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Better halves for a better whole

Published on Friday, 11 May 2012
Panellists (from left) Adrienne Burgess, Paul Yip, Robin Egerton and Alex Lo at the forum.
Photo: Edward Wong

As men’s roles change, the time is right for fixing the imbalance between men and women. As with many important life lessons, real gender equality has to start in the home. That’s where couples have to work out, on a daily basis, how to balance the demands of childcare, work and housework. While legislation can impose parity of pay and treatment at work, it is in the privacy of the home that many of the most deeply ingrained beliefs about the equality of the sexes are played out everyday – and that means mindsets need to change too.

In the home, women do more than their share of housework and childcare, even when both partners work full-time, says Su-Mei Thompson, CEO of The Women’s Foundation, speaking at a panel discussion organised by the organisation to discuss the changing role of men.

“At The Women’s Foundation, we believe that we will not have greater equality in the workplace until we have greater equality at home,” she said,
That’s not as easy as it sounds, but it can be achieved through a combination of changes in legislation, mindsets and work practices, panellists agreed.

Achieving real and lasting equality in the home requires more than a couple agreeing to share the burden of work equally.  But it’s important to remember that many beliefs about the division of housework and childcare are entrenched in most societies.

“I think there’s a stigma attached, still in Hong Kong, [to] men being primary carers,” said panel member Alex Lo, deputy news editor at the South China Morning Post.

That stigma is evident in many societies around the world, but is likely to be particularly deeply rooted in Asia. 

Lam Woon-kwong, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, suggested that traditional Confucian values – with their clearly defined hierarchical structures that subordinate women to the authority of their fathers, husband and sons – continue to play a part in the persistence of inequality.

In Hong Kong, he said these “outdated stereotype concepts” had been accepted for so long that they had become almost embedded in people’s DNA.

In the workplace, inequality is more visible and can be more easily measured than in the home. Women persistently earn less than men, despite being better educated, as shown by the higher numbers of female undergraduates in Hong Kong’s universities. Lam said 70 per cent of newly married husbands earn more than their wives.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that men have it easier. The traditional role of the man as breadwinner has been upset by changes in the global workplace and the world economy. While lifelong job tenure no longer exists for anybody – whether male or female – work means more to men than just a means of earning a living, according to Lam. For men, he added, work was closely associated with self-esteem.

Another factor contributing to the change in men’s roles is their tendency to be sidelined in child custody arrangements. The number of marriages in Hong Kong that end in divorce is continuing to rise, and men often lose custody of their children.

Robin Egerton, chairman of the Hong Kong Family Law Association, is campaigning for reforms to custody care and access laws in order to dismantle barriers to paternal involvement.

“It is essential to have emphasis on parenting as equals,” he said.

Scandinavian countries have been the envy of many parents around the world, thanks to their generous social policies, which include providing parental leave of a year or more, government-funded nurseries and flexible work practices. However, all of that comes at a price – many Scandinavian countries have tax rates of around 50 per cent.

In other countries, the structure of maternity leave entrenches women’s role as the primary care-giver even before a child is born. Iceland has adopted an equitable parental leave policy, which provides three months’ leave for mothers, three months for fathers, and a further three months’ for either parent.

“That has transformed gender relations in Iceland,” said Adrienne Burgess of the UK’s Fatherhood Institute, a leading think-tank on the benefits of active fathering.

According to her, the structure ensures parents have to sit down together and plan their childcare arrangements, and that’s essential to kick-starting equality.

Burgess added that men lose out by not having enough contact with and care of their children. “When men have rich, complex relationships with their children, the way women normally do, everybody wins,” she said.

Part of the reason that the problem has remained so intransigent is that men have long been treated as secondary care-givers who do not bear – or who are incapable of bearing – responsibility for the well-being of their children. Often, schools, hospitals and other institutions that deal with fathers ask them to transmit information to the children’s mother. “Men need to be treated as if they’re important in the lives of their children,” Burgess said.

Meanwhile, Professor Paul Yip, a leading academic on population policy, noted that the fertility rate in Hong Kong had fallen to an average of just 1.04 births per woman, which he believed would have serious social consequences.

Driven by the high cost of education and housing, many Hong Kong women feel that they need to make a choice between having children and having a career. Many are choosing to remain childless, but Yip believes children are needed to generate resources and pay for healthcare for the next generation.

“Those who have no children will be cared for in their old age by other people’s children,” he predicts.
Yip suggested three policy changes: legislation to allow more flexible working hours, revising the tax code to ease the financial burden of child-raising, and adopting a system of parental – rather than maternal – leave,  allowing parents to manage the breakdown of leave according to their needs. 

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