While North Americans have been preoccupied with work-life balance, they haven't noticed that the same pressures are being experienced around the world.
Michael Kaufman, a Torontonian and friend of mine who co-founded the White Ribbon campaign and has carried that work against male violence to countries around the globe, says women have been entering professional jobs in South Asian countries, and to a lesser degree Africa, with the predictable demand on them to shoulder the burden at home, leaving them no chance for balance.
Some countries are grappling with how to support these changes in women's lives through social policy. Workplaces are facing issues such as maternity leave and pay inequality that have been a long struggle in North America. As women's incomes rise, that does encourage more gender equality – but only if families and society support such notions.
"But there is one missing piece – the role of fathers," he said. "Gender equality within the family is needed and one of the keys is who is looking after the kids."
News headlines feed us stories of patriarchal mindsets in many non-Western countries. But Mr. Kaufman travels to these countries, works with men, and is much more optimistic. He sees change coming – already happening, in fact – and is hoping to nurture that transformation through Men Care, a global fatherhood campaign he has helped to start and for which he is co-writing the first State of the World Fathers Report that will chronicle this passage. "We're seeing a massive generational shift in what men aspire to," he says.
Some older men are stuck between the traditional view of masculinity and the new way of thinking. But younger men are more open to change, feeling that fatherhood – being a good parent – is important and that they will do it differently from their fathers and grandfathers.
He sees it when he talks to younger men. He uses a line that in the past drew no opposition: "I don't want you to help out with your children …" But these days, men object immediately, beating him to the punch line: "… any more than women help out. Your job is to parent. You don't, as men, babysit the kids. You parent them."
The White Ribbon campaign, which began in 1991, also appeared at a time when change was occurring. By having prominent Canadian men speak out against male violence against women, it illuminated a new norm for men to embrace. Similarly, Men Care is a decentralized campaign, tapping into local men's groups in various countries, and trying to establish a new norm to supersede the traditional view of men as absent fathers: Men doing half the care, for their children and their parents.
Again, education plays a big role. Mr. Kaufman notes that while more and more men aspire to be good fathers, they don't know what to do since they didn't grow up with proper role models. Fathers' groups in various countries are vehicles for men to learn basic skills such as how to hold a baby safely and how to understand feeding schedules. Also, they provide an outlet for men to express their feelings about being a parent and gain support.
"Someone might ask, 'What will happen when my wife goes into labour?' In Rwanda or townships in South Africa, for example, there aren't the childbirth classes we are accustomed to here. So the groups are trying to prepare them in what is called in some countries Papas' Schools." He points to such classes in the Ukraine, Russia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Chile, Rwanda, and South Africa.
But he also believes that governments will have to be encouraged to make legislative changes.
"If we don't have parental leave for fathers, most fathers couldn't do it," he says.
As in North America, men typically make more money and so a couple will prefer the new father to keep working while the mother stays home. He calls Scandinavian countries "the gold standard" because when the generous leave offered to fathers wasn't used, they began to designate some leave that could be taken only by the father. "It was use it or lose it. For couples it was a no brainer. … So it became the norm for most fathers to take off some time." In Iceland, he notes, parental leave was increased even amid the economic crisis because it was popular and viewed as valuable. Five months is offered to women, five months to men, and five months to either parent.
We think of much of the non-Western world as sexist, and while Mr. Kaufman agrees the changes are far greater in North America and Europe, he says it's still exciting to see the rapidity of the changes in other parts of the world. He cites a father in a township outside of Cape Town, saying, "I want to be the father I didn't have. I want my daughter to have a father who will love her."
He concludes: "We are seeing a remarkable change in our lifetime – the total transformation of fathers. It will bring enormous benefits to women, enormous benefits to men and, of course, enormous benefits to children."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter