Updating our Portrait of Today's Father

Dads today are much more hands-on and engaged with their children than fathers were a generation ago. The majority want to share parenting responsibilities equally with their spouse but know that their actions are not yet aligned with their aspirations.
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Getty Images, the large American stock photo agency based in Seattle which supplies images for the media, creative professionals, and businesses, decided it was "time to give masculinity a makeover" according to Kristina Monllos's article which appeared in ADWEEK on June 11th. Getty Images has curated a new collection of images that redefine traditional representations of masculinity.

In her piece, Ms. Monllos observes that just eight years ago, images of fatherhood were scarce, and the ones that were available were steeped in clichés -- playing sports, fishing, drinking beer. But over the last three years, Getty Images has seen images tagged "modern dad" or "stay-at-home dad" increase in sales by over 450 percent. Quoting Pamela Grossman, the company's director of visual trends:

In 2007, the top-selling image of a fatherhood globally was an image of a man playing football with his son. You can't get any more gender-normative than that. Whereas our top-selling image of a father this year, so far, is a man with his daughter sitting and reading together.

The energy and texture of the image is so markedly different in the seven-, eight-year span that we're tracking.

Every June for the past six years, my colleagues and I at the Boston College Center for Work & Family, have published a new report in The New Dad series on the changing role of fathers in America. It may be a rare point in time when the ivory tower academics and the Mad Men of the advertising industry are tracking with one another, but long before hearing about the new Getty collection and its aim to paint a new image of fathers, we had decided to call this year's report The New Dad: A Portrait of Today's Father. We, too, had decided that it was time to hit re-set in terms of how people think about today's dads.

Each year, the Center has looked at fathers (in our research with mainly college educated, white-collar men) from a different perspective -- dads of young infants, professional dads in large corporations, at-home dads, etc., and with each year our depiction becomes fuller and richer. In a departure from conducting primary research, this year we have synthesized our previous five years of research with that of some of North America's leading fatherhood scholars to paint a portrait of today's fathers. What are some of the highlights of the portrait that we share in this year's report?

  • Dads today are much more hands-on and engaged with their children than fathers were a generation ago. They no longer see their role solely or even primarily as a breadwinner. The majority want to share parenting responsibilities equally with their spouse but know that their actions are not yet aligned with their aspirations.

  • Men in same-sex couples have significantly higher satisfaction with the division of household and childcare responsibilities than those in traditional marital arrangements. Our friends at Families and Work Institute report that since tasks in same-sex couples cannot be divided solely on the basis of traditional gender roles, more conversations occur about how the responsibilities are fulfilled. Couples who have conversations about household responsibilities have a higher satisfaction with the division of labor.
  • While many believe that dads who take time off with their kids are viewed as "heroic" in the workplace, this isn't necessarily true. Yes, fathers who take the rare afternoon off to go to the recital or game may be lauded, but according to a study from Jennifer Berdahl and Sue Moon, fathers who are consistently and conspicuously involved in care-giving unfortunately face stigma and career penalties.
  • In spite of this, Dads are very keen to see their companies offer paid paternity leave. While "conventional wisdom" says fathers won't use the time they've been given, research suggests otherwise. In one of our Center's studies, when dads in professional positions were asked how much time they took off for paternity leave, the most frequent answer dads gave was as much as their company offered, even if that was 4 or 6 weeks (as long as it was paid leave). Policies that offer greater equality in parental leave are clearly on the rise. For example, Johnson & Johnson's newly expanded parental leave policy provides all new parents with eight additional weeks of paid time off during the first year following a birth or adoption. J&J has not only expanded their paid leave to include fathers, but has also made the timing of the leave flexible so they can take it when needed.
  • Finally, as discussed at the outset, we are beginning to see a dramatically different and more accurate view of today's father in the mass media. In addition to the Getty images, advertising generally seems to have reached a crossover point in its portrayal of men as caring, involved dads. Take this year's crop of Super Bowl advertisements as a case in point. Competitors Toyota and Nissan certainly got the message and seemed to be following the lead that Unilever established with their very popular Dove Men+Care campaign.
  • Major social movements typically need a very long horizon before lasting change can be observed. While the shift toward seeing fathers in a new, more nuanced and holistic light may still be work-in-progress, significant gains have occurred in only a few short years. These gains will benefit society, families, spouses, children and most of all, the fathers themselves.

    Happy Father's Day!

    Dr. Brad Harrington is Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and a research professor in the Carroll School of Management.

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