External Childcare Services & Gendered Perceptions of Time Conflicts

By Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen and Dominique Oehrli

In recent decades, female contributions to paid work have strongly increased. This trend can be observed in most countries, although to different degrees. This, in turn, has nourished public and scientific discussions on whether and how female employment could be promoted. Most prominently, it has been shown that external childcare services play a crucial role: These measures facilitate the reconciliation of family duties and paid work as they provide women with opportunities to become more extensively employed and also promote the preference to do so.

However, quite obviously, the relationship between external childcare provision and female employment does not occur in a vacuum. In other words, and this is the starting point of our article, if external childcare policies lead to a stronger labor market involvement by women, these policies also may have much broader consequences on what women and men (!) do beyond the labor market, that is at home or in society.  In our study we therefore look at the relationship between external childcare policies in Swiss municipalities and gender-specific perceptions of time conflict. Hence, we are interested in whether childcare policies indeed shape the allocation of time to paid work, work at home and social activities and how the potential time conflicts in handling these different activities are perceived by individuals.

The main finding of our study is that the existence of childcare policies in a municipality mainly affects men’s perceived time conflicts. For men, having small children does not induce any time conflicts if they do not live in a municipality that provides Early Childcare and Education (ECEC) services. By contrast, fathers living in a municipality with ECEC services face substantially higher time conflicts regarding both, leisure and housework activities. Conversely, women’s perceived time conflicts are to a much lesser degree related to childcare services in the municipality. Childcare provision is associated with stronger perceptions of time conflicts only when children get older, probably because mothers typically increase their employment level when their children grow older.

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Given these results, do we need to question the positive framing of external childcare provision? While our findings may seem to be somewhat disillusioning at first sight, a closer look leads to a more positive conclusion. In fact, our findings clearly support the hypothesis that the provision of childcare services is associated with a more equal division of labor within households; in particular also with a stronger involvement of fathers at home. It is true that this increased equality induces some “costs” (i.e., stronger perceptions of time conflicts) that are mainly reported by fathers. That is, at least in the Swiss context—changing gender norms provoke more negative feelings and stress in men than in women. This gender difference may be explained by the fact that a more equal division of labor for mothers is strongly related to increased opportunities. Put differently, although a stronger labor market involvement may objectively mean more time conflicts for women as well, this situation does not automatically translate into stronger perceptions of time conflict. In contrast, it can be argued that a more egalitarian division of labor makes fathers’ lives more complex. The advantages of more modernized family roles are less obvious for them, but rather they are confronted with new and stronger constraints. Moreover, at the more normative level, these fathers may feel a conflict between their involvement at home and the still persisting traditional image of how a “real man” should behave. This is a conclusion that seems reasonable at least in the Swiss context. Hence, it is the clash between the different normative ideals that makes the situation particularly difficult for fathers.

Against this background, our results eventually point to the need for policy makers to consider and target not only women but increasingly men when crafting childcare (but probably also parental leave) policies. Most importantly, our article implies that childcare services are a relevant, but not a sufficient mean to promote a sound work-life balance for parents. In this vein, it is also important to acknowledge that childcare policies may have different consequences on different groups depending not only on their specific design but also on the cultural context. In a country like Switzerland, for example, in which a (modernized) male-breadwinner model still dominates and in which childcare coverage is far from universal, the changes induced by these policies may create particular conflicts – including normative struggles. However, these policies may at the same time be a trigger for changing traditional gender norms and moreover provide men also with positive experiences in new roles. Whereas these processes will obviously need some time, this might eventually lead to a situation in which policies promoting more equal gender roles will be perceived as opportunity rather than as constraint also by men.

Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen is professor in comparative politics with the University of Bern. Her main research interests concern comparative welfare state research and political behavior and attitudes. Current research projects aim at linking these two areas by considering potential policy feedback effects, mainly in the field of family and energy policy.

Dominique Oehrli is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Political Science, University of Bern. Her main research interests concern comparative welfare state research and, in particular, gendered policy effects. In her PhD thesis, she investigated the relationship between conditional cash transfers and women’s labor market involvement in Latin America.

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