Men called to step up for kids

By Geraldine Johns

The respected policy expert charged with finding solutions to child poverty has challenged men to take responsibility for children's well-being - it's not enough to leave it to the womenfolk. Geraldine Johns reports

Professor Jonathan Boston has discovered a significant gender divide, in terms of the level of male and female leadership and involvement in addressing child poverty and deprivation. Photo / APN
Professor Jonathan Boston has discovered a significant gender divide, in terms of the level of male and female leadership and involvement in addressing child poverty and deprivation. Photo / APN

A keen mix of MPs and their staff gathered in a windowless committee room at Parliament last week. They were there to discuss solutions for child poverty.

Addressing the group, Professor Jonathan Boston took a look around his audience - and realised he was the only man in the room.

For years there have been concerns that men are not stepping up and taking enough of a role in bringing up their own kids - the challenges around "deadbeat dads" are well-documented. But last week's meeting, says Boston, illustrates how the problem reaches far higher.

The Victoria University public policy professor has discovered a significant gender divide, in terms of the level of male and female leadership and involvement in addressing child poverty and deprivation.

Boston is co-chairman of the Children's Commissioner's advisory group on solutions to child poverty. At some of the group's public forums this year, women outnumbered men by four to one.

Certainly, employment statistics reflect the predominance of women in professions such as teaching and nursing - but higher up the welfare decision-making ladder, too.

There are five women among New Zealand's 29 core public-service chief executives - and three of them are responsible for education, women's affairs and Pacific Island affairs.

In the Government, women hold the Cabinet portfolios for education, social welfare, youth affairs and women's affairs; men hold positions for finance, foreign affairs, economic development and defence.

Boston believes everyone in society needs to care for our children and be concerned for those who are least advantaged. "Poverty is not just a women's issue, it's a societal issue.

"Men need to step up and take responsibility for these issues, along with women."

His comments have been met with scepticism in some quarters. Economist and social researcher Dr Paul Callister says interest in children's wellbeing is not a gender issue. "The bigger issue is that both men and women don't care enough about child poverty. If we did, we'd have a Swedish or Norwegian system in place."

Callister believes men do engage with the challenges facing kids but they demonstrate it differently. "They are not necessarily at Plunket but they might be working with Big Buddy (which recruits male mentors for fatherless boys)."

He also points to the work of sports coaches, and organisations such as Rotary and the Lions, as examples of where he believes men are stepping up.

Caring organisations remain dominated by women, Callister concedes, but these women are earning a salary addressing child welfare.

"They're in relatively good jobs ... people can be very concerned about child poverty - but that's their job." He calls it "the professionalisation of morality".

Men might instead be out doing dangerous jobs such as mining to provide for their children, he adds.

Callister cites a United States study which argued that it was hard for a society to come together when there were a lot of divisions. "If you emphasise divisions more than commonality, it's hard to get the view that you are your brother's keeper."

The expert advisory group's final report on solutions to child poverty is due for release on December 11.

- Herald on Sunday

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