Abstract Child support payments extend separated fathers’ male breadwinning role across households, likely fuelling fathers’ perceptions of “unfairness”. By examining fathers’ written submissions to an Australian inquiry, we examine fathers’ claims of unfairness, which were expressed in terms of gender inequality. Here, we show how fathers adopted a gender equality discourse that left intact the existing gender order. Through expectations for equal treatment, men claimed the child support system would produce equality of outcomes, namely, eliminating the redistributive need for child support payments. In doing so, fathers’ qualified support for gender equality advantaged men as payers while further entrenching gender inequity. Introduction This article examines separated fathers’ assessments of gender fairness and unfairness in submissions to a 2014–2015 parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s child support system, following significant policy changes that occurred in 2008. At that time, and in response to significant lobbying by vocal Australian men’s rights groups (Cook and Natalier 2013, 2014, 2016; Fehlberg and Maclean 2009), the child support formula was modified to provide for the equal treatment of men’s and women’s incomes and overnight time spent caring for children. In this analysis of fathers’ submissions to a subsequent 2014–2015 inquiry, we examine the gender equality rhetoric deployed by fathers in their new claims for child support reform. Specifically, we assess the sources of fathers’ perceived gender unfairness, the nature of gender equality that fathers sought, and the implications for mothers and fathers in terms of equal treatment, outcomes, and opportunities to access resources, rights, and responsibilities (Beckerman 2017; Orloff and Shiff 2016). Given that gender equality policymaking is a contested and negotiated process (Walby 2005), and one where men often act as gatekeepers (Connell 2003), in this article, we analyze the claims put forward by fathers as they advocated for child support policy reform. In doing so, we contribute to the emerging body of research that examines men’s often qualified uptake of gender equality discourses in ways that leave intact their personal benefit from gendered structural arrangements (Frericks 2012; Levtov et al. 2014). These studies have found that men take up gender equality in abstract rather than in concrete ways and often in ways that are least disruptive to existing hierarchies. We locate our analysis in the field of feminist policy studies (Bacchi 1999; Hawkesworth 1994) which examines such issues as “how power relations are gendered … [and] how ‘the political’ includes gender issues formerly considered ‘personal’” (Kantola and Lombardo 2017, 324). We provide empirical support for the discursive feminist policy studies position that the representation of gender inequality and equality exist within power-laden political contexts which can open up or close down subsequent policy solutions (Bacchi 1999; Kantola and Lombardo 2017). To make such power relations explicit, and to extend contemporary and contested understandings of gender equality within feminist policy studies (for discussions, see Bacchi and Eveline 2010; Krizsan and Lombardo 2013; Lombardo, Meier, and Verloo 2017), we suggest that the term be unpacked to differentiate the forms of equality being pursed. Bacchi and Eveline (2010, 2) note that “although ‘gender equality’ is commonly put forward as the taken-for-granted goal of [gender] policies, it does not necessarily follow that the same social vision accompanies the invocation of this term”. As such, the contest over what gender equality policy means is evolving and ongoing and occurs largely outside of feminist policy analysis, such as in the worlds of policy development and implementation. As Lombardo, Meier, and Verloo (2017) note in their historical analysis, over time the term gender equality has simultaneously been stretched to incorporate new meanings such as intersectionality, shrunk to represent tight technical issues, or bent to accommodate goals other than gender equality, such as economic growth, in order to fit into existing policy frames. We posit that ongoing contests over what gender equality means and how gender equality policy should be developed stem, in part, from the conflation of three types of gender equality, namely, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment, and equality of outcomes. Equality of opportunity means that all people have equal access to social or material inputs and is captured in lay notions of “a level playing field.” Equality of treatment, on the other hand, refers to all people being dealt with similarly, regardless of their starting point, and foregrounds equality in the application of a process. The standardized application of the Australian child support formula provides an example here. Finally, equality of outcomes refers to an equal result, allocation, or benefit, independent of the inputs or process. We argue that these “types” cannot coexist on equal terms, as to improve equality of opportunity may require unequal treatment, for example. Moves toward one type of equality will result in moves away from another. In the words of Beckerman (2017, 209), following the work of Sen (1992): [I]f you are in favour of greater equality in some “evaluative space” you will usually have to condone greater inequality in some other space. So are you an egalitarian or not? It is not possible to be an egalitarian in all of them. We argue that rhetorical use of the umbrella term “gender equality” may provide policy lobbyists with social legitimacy for their claims, while simultaneously advocating for forms of “equality” that in fact entrench rather than dissolve social disadvantages. Following Krizsan and Lombardo’s (2013) delineation of “difference” versus “equal treatment” approaches to gendered policy development, we suggest in the following analysis that there is danger in reading men’s claims for gender-equal treatment as consistent with the structural transformations in equality of opportunities that are required to deliver gender-equal outcomes. We begin this analysis by presenting a brief overview of the role of gender in the Australian child support policy context. Gender and Australia’s Child Support Policy History Child support is money transferred between parents post separation for the purpose of supporting children (International Network of Child Support Scholars 2017). In Australia, legislation to establish child support orders and transfer payments were implemented in 1988 and 1989, respectively. Femocrats such as Meredith Edwards had significant influence over the policy’s design and implementation, which embedded gender equity principles into the child support program (Child Support Consultative Group 1988; Fehlberg and Maclean 2009; Hancock 1998). The original system sought to redistribute money across households to combat the high rate of poverty experienced by single-mother-headed families (Fehlberg et al. 2015; Fehlberg and Maclean 2009; Hancock 1998). Reflecting the gendered distribution of work and care at the time, payments referenced the male breadwinner model; positioning one parent, typically the father, as the primary earner and the other parent, typically the mother, as the primary carer. In so doing, in addition to supporting greater gender-equal outcomes through the redistribution of finances post-separation, the policy also upheld a very traditional division of labor. Through the child support formula, the male breadwinner model was universally replicated across households following separation, regardless of individual family practices. This likely fueled fathers’ deep resentment of the child support system, culminating in a parliamentary inquiry (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs [HRSCFCA] 2003), redesign of the formula (Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support 2005), and legislative changes that took effect between 2006 and 2008. Australian child support formula reform occurred contemporaneously with the enactment of “welfare to work” legislation in 2005 that compelled single parent benefit recipients from July 1, 2006, to seek thirty hours of employment per fortnight once their youngest child turned six (Australian Government 2005). These welfare changes sought to compel and normalize single mothers’ employment, further eroding reference to the male breadwinner model in post-separation contexts. At this time, one of the primary justifications for amending the child support formula was women’s increasing labor market participation (HRSCFCA 2003), foregrounding the need for gender-equal treatment. Within the amended child support legislation, equal treatment rhetoric saw the replacement of references to “mothers” and “fathers” with the gender-neutral terms of “parents”, “payers,” and “payees.” More significantly, the revised formula adopted an “income shares” approach to the calculation of child support, whereby both parents’ income and overnight care of children was treated equally (Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support 2005). The income shares approach legitimated assumptions regarding the need for equal treatment of parents’ earnings and care. As each parent’s income and share of overnight care-time are entered into the formula to determine a child support liability, child support in Australia entails both financial and caring dimensions. The formula thus positions caring and working time as interchangeable, marking a fundamental change in the operation and purpose of Australian child support policy. However, despite the rhetoric of equal treatment, given the reality of the unequal distribution of work and care that exist between mothers and fathers, the revised child support formula still operates within a wider context of unequal opportunities. Hence, despite equal treatment, the resultant calculations still required money to be distributed across households from typically wealthier minority-time fathers to typically less wealthy primary caregiving mothers. Fathers with child support liabilities, however, can reduce their payments by increasing their care time. This provides fathers with good reason to argue for gender equality in terms of equal opportunities for caring and earning. As Australia’s child support policy history shows, while gender equality policy has typically been fought for by feminist scholars, women’s organizations and policymakers (Connell 2003; Lombardo et al. 2017), the gendered foundation of Australia’s original child support system was challenged primarily by men (Fehlberg and Maclean 2009; Smyth 2005; Smyth and Henman 2010), arguing for equal treatment. Fathers’ rights groups have been described as calling for and being highly influential in the conduct and outcomes of the 2003 inquiry and subsequent legislative changes (Cook and Natalier 2013, 2014; Fehlberg and Maclean 2009). At the same time, feminist researchers have stridently critiqued the 2006–2008 