Better halves for a better whole

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 May, 2012, 12:00am


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.

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.

The structure ensures parents have to sit down together and plan their childcare arrangements, and that's essential to kick-starting equality, says Adrienne Burgess of the UK's Fatherhood Institute, a leading think-tank on the benefits of active fathering.

'When men have rich, complex relationships with their children, the way women normally do, everybody wins,' says Burgess.

The fertility rate in Hong Kong has fallen to an average of just 1.04 births per woman, which will have serious social consequences, said Professor Paul Yip, its leading academic on population policy.

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.