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What are the hidden costs for, and experiences of, at-home fathers?

American research, February 2013

What are the hidden costs for, and experiences of, at-home fathers?At-home fathers say that they find it difficult to accept being placed in a marginalised social position. How do they manage this tension? And what does this rebellious energy mean for employers and marketers? Dr Coskuner-Balli (Chapman University) and Professor Thompson (Wisconsin School of Business) recently explored these issues, observing the role of at-home fathers is viewed by society as low in ‘cultural capital’, i.e that it has a lower level of normative social legitimacy especially when compared with men at work. The role of at-home fathers diverges from dominant ‘breadwinner’ gender norms, more commonly interpreted disapprovingly through negative ‘Mr Mom’ stereotypes. Domestic duties of child care, cooking, shopping, cleaning, laundry, and other forms of domestic labour are seen as subordinate to social norms that have previously linked fatherhood to paid work.
Yet, rather than seeking to mask their deviance from mainstream norms, the research suggests that at-home fathers are now on the front foot and actively seeking to communicate and enhance the status value of their domesticated role by engaging in new practices and converting these into recognised forms of economic, social, and symbolic capital.   This emergent group may help to recognise and legitimise the value of time outside the paid workforce, especially when at-home parents seek to return to the workforce.

Aim

This research aimed to understand the experiences of at-home fathers, which socio-historic conditions have rendered feminine and a devalued form of cultural capital. In particular, this research focused on the consumer behaviours and practices adopted by at-home fathers to increase their “value” and sense of legitimacy.

Method

To capture the experiences and perspectives of at-home fathers, a multi-method and longitudinal data-collection approach was used, including:

  1. 17 in-depth interviews
  2. netnography of 67 at-home fathers blogs; and
  3. ethnographic observations at multiple field sites such as playgroups.

The researchers sought to develop insights by first identifying common themes coming from the descriptions of actions or behaviours provided by at-home fathers.  They then analysed these accounts and themes in the broader sociocultural context.

Findings

The authors found that at-home fathers actively pursue cultural legitimacy of masculine domesticity through varied means. Indirectly, at home fathers seek legitimacy through:

  1. The conversion of their domestic cultural capital into economic capital, and
  2. the formation of social capital through forging a sense of collective identity.

In addition they directly seek symbolic capital to enhance the value of their investments in domestic activities. Each of these forms of capital is discussed below, but for simplicity the authors provide the following tangible example.  Yachting carries a higher degree of social prestige than bowling, and more “readily converts into social capital among those in positions of authority and power, economic capital” such as information about investments and career opportunities, and symbolic capital as indicated by perceptions of taste and prestige”.  The question is how at-home fathers convert a lower status role into higher value.

Conversions to economic capital

In the absence of a steady stream of income, at-home fathers look for alternative ways to provide economic value to the household. Activities such as scouring the marketplace for good deals or generating revenue through offering swimming classes in the backyard pool advance the goal of cultural legitimacy.

Additionally, at home fathers feel these activities add value by providing economic resources for their wives to convert into cultural capital that is valued in the occupational sphere.

Conversions to social capital

At-home fathers often find their competence as a primary caregiver is questioned. Forming social networks both online and through other interactions such as at-home father playgroups builds social capital by providing avenues for sharing stories and reinforcing a collective identity.

Seeking symbolic capita:

At-home fathers seek to counter cultural perceptions of illegitimacy by masculinising domesticity. In particular they portray themselves as adept users of technology and skilful DIY practitioners, tapping into cultural associations between technology and power/control to combat the cultural ‘illegitimacy’ of the at-home father. Furthermore, to distance themselves from the femininity associated with cooking, the researchers found that many at-home fathers outsource meal preparation responsibilities (e.g. take away).

Implications

This research has identified an emerging group of employees and their partners who sit outside traditional expectations of parenting.  Staying ahead of this curve means that employers could:

  • Acknowledge: Traditional expectations (and the behaviours) about who will an at-home parent are being disrupted by an emerging group of at-home fathers.   
  • Re-evaluate: The perceived level of ‘risk’ of women leaving the workforce due to having children in regards to workforce planning, recruitment and promotion is based on underlying traditional gender biases.  Employers who consciously or unconsciously follow this traditional mindset, through policies and practices, are likely to create tension for employees who seek to become at-home fathers, as well as employees who seek to be stay-at-work mothers. An additional point of re-evaluation is the value attached to time spent outside the workforce.  When re-entering the workforce these experiences are traditionally ignored or devalued, however the behaviours of at-home fathers may facilitate a re-evaluation of skills gained during this period.  
  • Opportunity: Many producers and service providers build their market based on gender or other stereotypes and biases. For example, the baby product market is highly geared towards women. However, there are potentially untapped opportunities to expand market share by moving away from these biases (for example, by producing nappy bags that are appealing to men).
  • Exploration: This research has identified a hidden population and their nascent behaviours. Thinking of an employee within the context of their family unit, further employment based research could help understand the processes and practices that support or inhibit fathers-at-home as well as mothers-at-work.

To read the full article, see Coskuner-Balli, G. , Thompson C.J. (2013) “The Status Costs of Subordinate Cultural Capital: At-Home Fathers’ Collective Pursuit of Cultural Legitimacy through Capitalizing Consumption Practices” Journal of Consumer Research.(published online Nov 2012).

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