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Myths and outright lies about fathers are everywhere. They’re hurting women, men, families, businesses, and all of society. They’re keeping sexist Mad Men workplace structures alive, worsening custody battles, and even contributing to the male suicide crisis. We must set the record straight — and that takes time, energy and resources. To support this effort, click here. Anyone who wishes will be listed as a contributor. Any contributions at the $80 level or above will receive a free personalized copy of All In.
Facts about fathers
Major news reports, books, and so-called “studies” are filled with inaccuracies about today’s fathers. After 20 years of reporting for NPR and CNN, where he was an on-air fact checker, Josh Levs has become the leader in setting the record straight.
In his book All In, his talks and numerous articles, Levs disproves the offensive “lazy dad” myth, and shows why it hurts women as well as men. In fact, backward thinking about fathers is one of the biggest factors holding back women in the workplace. (Josh is a U.N. Global Gender Champion and was named by the Financial Times as one of the “top 10 male feminists” in the world.)
Media: All the facts and data below can be attributed to this website and/or Josh Levs. Links to original data and source materials are available in All In and/or within the hyperlinks provided.
Below are some of the popular myths and the facts.
This claim, and others using similar figures, are often cited as empowering for women. But they’re false, and that’s a good thing — because the myth is actually bad for women.
First, the stats. I report accurate figures in All In, and wrote a Huffington Post column about this. It reads in part:
The often repeated 85% figure has no basis. The Wall Street Journal’s Carl Bialik did a good job of breaking this down. The publisher of the Marketing to Women newsletter told Bilalik the figure is “folklore.” A woman who is often cited as the source for the number admitted she has no basis for it. In fact, “Several recent surveys suggest that men have nearly equal say on spending, and that when men and women live together, both participate in spending decisions,” Bialik wrote.
For All In, I went in search of the most solid figures available. One study from Cone Communications found that slightly more than half of dads say they’re the primary grocery shoppers. A study by Child’s Play Communications, carried out by the independent research group NPD, found that moms are the primary shoppers in about 80% of families, making about two-thirds of the spending decisions, and that dads are getting more involved. It also found that in several major categories, men and women share shopping decisions equally.
These figures also vary around the world. For example, a survey in Russia found that men are 52% of primary grocery shoppers.
The myth hurts women because it fuels the idea that only women take care of the home. As I’ve explained, people in power work to prevent men from having time to take care of their families because they’re convinced that men don’t really do anything for the home. They believe a man who seeks paternity leave will just sit around and do nothing. See more on this in a story I wrote for Money magazine.
No. Feminism is, by definition, about gender equality.
I was honored to be asked to debate feminism at the Oxford Union, the site at which many of the world’s most significant debates on major issues take place. My side won!
Having a different take on feminism, or doing something bad in the name of feminism, does not give someone the right to redefine the term. In my arguments linked above, you’ll hear that it’s not just about a dictionary definition. An extensive examination of the term’s usage in the “corpus” found that feminism is indeed about gender equality.
Some people ask why not call it “gender equality” instead of “feminism.” It’s fine to say gender equality or gender equity — I use those terms all the time. It’s also helpful to understand that for generations, the leading movement fighting for gender equality has been feminism. Working, marching, and organizing for equal legal rights for women was, and still is, a battle for gender equality. A look at some countries around the world provides a stark reminder of the need for that cause.
Writing off the movement as anti-men hands the term over to those who misuse it. And worse, it’s a disservice to all the feminists who have fought for, and continue to fight for, real equality.
A section of All In focuses on this myth. Most black fathers live with their children and take good care of them. There are about 2.5 million black fathers living with their children, and about 1.7 million living apart from them. And even then, living arrangements do not connote fatherlessness. Many of those 1.7 million still see their children.
However, you get a different picture when you count children instead of counting dads. That’s because those 1.7 million dads have more children on average. Studies have found that only one in three black children lives with two married parents, compared to three quarters of white kids. Half of black kids live in single-mother homes.
Fatherlessness is a bigger problem statistically in the black community than among other racial groups. That speaks to all sorts of systemic issues including the incarceration crisis. For All In, I spent time interviewing dads in jail. There’s also an entire chapter in which a formerly absentee dad explains where he went wrong and how he worked hard to repair relationships with his kids.
But the upshot remains: No, most black kids are not fatherless.
This claim is false.
Let’s look first at the U.S. Mothers and fathers put in equal work.