child support reforms, arguing that the revised formula and the evidence on which it was based disproportionately favored the interests of fathers as payers, excluding the worldview and experience of mothers as recipients. These critiques give credence to the idea that men provide qualified support for gender equality policy initiatives, often in ways that buttress their gender privilege (Frericks 2012; Levtov et al. 2014; Ratele 2015). The achievement of gender-equal treatment in the child support “incomes shares” formula is likely one such example. Here, the outcome of the 2008 policy reform was far from gender-equal and relied on gendered practices of policy development that favored and reinforced men’s interests. Analyses of the 2003 inquiry hearings and 2008 policy reforms revealed men’s claims regarding the problems with child support policy were prioritized in policy processes (Cook and Natalier 2013, 2014) and were given disproportionate weight by policymakers (Cook and Natalier 2016). Economic modelling of child support liabilities under the revised 2008 formula supports the assertion that men were the reform’s primary beneficiaries. Studies reveal net financial losses experienced by child support recipients (mainly mothers), while high-income payers (mainly fathers) were likely to be financially better off (Smyth and Henman 2010). The losses experienced by low-income single mothers were intensified when the dual effect of child support and welfare to work changes were considered (Summerfield et al. 2010). For example, Son et al. (2014) found that the proportion of separated mothers in poverty increased by six percent following the introduction of the new formula. Yet, despite financial and symbolic gains resulting from the 2008 reforms, fathers still consider child support policy to be deeply unfair (Christensen 2014, 2017). Simultaneously, it appears that fathers’ influence over child support policy processes has remained strong. Following the election of the conservative Liberal/National coalition in late 2013, a new inquiry into the Australian child support scheme was held. Of relevance to the current analysis is that the Chair of the 2014–2015 inquiry committee, federal Member of Parliament, George Christiansen, was an active supporter of such fathers’ rights groups and causes (O’Hara 2014; The Nationals 2012), recently labelling the child support system as “anti-male” (Christensen 2017). The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs (HRSCSPLA) comprised eleven members of parliament and was chaired by Mr. Christensen, a staunch ally of the then Liberal/National (i.e. conservative) coalition Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Among other things, the terms of reference asked the Committee to inquire into: the management of collection and payment of child support arrears and overpayments; the flexibility in the system and whether it was keeping pace with families’ change in circumstances; and the linkages between child support policies and Family Court decisions, and the provisions for high conflict families. A particular interest was identified as “assessing the methodology for calculating payments and the adequacy of current compliance and enforcement powers for the management of child support payments” (HRSCSPLA 2015). On the one hand, the inquiry was therefore very broad, but on the other hand, was also highly specific with close attention being paid to the working of the formula for calculating maintenance amounts. Ten months after the final hearing, the report was tabled by the Committee, which presented twenty-five recommendations and a “plan to take the CSP [Child Support Program] to a new generation of service” (HRSCSPLA 2015, 2). Yet, as of September 2017, none of the recommendations from the inquiry had been enacted, most likely due to the change in Prime Minister in September 2015. The 2017–2018 federal budget, tabled in May 2017, included three measures that the government identified as responses to the inquiry. All three pertained to administrative changes to tax and financial records procedures (Commonwealth of Australia 2017, 151) rather than changes to the child support program or formula. Despite the lack of policy action to date, it remains important to understand the issues presented by fathers, as their voices were highly influential in the 2003 inquiry and may yet influence policy reform. Given the policy import afforded to fathers previously, it is necessary to understand the policy problems fathers experienced and the solutions they proposed. There is a need to examine the extent to which these solutions could produce gender equality, the form this equality would take, and the gendered impacts produced as a result. As Raewyn Connell (2003, 10) asserted, the task for gender equality policy is to recognize the reasons for resistance to gender equality among men and boys, to find answers to the arguments advanced by opponents, and to find better solutions to the underlying social concerns that find expression through resistance to gender equality. Before beginning this task, however, we turn to describe the gendered reality of post-separation parenting in Australia, in order to establish the context for the subsequent analysis. The Gendered Reality of Australian Post-separation Parenting In 2016 in Australia, there were 618,900 one-parent families, overwhelmingly headed by women (eighty-three percent) (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS] 2017). Such mothers are more likely to rely