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Closing the Gender Gap in Childcare: Progress and Challenges in the EU

Equality in Childcare responsibilities

In the European Union (EU), progress has been made towards achieving a greater balance of childcare responsibilities between women and men. According to the latest evidence from the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), a 2022 survey on gender gaps in unpaid care activities reveals that 91% of women and 86% of men engage in informal childcare for their own children below 25 years of age at least four times a week. While this represents a positive trend in the distribution of unpaid childcare, a significant gender disparity emerges when considering the type of childcare activities undertaken by women and men.

Highlights of the survey

The survey highlights that women tend to take up more intensive childcare tasks for smaller children, such as bathing, feeding, and changing diapers. Disturbingly, nearly half of women living with a partner (49%) report assuming primary responsibility for these essential tasks, compared to only 6% of men. Moreover, pronounced differences exist between women and men across various childcare activities.

An important aspect to consider is the disparity in perceptions of childcare tasks. While men may believe they contribute equally to childcare, the reality is that certain tasks, such as tending to a sick child, require more time, intensity, and mental load. The misalignment in perceptions can lead to women feeling undervalued, impacting their work-life balance and participation in the labor market. EIGE has previously identified that gender gaps in the labor market will persist without increased participation from men in unpaid care, emphasizing the need for action as outlined in the EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025.

One of the barriers hindering progress is the persistence of gendered expectations. Stereotypes that portray women as primary caregivers and men as passive contributors perpetuate the status quo. While this dynamic may work for some families, it does not suit everyone. To foster change, dialogue and action must be encouraged to create a society where both parents can actively participate in childcare duties, benefiting parents and children alike.

During EIGE’s Gender Equality Forum, stakeholders in the gender equality community stressed the importance of empowering both women and men in the workplace to handle family responsibilities flexibly. This includes allowing parents to attend to their children’s needs without fear of jeopardizing their career opportunities. For men, in particular, the fear of facing negative consequences from managers for prioritizing fatherhood during working hours must be addressed.

The Positive signs

Encouragingly, there is evidence of positive change in the relationship between unpaid childcare and the role of fathers in the EU and globally. Proactive campaigns, such as the #Sharetheload campaign backed by Ariel and the #Dadonboard movement from the Nordic Member States, are normalizing the idea of fathers taking an active role in housework and childcare. These campaigns are breaking gendered norms and liberating both women and men from traditional gender roles.

While cultural change is taking place, policy and legislative changes are necessary to accelerate progress. The EU Work-life balance Directive and the more recent European Care Strategy have the potential to close gender gaps in care by promoting men’s increased involvement in childcare, providing flexible working arrangements, and ensuring the availability of affordable and high-quality care services.

Steps in the right direction

The EU is certainly moving in the right direction towards achieving a more balanced distribution of childcare responsibilities between women and men. However, the persistence of gender disparities in the type of childcare activities and perceptions of childcare tasks pose significant challenges. To further accelerate progress, it is crucial to challenge gender stereotypes, foster dialogue, and implement policies that support men’s active involvement in childcare while promoting flexible working arrangements and accessible care services. By doing so, the EU can pave the way for greater gender equality in childcare and beyond.

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