A Father’s Role: Changing the Conversation around Gender Equality

An Interview with Promundo’s Gary Barker
By Zoe Colgin
June 14, 2017

This week, many people around the world will mark Father’s Day, a day to recognize fathers for their countless contributions to the lives of their children and spouses. It’s also a day to recognize the critical – but often overlooked – role a father can play in breaking harmful social norms and gender dynamics, and creating healthier, more equitable families.

Together for Girls had the opportunity to explore these issues with a leading expert in the field, Gary Barker, the President and CEO of Promundo. Barker is a longtime champion of engaging men and boys in gender equality and violence prevention. He also co-authored the second edition of the State of the World’s Fathers report, released just last week, which provides a robust look at men’s contributions to parenting and caregiving around the world.

Together for Girls: What responsibility, if any, do you think parents have to address social and gender norms within their society that impact the lives of their children?

Gary Barker: We know that children learn first from their parents about gender norms and roles – so that makes it imperative for parents to think about how it is they raise their children to think about them. We also know that more important than talking is doing: if children see their parents share decision-making, and share equally in caregiving, they are more likely to be more gender empowered and aware and equitable adults.

TfG: What are some ways that fathers can effectively address the issue of hyper masculinity with their sons?

GB: Again, it’s the doing: boys who see their fathers involved in their daily care, model respect for women and girls, and model healthy manhood, tend to raise boys who internalize these same ideas. Yes, fathers must talk to their sons – but equally important, fathers must live equality, respect and non-violence so their sons and daughters see it in action.

TfG: How can gender dynamics perpetuate violence against girls?

GB: We know that children who witness inequitable, dominating relationships between their parents or other caregivers are more likely to think such domination by men is acceptable, and to think that violence is normal. Girls who see fathers and other adult men acting with respect, and living equality, however, are more likely to seek adult relationships and adolescent relationships that are based on respect. Girls who see respect between men and women growing up usually demand it as adults. Those who see a mother who is silent, and perhaps has few means to leave a violent relationship, often internalize the idea that women should tolerate violence.

TfG: How can gender dynamics perpetuate violence against boys?

GB: Similar dynamics hold for boys. We know from nearly 20,000 interviews around the world that boys who witness domineering fathers and violence by fathers or other men against their mothers are 2 to 3 times more likely to use this violence than men who don’t witness this violence growing up. Boys aren’t born violent – they learn it, first in the home, and second in schools, the community, and media. Again, if they see fathers and mothers and other caregivers who live and strive for respect and equality, they tend to repeat that.

TfG: What are some ways that fathers can bring up the sensitive and difficult topic of sexual violence with their children?

GB: Teaching boys to talk about their feelings, to express when they feel uncomfortable about a way they were touched, and making it clear that their sons can come to them with sensitive problems and issues is key. Second, creating an open dialogue with our children, boys and girls, about sexuality is key, so that our children can come to us when a relationship or encounter doesn’t feel right, or with issues of abuse. As well as issues of curiosity and pleasure.

TfG: In the recently released second edition of the State of the World’s Fathers report, you say that based on the current trajectory, it will take 75 years to achieve equal pay for equal work, and other gender equality indicators may take even longer. What are the biggest barriers to achieving gender equality and how do we make the case to men and boys that they should be prioritizing this?

GB: In the first place, the interaction between poverty and the work lives of women and men is one of the biggest barriers to achieving gender equality. Men’s historically higher pay, and poverty that in particular affects women, means that we need comprehensive efforts to achieve equal pay and to encourage women to join the paid work force, and we need cash transfers and other approaches to raise the income of the world’s poor. Second, we need parental leave and subsidized child care, made available universally. Third, we need to change the rigid gender norms by raising all of our children, sons and daughters, to see themselves as caregivers and providers, to change the notion that caregiving and all unpaid care work are only women’s work.

TfG: In the long-term, how might a generation of actively engaged fathers, through interactions with their children, contribute to future generations experiencing greater gender equality?

GB: We know from our International Men and Gender Equality Survey that caregiving begets caregiving. Men who witness their fathers doing their fair share are more likely to do the same as adults. In fact, men doing the daily care work is perhaps one of the biggest disrupters of the gender divide. It helps make men more caring individuals, and it sends a powerful message to women and girls that we value the caregiving they do, while also saying that men must do their share. It creates the space for women and girls to have fuller lives and to achieve the voice they deserve in communities and in houses of congress and parliaments. And it lets men have richer lives, more connected with those around them.

It is abundantly clear that fathers can play a vital role in changing the conversation around gender equality with their children. Equally important to the conversation, are a father’s actions: fathers who actively seek to empower their daughters, who identify proudly as feminists and teach that feminism is an essential force for change, and discourage displays of violent masculinity in their sons could positively impact the future of their children. In a larger sense, they could also contribute to a future generation of more conscientious, equitable young people, and even help break the cycle of violence.

To learn more about the role that fathers play in achieving gender equality, read the full State of the World’s Fathers report here.