The definitive source for what Americans do is the American Time Use Survey, which gathers representative data on tens of thousands of households. Total work hours are the combination of paid work, unpaid work (such as household work) and childcare. Here is a section of All In summarizing what the ATUS shows:
Today’s dads and moms work equally hard on behalf of their families. When you combine paid work with household chores and child care, they put in just about the same amount of time. And we’re talking a lot of hours. On average, dads put in about fifty-four hours of work time to moms’ fifty-three. In two-income homes, moms work fifty-nine hours to dads’ fifty-eight. In single-income homes, the breadwinner works more overall. And although the number of female breadwinners is on the rise, dads are still the vast majority of primary or sole breadwinners.
You can see this section of All In for free here. It includes a citation to Pew Research, an organization that gets plenty of things wrong, but got this right.
As for global figures, the ILO (International Labour Organization) put out a report hundreds of pages long. Inside it was a claim that when hours for paid and unpaid work were combined across several dozen countries, women’s total work hours were higher. However, I asked the ILO about this and spoke with a researcher behind the report. Some statistics used date all the way back to 1998 and 1999. The report includes a big mix of figures from across different time periods. It does not show a snapshot of any moment in time, and does not depict today’s realities.
Remember: the lazy dad myth holds back gender equality.
This one has popped up in headlines, and is one of an incredibly long onslaught of false and misread data in the horribly misguided book “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids.” (Can you imagine anyone writing a book like that about wives/moms?)
This claim is false because the research it’s based on did not in any way represent men and women in general. Instead, a journalist decided to take a look at a day in the life of 147 non-employed men and 147 non-employed women, and compare their activities.
Anyone who takes the time to actually read the article will also see that it does not compare mothers and fathers. Many women in the sample have children — one even has seven kids. Many of the men don’t have children. Why would they be doing childcare? And who cares if they’re cleaning their own apartments?
Comparisons like these are irrelevant and misleading. Comparing a young, unemployed, single man to a married mom with multiple kids tells you nothing. But people supporting the lazy dad myth don’t care.
Again, when you hear these wild claims, go back to the facts: dads and moms are putting in equal work hours on behalf of their families. That is fact.
No, they don’t. The American Time Use Survey lists two separate categories: “personal care” and “leisure.” Personal care includes sleep. From All In, here is what the ATUS shows:
Moms report spending a bit less time each day on “leisure and sports,” but they also report spending a bit more time on sleeping and other “personal care.” The differences are in the same range. So, for example, a mom goes to bed while a dad spends twenty minutes watching TV, then goes to bed, and they both get up at the same time. One doesn’t get “more” than the other; they just used that little bit of time differently.
I’d never write a story that declares simply, “Moms Get More Sleep,” because that would be equally misleading.
Often, this myth is applied specifically to couples in which both parents work full time. So I spoke with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which oversees the ATUS. They got me the data on employed parents, and I did the calculations. (The chart is not publicly available; contact me for a copy.)
Across a week, employed mothers and fathers report spending about 12.5 hours a day on personal care and leisure combined. (Yes, it often doesn’t feel that way! And besides, given that most of that goes to sleep, it’s still a small chunk of waking hours.) Any differences are well within sampling errors. Working moms report a tiny bit more time in personal care and relaxation combined on weekdays, while dads report more on weekends.
Sadly, Pew Research is the worst purveyor of this myth. The agency put out a report looking only at leisure time, while ignoring personal care. I’ve contacted Pew about this repeatedly. They offer no explanation or excuse, they simply refuse to update their report. To complain about this, email firstname.lastname@example.org and tag @pewresearch on Twitter.
Please see this op-ed I wrote on the eve of the National At-Home Dad Network, which lays out the truth. In short, Pew Research did another bad report using bad data. They didn’t count stay-at-home dads, they counted a completely different group of people. The best real statistics available show that approximately 1.8 million men are stay-at-home dads, and they’re doing it because they want to. Also, the census found that “1 in 5 dads with working wives are primary caregivers to their preschool-aged children.”
The fact that anyone believed and reported this despite the lack of statistical basis shows just how far off the deep end the lazy dad myth has gone. When it comes to just about any other group of people, book editors and journalists would think twice before taking such a preposterous claim as fact. But since dads are the target, it simply gets reported.
Here’s how this one came about. A plumbing company in England named Victoria Plum made this claim in a news release in 2014. A bunch of media including The Telegraph then reported it as fact without looking into it. A 2017 book called Drop the Ball then reported it with a footnote citing the Telegraph article. Then the Daily Beast reported it, citing the book.
