When a new school year begins, Tamara Cline knows the calls will soon follow. The two schools her three kids attend will phone her when one of them has fallen ill or is late or for some other reason.
But it should be her husband fielding the concerns.
“They always call me first even though we fill out the forms every single year and Dad is always the number one contact,” says Ms. Cline, a legal assistant in Winnipeg.
Ms. Cline’s experience is not unique. In a study conducted earlier this year, researchers in the U.S. found that mothers are 1.4 times more likely than fathers to be contacted by school officials when the choice of who to call appears neutral. While fathers are contacted in a majority of cases when it is stipulated they should be called first, even then mothers receive calls more than one-quarter of the time.
The findings are evidence of a widespread gender bias that assumes moms are available and dads are busy at work, says Laura Gee, an associate professor of economics at Tufts University who co-authored the paper.
“We need to think about not just changing beliefs about availability, but beliefs about gender norms so that people who make decisions and interact with households know that maybe there’s a way of doing this where we don’t just default to one parent,” she says.
In the study, released in May, researchers sent e-mails to approximately 80,000 principals at schools throughout the United States. The messages were purportedly from a two-parent household inquiring about placement for their child. The e-mails listed contact information for a male-sounding name and a female-sounding name.
School officials contacted mothers 59 per cent of the time when a preference regarding who to call was not stipulated. When the e-mails specified that the father should be contacted first, school officials still ended up contacting mothers first 26 per cent of the time. When the e-mails indicated that the mothers had more availability than their partners, the women received more than 90 per cent of calls.
The results show how challenging it can be for couples who want a more fair and even division of responsibilities, Prof. Gee says.
“If you talk to households nowadays, more and more of them say they want a more egalitarian split of the household duties. Maybe it’s possible that a household would say we want to split this 50-50, but there are other forces outside of the household that make that very hard to actually implement in real life.”
It’s a frustration Ms. Cline understands well. Her partner is a stay-at-home father who is just a five-minute walk from their children’s schools and happy to deal with any issues. The couple make this clear every year, she says.
But the calls to her keep coming – and she worries that having to deal with them while at work could damage her career.
“At my previous firm, sometimes I would get talked to by HR or the office manager about me getting all these calls. And it’s like, I’m sorry, we’ve told the school.”
While men in Canada are spending more time on unpaid child care than they did in the late 1990s, women are still doing far more. In 2015, men spent 30 hours a week on unpaid child care, up from 19 hours in 1998. That is considerably less than women, who spent 52 hours a week on unpaid child care in 2015, up from 43 hours in 1998, according to Statistics Canada.
The overall increase in unpaid care hours stems in part because an earlier generation of parents had a more hands-off approach, with latchkey kids spending much of their time away from supervision. This is in stark contrast to today’s parents, who are much more involved in their children’s lives.
Along with this shift in culture, a greater emphasis on gender parity in the home has encouraged fathers to spend more time on unpaid child care.
“Men’s share of child care has gone up a little bit. It’s becoming more equal. But women continue to do the bulk of domestic labour,” says Neil Guppy, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia.
For couples who do manage to strike a more egalitarian split of domestic responsibilities, research shows it can make both parties happier.
In a study of survey data of married couples and co-habitating adults in the U.S. conducted last year, University of Utah professor Daniel Carlson found that, “couples who share child care responsibilities report greater relationship and sexual satisfaction than couples where mothers are solely responsible for child care.”
The disparity in who gets called by schools is an example of how cultural values and biases have been slow to adjust to structural changes in household relations in which many parents both work outside the home, Prof. Guppy says.
“Structurally, there’s been a change in the family’s relation to the work force. But the cultural change that needs to come with that has been a little more resistant, it’s been a little bit harder to change.”