on government benefits than their male counterparts (ABS 2012). The increasing prevalence of single-mother-headed families mirrors trends internationally, where the number and proportion of such households has been increasing since the 1970s, with over a quarter of children in English-speaking nations now growing up in such families (Berrington and McGowan 2014; Cancian and Haskins 2014). Financially, the proportion of single-parent households experiencing poverty in Australia increased from 25.7 percent in 2003–2004 (prior to welfare and child support reform) to 29.1 percent in 2013–2014 (Australian Council of Social Service and the Social Policy Research Centre [ACOSS and the SPRC] 2016). There is also no doubt that child support is an important income source for lone-parent families. In 2011, child support payments (when received) were found to reduce the rate of single-mother-headed family poverty by twenty-one percent (Skinner, Cook, and Sinclair 2017). The high level of Australian single-mother-headed poverty is due in part to gendered work and care patterns that exist prior to separation (Craig 2006) and an entrenched and significant gender pay gap, especially for full-time employees (Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency [BCEC and WGEA] 2016). ABS (2015) and longitudinal panel data (BCEC and WGEA 2016; Dinh et al. 2017) show that while the majority of Australian intact families with dependent children have two employed parents, in most cases it is the father who works full-time while the mother works part-time. With respect to caring patterns that underpin separated mothers’ desire and capacity to work, the Longitudinal Study of Separated Families (LSSF; Qu et al. 2014, 72) found that “children most commonly spent 66–86 percent of nights with their mother, and 14–34 percent of nights with their father.” Further, ABS (2015) data revealed that 45 percent of children with a parent living elsewhere saw this parent at least once a fortnight; with a further 26 percent rarely seeing their other parent. In 87 percent of cases in 2009, which is the last time the Australian Child Support Agency released such data, child support payments followed these gendered patterns (Child Support Agency 2010). For fathers, the average child support liability reported in the LSSF was $131 per week, with fathers reporting full compliance in 73 percent of cases (Qu et al. 2014). With respect to the affordability of payments, 78 percent of fathers agreed that these payments were affordable, although more than half of paying fathers considered that this amount was more than their children needed (Qu et al. 2014). In a comparative analysis of child support liabilities across Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and New Zealand (NZ) (Skinner et al. 2017) payments in Australia were found to be comparable or lower across a range of family cases. Specifically, minimum payments in Australia ($391 per annum at the time of the analysis) were substantially lower than the comparator countries. Liabilities for low-moderate earning payers were comparable to NZ, but lower than the United States and UK, and liabilities for median income earners were slightly lower than in NZ and the UK, and substantially lower than in the United States. Over the three waves of LSSF data collection (2008, 2009, and 2012), paying fathers’ assessment of child support payments as being “very” or “somewhat fair” to them decreased from 71 to 63 percent. At wave three, the authors reported that: [F]ather payers who considered that their child support payment was very fair were required to pay the lowest mean amount of child support per week ($97), followed by those who considered the amount of payment as somewhat unfair [sic fair] ($127), while fathers with the view of very unfair or somewhat unfair were required to pay the highest mean amounts ($157 and $155, respectively). (Qu et al. 2014, 129) As previous research on submissions to the 2003 inquiry suggest (Cook and Natalier 2016), it is likely that the most aggrieved fathers, who have the highest liabilities, are the most active in policy reform processes. Methods The aim of the analysis was to explore fathers’ arguments in their written submissions to the 2014–2015 inquiry. We wanted to understand how problems with child support were framed and to consider whether fathers’ own perceived gendered reality might have been made more prominent while mothers’ gendered reality may have been ignored or downplayed (e.g. by ignoring how the economic consequences of mothers’ part-time work patterns fitted to children’s care needs). Our approach follows Barbour’s (2014) description of frame analysis; a derivative of thematic analysis. Such discursive analyses are a common method within interpretive policy analysis (Durnova, Fischer and Zittoun 2016) and “deconstructionist” approaches to feminist policy analysis (Bacchi 2009; Kantola and Lombardo 2017). Frame analysis focuses on how representations of a particular problem, in this case gender equality, are “packaged” together (Barbour 2014, 280), using rhetorical techniques, appeals to norms, and other means of generating and legitimating representational claims. The data we used came exclusively from fathers’ written submissions to the inquiry. The inquiry called for a range of inputs from academics, interest groups, service providers, and affected individuals and over 130 written submissions were received. Of those, after reading their submissions, we identified that seventy-five came from “individual” members of the public as opposed to organizations, lobby groups, and agencies, including fathers’ rights groups (see table 1). Of the seventy-five “individual” submissions, fifty-five were self-identified or were identified by the research team, as fathers. The remainder were from mothers or other family members, with one submission unable to be classified. In addition, the submissions from individuals contained information about their child support experience and this made it possible for us to discern whether they were a payee or payer of child support, or neither. Table 1 Volume and sources of data Individuals’ evidence by source Total volume of evidence Fathers Mothers Other family members Unknown Submissions 130 submissions 55 13 6 1 Public Hearings 13 sessions; 76 witnesses 3 1 – – Community Statement Sessions 8 sessions; 105 witnesses 65 28 9 3 Individuals’ evidence by source Total volume of evidence Fathers Mothers Other family members Unknown Submissions 130 submissions 55 13 6 1 Public Hearings 13 sessions; 76 witnesses 3 1 – – Community Statement Sessions 8 sessions; 105 witnesses 65 28 9 3 Table 1 Volume and sources of data Individuals’ evidence by source Total volume of evidence Fathers Mothers Other family members Unknown Submissions 130 submissions 55 13 6 1 Public Hearings 13 sessions; 76 witnesses 3 1 – – Community Statement Sessions 8 sessions; 105 witnesses 65 28 9 3 Individuals’ evidence by source Total volume of evidence Fathers Mothers Other family members Unknown Submissions 130 submissions 55 13 6 1 Public Hearings 13 sessions; 76 witnesses 3 1 – – Community Statement Sessions 8 sessions; 105 witnesses 65 28 9 3 In addition to written submissions, 105 individual members of the public made three-minute statements at community sessions held during eight of the thirteen hearings. An online questionnaire also allowed people to share their views and this was open for five months and received approximately 11,300 responses. It should be noted that the number of written submissions received by the 2014–2015 inquiry was a fraction of the number received in 2003 (HRSCFCA 2003), reflecting in part a more subdued emotional tenor and the diversity of options to provide input, including through the anonymous survey. Our data focus upon the fifty-five written submissions made by fathers. The three-minute statements were excluded, as they were too short to provide sufficient detail on the framing of arguments. Also excluded were the questionnaire responses, as these data were unsuitable for our analytical technique. The fifty-five submissions we did use, however, imposed some limitations. In terms of sampling, while we excluded submissions made by organizations and lobby groups, including fathers’ rights groups, it was not possible to discern whether an individual submission was made by a father who was a member of such groups. With respect to the analysis, we could only interrogate “what was said” and not the reasons “why,” because our ability to delve deeper was restricted by the nature of the data itself. For example, the context of these fathers’ lives was not fully apparent: there was limited information on their relationship histories, their current family circumstances, and those of the mother and children involved in the child support obligation. Nor was there reliable information on the socio-economic and employment circumstances of both parents, and so it was not possible to compare and contrast men’s accounts on this basis. Additionally, the remit of the inquiry was driving responses in a different way than would be the case if these men had been interviewed for an in-depth research study. Given these limitations, and following our interpretive approach to frame analysis (Barbour 2014), the analytical purpose of working with these data was to become sensitized to the variety of arguments and the frames fathers used to explain both the policy problems and their solutions; and in doing so, reflect on these in terms of the implications for: policy reform post-2008, gender equality, and feminist theory. We began the analysis by reading through the fifty-five included transcripts, inductively coding the content of the submissions into thematic domains (Barbour 2014), identifying “un/fairness” as a core concept. Using interpretive techniques of frame analysis (Bacchi 2009; Barbour 2014; Rein and Donald 1993) we then coded the data into how fathers organized their arguments regarding fairness and unfairness, including how they defined the problems and their solutions. We also considered the “meta-cultural frames” they employed (which comprise broad, culturally shared systems of belief [Rein and Donald 1993]), which in this case covered issues such as parenting, gender roles, and the division of work and care. From these techniques, we considered that “unfairness” captured how fathers described the problems with the child support program in terms of gender bias and inequality, while “fairness” was used in terms of gender equality and was central to the solutions that fathers proposed. We now present the results of this analysis in two sections, reflecting the unfairness/fairness dichotomy described above, before moving on to a discussion of the implications. Findings An Unfair, Gender-Biased System Given that submissions were sought to identify the problems with child support, it is not surprising that fathers’ responses were replete with examples of failures in the system; in particular, how it failed fathers and their children. The