I contacted Victoria Plum. They insist they have no information about this anywhere in their archives, but that this alleged study was carried out on their behalf by a company called twentysix. That agency, in turn, then told me that they retain no information about it and won’t discuss it.
Here’s the thing: When companies release alleged “studies,” they do it to get press. When a company refuses to share any information behind its own alleged “study,” you know it’s not legit. Sigh.
Myth: Dads insist on doing “the fun stuff” like taking kids to the playground, rather than doing household work.
This is not only false, it’s also nonsensical.
Again, I spoke with BLS to get the latest statistics from the ATUS. In fact, moms spend slightly more time “playing with household children” each day. It’s not a huge difference — just under two hours for moms and just over an hour and a half for dads. But this “playing” category does not include sports. And there’s no breakdown available specifically for employed parents with kids. Since our work structures keep men in the office for more hours and push women to stay home more, women do more overall, so of course that would include fun activities.
Still, what makes this myth nonsensical is summarized by this passage from the upcoming international version of my book:
Couples make choices about who will do what. And the suggestion that playing with the kids is the fun part, while all household chores are sheer misery, belies any real understanding of the modern family…
Lots of parents, both men and women, find some cleaning tasks therapeutic, me included. For example, I do the dishes in our home. There are five of us, so that means a lot of dishes throughout the day. I like it. For those minutes, I get to “zen out.” A woman I know, a mom of three, feels similarly. “That’s me time,” she says. “I get to say, ‘Leave me alone, I’m doing dishes!’” My wife feels this way about the times she turns on music and folds laundry.
Meanwhile, as much as parents love spending time with our children, playing with them can be a much more exhausting, all-encompassing task. If I tell you that I played with my kids at the playground, you may imagine a time filled with frolicking, laughing, and rolling around. Here’s a more typical scenario: As soon as we arrive, one of the kids realizes he needs to go to the bathroom. He could have gone at home before we left, but of course he didn’t. And there are no bathrooms, so I have to walk him somewhere. But before I can, one of my other kids comes running over saying he needs a snack. He could have had one right before we left, but he’s welcome to reach into the bag and take one I packed to bring with us. And, of course, he needs help opening it. Meanwhile, my daughter calls for me because she has climbed to the top of something that she knows she should not be on because it’s for older kids. But she really wanted to, and now I have to go get her down safely. My kid who needs to go the bathroom is upset about all these delays. It’s a round robin of competing needs.
I’d feel much more relaxed at home doing dishes in peace and quiet. But I love my kids and treasure every moment with them, remind myself what a blessing it is, sip some caffeine, and keep going.
Here’s what’s actually happening: Our work structures are acting like gender police, pushing women to stay at home and men to stay at work. By the time a dad gets home, the kids often want “daddy time,” the mom often wants a break from the kids, and the couple decides together that he’ll take them out and play while she does something in the house. He’s been working all day, she’s been working all day. They both continue working in other ways, either through childcare or household tasks.
Suggestions that dads are refusing to do housework and moms are simply allowing that to happen are another way this myth is offensive to women. Moms expect, and are building, egalitarianism in their marriages, just as dads are.
This is false, and a sign of how malleable the lazy dad myth is. Now that equality in overall work hours has been proven, people committed to the myth insist there’s “invisible” work done, composed mostly of planning and worrying, and that men aren’t doing their fair share. It showed up most recently in a Money article by a professor. “If that work were shared, women’s extra burdens would be lifted,” she wrote. “Only then will women have as much lightness of mind as men.”
Thanks to Money, I was given space for a response article correcting the record. I urge anyone looking for the facts to read this full article. Here’s how it begins:
Many of the men you know are suffering from anxiety. More than six million in the United States alone have depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Stress levels are on the rise, too. On a 10-point stress scale, the average man scores a 5, essentially closing a previous gap with women, the American Psychological Association found. Men die by suicide 3.5 times as often as women —more than 90 men a day. And the problem is global.
But few people realize the mental health struggles of men, because men are less likely than women to let on how stressed or anxious they’re feeling. And they’re less likely to seek help.
I also note that the professor cited “one tiny, outdated study from 1996 that included 23 couples. But today, dads are doing more than ever.”
As long as people believe men have “lightness of mind,” they’ll remain oblivious to the stresses and mental health struggles of men around them. This has to stop.
