Keith Rankin's Thursday Column

 Family Politics and Gender Roles

4 May 2000

As I intimated in this column (9 March), Muriel Newman's "Shared-Parenting" Bill has met with a political response. The government, in the form of Laila Harre (Minister of Women's Affairs), and the New Zealand Law Society, have used standard conservative tactics to avoid a debate - like the abortion debate - in which two entrenched sides argue past each other, and in which politicians takes sides at their peril.

The NZ Law Society kicked for touch in a media release on 26 April (, suggesting that we should do nothing until a broad-based review is conducted.

Laila Harre, on National Radio used another ploy. She quoted statistics with the intention that a false inference would be drawn by listeners. She said that only 5% of marriage breakups go to custody hearings at the Family Court. The inference that we were meant to make was that 95% of separations are handled without undue and ongoing conflict.

Of course, on reflection, it is obvious that the 5% statistic is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately we often don't reflect on what we hear or read. We urgently need better statistical information about broken families, so that these debates don't take place in an information vacuum.

In any legal dispute, it is common to settle out of court. This is particularly true for custody/access cases. Out of court settlements are based on practicalities, and cannot be assumed to be mutually satisfactory outcomes. Parents, especially fathers, settle for situations they believe are not in their children's best interest because: (i) they cannot afford to conduct a legal dispute, (ii) they have been advised that the likelihood of getting the outcome they seek through a custody hearing is low, (iii) or they believe that the ongoing process of a formal custody hearing is itself damaging to the children. They choose the lesser evil when they have no opportunity to seek the outcome that they believe is best.

Both the Law Society and Ms Harre claim that the Shared Parenting Bill focuses on the interests of parents rather than the interests of children. On the other hand, Dr Newman claims the converse, that her bill is about promoting the rights of children rather than the rights of fathers. We need to know much more about the harm adversarial conflict does to children, and the difficulties they face growing up with a marginalised dad lurking around in the background of their lives. Laila Harre, in encouraging us to believe that only 5% of separations involve the kinds of conflict that could be damaging to children, downplays a very real problem.

No system in which lawyers act on behalf of parents to persuade a judge to adjudicate in favour of one parent over the other can ever be considered a child-centred system. Lawyers are paid to get good results for their clients, and not to see the bigger picture. Judges are often conservative in that they have perceptions of specialist gender roles which are not relevant to the realities of twenty-first century parenting.

The adversarial system of family law generates, at best, win-lose-lose outcomes. Fathers who don't want to play the adversarial game withdraw, leaving intransigent mothers the winners of a game that, because case-law in particular favours mothers, rewards such intransigence. The adversarial process and its unsatisfactory aftermath create an extremely corrosive environment for children.

There is another very big issue at stake. The feminist revolution - a transformation from a society based on gender-specific social roles to a society based on gender equality - remains incomplete so long as parenting is regarded by society as woman's work.

In the 1960s - when our judges were at law school - gender roles were highly specialised. Women were breeders and caregivers. They married young, had their first baby within a year of their marriages, and worked for pay only as school-leavers or in later life when their youngest child commenced school. Men, as providers, were paid an above-market "family-wage"; money expected to be transferred by married men to their wives; money expected to be used by single men to build up a deposit for a family home or as capital in a business that would enable him to support a family. While expected to be a role-model for their sons - a role-model as a provider and not as a caregiver - men were not 'hands-on' parents.

Since the feminist revolution began in the 1970s, however, the transition to non-specialist roles has been too highly focused on the issue of women participating as equals in the paid workforce. Feminism then was more about creating equality in what had been the male-specialist domain, and not about gender equality in general.

Yet women can never gain complete equality in the domains of employment and business until they concede equality in their specialist domain: the domain of the home and of children. So long as women retain - indeed fight to retain - a gender-privileged status in the home, there cannot be equality in the external workplace. By the law of subtraction, so long as women are overrepresented in home-based roles on account of gender-discrimination, then women will be underrepresented in corporate life and as proprietors of businesses.

Legislation requiring parents of equal status to negotiate care arrangements for their children - instead of leaving it to the legal process to decide - is needed to complete the feminist revolution. Such legislation necessarily holds 50-50 parenting as the legal fallback option.

The transition to interchangeable gender roles depends on both legislation and customary practice that removes all gender discrimination from both the external world of paid work and the domestic world of housework and child-raising. (While it's another matter, equality in housework is as much about each adult member of a household having an equal say in determining what tasks should be done [demand] as it is about doing equal shares [supply].)

Interchangeable gender roles are not social engineering. Nor are they about 50-50 outcomes. Rather the system of entrenched gender roles represented a form of social engineering; a legacy of Victorian times which feminists rebelled against. The final battle of the social revolution initiated by feminism - a victory that Muriel Newman is pushing for but which Laila Harre is holding out against - will not lead to 50% of parenting being done by men. Nor will it lead to 50% of all wages, salaries and profits being paid to women. Men and women are different, so it is likely that the free choices of men and women will reflect their differences. But the removal of all gender discrimination will mean that there will be no artificial barriers that make it more difficult for women to pursue a career than men, or which make it more difficult for fathers to be hands-on parents than mothers.

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