child support and Family Court systems were marked out as contributing to or causing a range of social and individual problems. Societal problems included the encouragement of single parenthood, domestic violence, and male suicide, as the following excerpts illustrate, respectively. There is no incentive for mothers to stay in relationships or marriage. Why would they, when it is easier to get more money from child support than they would get from staying in the partnership and trying to work things out. (Submission 114) Unfortunately we have seen too many instances when a parent is pushed too far and violence erupts. (Submission 66) The culture of the CSA needs changing. The Government needs to share the responsibility for the high rate of male suicides that are attributable to family breakdown. … How many more men have to die before the system changes? (Submission 34) Individual problems were flagged as consequences arising from child support operations that were regarded as inadequate and linked to parental conflict, non-compliance, unemployment, and income minimization tactics. Again, the following excerpts illustrate these concerns: The child support system’s current methods of collecting and calculation payments lack transparency, is overly complicated, disempowering, easily manipulated, impacts on career choices and favours [sic] recipients to manipulate the system. The program promotes resentment and conflict amongst parents, increases non-compliance of payments and results in angst and financial insecurity. (Submission 74) As far as the male psyche is concerned, the reason a good father gets up each morning to go to work in an often unrewarding or stressful job is to earn money to protect and care for his family. After separation it is imperative that his children are still an integral part of his life to provide the motivation to keep going. In the high conflict families when the children are prevented from seeing the father he becomes despondent and may lose his job. It is little wonder that the unemployment rate for child support payers is as high as 43%. (Submission 79) While the previous excerpt foregrounds and defends the breadwinning role of fathers, the enforcement of this role post separation was also cast as a problem across submissions. The cause of this problem was frequently identified as the gender biased child support system that prioritized the interests of mothers. This was sometimes framed as a deliberate feminist strategy, or a policy that was anti-male: This enquiry [sic] lists as one of the terms of reference, ways to reduce conflict. Contrary to what seems to be modern feminist mantra, men are not stupid. They are not blind to a system that repeatedly treats them as second class parents, a system that reduces their contribution to their children’s lives and upbringing, as a walking wallet and visitation centre. The overwhelming majority of Australian men of procreating/child rearing age have been brought up to believe in equality. … They believe that men and women should be both involved in raising children. They witnessed the inequalities of the day that were biased against mothers, and perhaps their older sisters. They then accepted that both genders are entitled to receive the same compensation for their efforts at work and home. … They see systems which have NOT kept pace with societal expectations and modern family dynamics. They see decisions which are biased against men, against them for providing an income for their families. This causes frustration, anxiety, depression and anger. (Submission 87) The present adversarial system is totally out of control being run by feminists in the CSA and the family court of Australia to the detriment of fathers and their children. (Submission 28) In an environment where bullying is frowned upon by all government institution[s] how is it that the CSA can invest so much time into bullying and intimidation and due to the number of men victims caught up in this vendetta it is policy that is essentially anti male. (Submission 03) Further to the anti-male comments, above, a “gender equality” discourse was evoked to argue that men and women had the capacity to be equal and should be treated as such by the system. Feminists seek equality for women, even if this means forsaking men’s rights. This should not be their goal, their goal should be equality for all. In this current day both males and females can enter any career they want to, we should be encouraging everyone to be financially responsible for themselves and 50% responsible for the upbringing and financial costs of their child. (Submission 77) I do not hate women, I am being objective when I state that men are being disadvantaged in society. If we truly want gender equality then treat women as equals and don’t perceive them as eternal victims that need saving. (Submission 34) Given the deeply inequitable division of work and care responsibilities between mothers and fathers pre- and post-separation which result in unequal earnings, such claims for equal treatment were often illogical, unsubstantiated or overly simplistic in nature. Their purpose, however, was to frame the problems in terms of gender inequality as the primary lens through which the child support formula and its outputs should be understood. The framing elevated “unfairness” and identified a system that subordinated men’s rights to father and children’s rights to have contact with their fathers to women’s right to mother. For example: Boys are growing up without seeing their