Sadly, the inaccurate piece got far more traffic than my response piece. That’s virtually always the case. People want to read and share negatives. (And while both our articles ran in the physical magazine, mine was shrunk.)
Myth: Even when both parents work full time, moms still do three times the childcare and housework while dads chill
This is a falsehood based on a half-truth, all of which is designed to support the lazy dad myth. Dads put in more paid work hours and moms put in more hours at home. This speaks to the Mad Men-era sexist structures that make it tougher for women at work and tougher for men to get equal time with their families at home. (This is the focus of my book. Read the Introduction and Chapter 1 here.)
The “full time” assertion creates confusion. In records and studies, working “full time” means at least 30 hours a week. So if a mom works 38 hours professionally and a dad works 46 hours professionally, then sure, the mom ends up doing more housework and childcare. But the dad is working just as hard to keep bills paid.
This is also why the wage gap — which is real — hurts everyone, including dads. When moms aren’t paid what they’re worth, dads work even harder as breadwinners, and the sexist cycle continues.
No, they don’t. The OECD’s Better Life Index specifically states — in bold letters no less — “time devoted to leisure is roughly the same for men and women across the 20 OECD countries studied.”
People deeply committed to the lazy dad myth like to point to a report by a few researchers that insisted men actually do get more leisure time. But those who cite this report clearly didn’t read it carefully. When you read it through, you find that when sleep and personal care are included, women in some countries actually report getting more leisure time than men. The OECD’s Better Life Index remains accurate: leisure time is indeed about the same for men and women.
Some people have asked me about a report from the UK Office for National Statistics that says men in the country get more leisure time. That report does not include sleep as leisure. Instead, it lists sleep under “other.” When you look closely, you see that those differences cancel each other out.
This and information on other parts of the world are included in the upcoming international version of my book, All In.
The number of women breadwinners is on the rise, but the number out-earning their husbands has actually not been on the rise this decade.
Before we dig into the numbers, it helps to understand that this myth is bad for women. It bolsters the naysayers who believe the gender wage gap is not real. After all, in their view, if women are becoming the majority of primary or sole breadwinners, how can women be earning less than men?
Some reports say women are 40% of primary or sole breadwinners. It would be great if this figure were accurate, because it would suggest much greater progress in achieving equality than we’re actually making.
Sometimes, these figures are based on an examination of households, not people. Here’s what happens: After a divorce, in most cases, the kids live between two homes. But, often for school purposes, the kids have one legal address. Due to stigmas, that address is the mom’s house the vast majority of the time. Women often feel stigmatized if their home is not considered the kids’ official residence.
Then along come researchers looking at primary or sole breadwinners for families. But they go by “homes with children.” Since the moms’ homes are listed that way, they include those homes — while ignoring the dads altogether. Meanwhile, those same dads are often working harder than ever to pay for their current home, often contributing to the mortgage on their previous home, paying child support, etc.
There’s also another source sometimes used for the figure. The Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census track the percentage of “wives who earn more than their husbands.” These figures do not include unmarried couples, and they are not specific to parents. As I explain in All In, women who make it to the C-Suite are less likely to have children than their male counterparts. Many of those women likely earn more than their husbands and are included in this category.
Both the BLS and the Census show that each year since 2009, the figure has been either 28% or 29%, with no overall trend up or down. When you include families in which the husbands have no earnings at all, it reaches 37% — again, with no trend up or down this decade.
The percentage of women who outearn their husbands spiked during the recession, in which men were adversely impacted even more than women. There is some good news for gender equity in these figures though. The fact that the numbers have not dropped to pre-recession levels, even as men have returned to work and unemployment dropped, suggests that the slow march toward equality in this respect is continuing.
From All In:
Census figures show that 17 million kids live in homes with just one parent, their mother. That’s about 24 percent of kids, up from 21 percent in 1991…But many of these kids are not “fatherless.” The homes that they are registered as living in, sometimes for school purposes, are with their mothers. But some of these kids still spend time with their fathers…“Fatherlessness” can mean different things to different people, so there’s no way to say how many American kids are experiencing it. Many of these kids who do spend some time with their dads need more of it. By emphasizing real numbers I’m not for a second suggesting that this isn’t a crisis. It absolutely is.There are cases of involuntary absence— for example, dads who are denied access to their kids. But most absentee dads could be in their children’s lives if they made the effort.
What myths, inaccuracies, and suspicious reports have you seen? Share links with me on Twitter @JoshLevs.