Dads Don’t Babysit and a three point mantra for change. It remains necessary.

The eight demands of the manifesto are:

  • Paternity leave must be made a day one right for dads. This equalises the situation for women. If you’re going to become a parent, no matter how long you’ve been in a job, your baby needs you around.
  • Paternity leave must be extended. Theresa May converted to this cause on her political deathbed. A consultation on the issue closed last November. Nothing has been heard of it since. This government seems uninterested. They may claim the country can’t afford it as the economy tanks. We can’t afford not to involve more dads in family life. If you want both sexes to succeed economically, if you want to ensure the pandemic situation in which women were squeezed to combine more childcare with their work and consequently lost jobs in higher numbers is not repeated we need equal parenting. That has to start at the start of the parenting experience. Both parents should get six weeks off at 90% of pay. Any government that can find the cash to pay 80% of everyone’s wages can afford six weeks worth to fund paternity leave.
  • Equalise full parental leave at nine months each. Solves a childcare issue for new parents. Stops mum having to transfer leave to dad if they take Shared Parental Leave. And fund it properly. They manage it in Scandinavia.
  • In Dads Don’t Babysit we asked for a flexible working good practice hub. This one needs to be upgraded. Let’s have legislation making flexible working a right so that the assumption is that an application by anyone (not just parents) will be accepted.
  • Gender pay gap reporting has been rolled back. This is a bad thing. To achieve equal parenting we need to go further. Employers must publicise their parental policies so anyone applying for a job can make an informed choice. As with gender pay gap reporting this’ll likely lead to responsible companies trying to outdo each other to protect their reputation and attract the best talent. Men won’t feel bad about applying for flexible working if an employer is up front about it as an option from the off.
  • Death to Daddy Pig. See here. Still holds.
  • An awareness campaign. Jim Simmons can’t be held responsible for not knowing about the benefits of fatherhood. It’s very rarely out there. This one may even have gone backwards. When I interviewed David Lammy for Dads Don’t Babysit he suggested some posters in the antenatal clinic pointing up the bonuses an engaged dad brings to family life. Currently it seems fathers aren’t even allowed in the antenatal clinic. The Fatherhood Institute is trying to get a handle on what’s happened to antenatal attitudes towards dads during the pandemic but there’s been eye watering anecdotes of heartbreak and unfairness. We must reverse this particular tide.
  • Finally we called for better teaching in schools on boys roles in family life and measures to address the flood of bad science that popularises ideas about ‘pink brains’ and ‘blue brains’ that have no basis in fact. Sadly some of the reaction to the pandemic has shown that this remains necessary on lots of fronts.

The mantra

So how do we get there? The mantra remains the same: Act. Communicate. Agitate.

  • Act. If you’re a dad who has enjoyed having more time around your family then be like Jim (new, woke Jim, not pre-pandemic Jim who hadn’t considered flexible working) and embrace it. Get that flexible working request in to your HR department. There’s plenty of advice on how to do it successfully. I’ll help if I can, tap me up on social media. Be the dad you want to be. Role model a gender equal, engaged father who is moulding work and life in a way that suits himself, his family and his employer. It’s entirely possible as 2020 has proved.
  • Communicate. Talk to your employer about what you want to retain from the working from home experiment and explain why. Open that channel of communication as early as possible. Talk to your partner about what will work best for both of you going forward. 
  • Agitate. And talk to government about what you want. If you think all fathers should have the right to flexible working as a day one right and on the basis that applications will be accepted by default, then join the campaign. Lobby your MP. Help the Fatherhood Institute with their survey. Visit workingdads.co.uk, the site that I edit, and partake in our research and share the best practice reports we produce.

We have a moment

We have a moment right now. Two years ago I hoped that Dads Don’t Babysit would hit bookshelves and herald a sea change in attitude and opinion. (Note ‘hoped’ rather than ‘expected’). 

For many reasons that didn’t happen. 

And I can’t emphasis enough that I wish what has happened this year had not happened. That arriving at this hinge moment had not taken a deadly virus combined with a bumbling government. 

But we must cash in the positives from 2020.

Buy my book. It’s never been more relevant. It contains all the arguments and tools you’ll need to convince your employer or your employees that change is necessary and achievable. Not just tinkering with work patterns but huge societal alterations that could bring equality that so many people want and need.

Dads don’t babysit, they parent. And when the time comes to change things for the benefit of everyone dads don’t sit on their hands either.