Men and childcare

July 30, 1999

A core problem of most contributions to the topic of women academics and motherhood (Letters, THES, June 4, 11, 18, July 2) seems to be a structural one, namely the underlying idea that men might "help" their wives but do not share the responsibilities. When I learnt at the same time that I was pregnant and had obtained a prestigious one-year fellowship abroad, my husband, an academic at a venerable institution, offered to ask for the type of parental leave most women academics now take for granted, namely two terms of unpaid leave after the statutory maternity leave. He discovered he was the first man in his faculty of about 70 academics to do so. Despite a colleague's comment that one term would be sufficient to "assist his wife with her new duties", the faculty proved very helpful and will thus enable me to take up my fellowship while my husband looks after the baby.

But the experience prompted me to check my own institution's staff handbook, where I discovered that fathers had the generous entitlement of five days' paid leave - and nothing else. When I raised the issue at a meeting of "Opportunity 2000", the other women looked in astonishment and then said that, most likely, no man had ever asked for more. This reflects perfectly the perception that childcare still is the primary female responsibility, and all the research into "gender issues" seems slightly less relevant than the change of working and legal patterns that provide real equal opportunities.

Ulrike Freitag Department of history, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

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