dads due to an unfair system. (Submission 03) The entire system perpetuates the incorrect belief that just because a woman has a womb and gives birth to children that they are a better parent and more deserving of the right to parent than men. The majority of non-custodial parents are men. The system turns them from loving fathers into nothing but wallets. (Submission 21) It is a right that children have access to both parents if at all possible. And children have the right to know both parents for who they are and what they believe, not simply as a name on their birth certificate. No parent should have the right or means to exclude the other parent from having practical influence and participation in the upbringing of their child(ren) simply on the basis of personal preference. (Submission 117) Despite these arguments, there is no legal right to parent, although several articles within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child set out children’s rights to know and be cared for (Article 7), stay in contact with their parents (Article 9), and access parental resources (Article 18). The Convention does not ascribe any right to children to have shared residence with their parent(s), nor does it make any provisions for how parental time or responsibility should be divided. As such, how mothering and fathering are performed and organized post-separation is a matter for individual parental negotiation. These negotiations occur within the context of legal and administrative systems that recognize children’s rights and parental responsibilities. These systems were challenged by this “fathers, rights” rhetoric: Why is it that when both parents are together the government finds it totally acceptable for both of these people to care for and raise their children? If this is the case then both parents automatically deserve the right to care for their child 50% of the time. (Submission 77) Another way in which the seeming unfairness of the current system was challenged was by men foregrounding their currently unrecognized contributions. In the above excerpts, fathering was described as providing love, wisdom, care, and visibility. As the excerpt from Submission 21 illustrated, terms that foregrounded and idealized the parent–child relationship, such as “loving fathers” were often employed. What was absent from men’s accounts of parenting, however, was a description of the practical work of parenting, including the time, money, and organization that this care work entailed. Yet, despite the practical reality (and difficulties) of caring for children being absent from men’s framing, this did not prevent claims for rights to fifty per cent care of children. In arguing for rights to equal care time, it seemed the fathers were concerned that motherhood was being “unfairly” recognized and resourced by the child support system. Arguably, therefore, the system was seen as failing because it did nothing to stop fathers feeling pushed out of their children’s lives and it did nothing to support fatherhood. Rather the system could make things worse for fathers and their children. Furthermore, what many fathers seemed to be railing against was how the gendered division of work and care they enjoyed pre-separation no longer suited their needs post-separation. Instead, such gendered arrangements seemed better suited to mothers’ needs and preferences. Yet, rather than acknowledging the structural causes of unequal gender divisions of work and care, mothers’ majority share of overnight care of children was cast as the undesirable and unfair result of systemic child support biases which mothers could manipulate for personal gain. Interestingly, at the same time as protesting against these perceived gendered biases, the submissions applied gender neutral language in the construction of some of the arguments for gender equality, as we now turn to explore. Seeking Gender Equality in the Division of Work and Care Throughout their submissions, fathers tended to use de-gendered language such as “paying and receiving parents,” “people,” “parents,” “payees and payers,” and “both parties.” These terms echoed the policy rhetoric introduced in earlier reforms and served to dissolve the differences between mothers and fathers, rendering the breadwinning and caregiving tasks performed by each parent post-separation as interchangeable. For example: 5. Mandatory assumption of EQUAL parenting The starting point for all access and care assessments MUST start with assumption of EQUAL parenting. Both parents are equally responsible for raising their children, not only should financial support be enforced but also equal access. (Submission 23) As this excerpt illustrates, the dissolution of differences between men and women was often framed in terms such as “equal” and “fair.” Yet, while such terms appeal to notions of equality, they simultaneously ignore the longstanding and highly inequitable gender contract that sees Australian fathers working long hours and Australian mothers typically working in part-time, lower-paid jobs with poorer conditions of employment (Dinh et al. 2017; Wilkins and Wooden 2014). The demand for equal shared care post-separation was also positioned as a means of eliminating the need for child support altogether, including in cases where there was equal shared care, but also income disparity between the parents. Here, the existing system was seen as illegitimate, as it was transformed into providing “spousal maintenance” as opposed to exclusively “child” support. Introduce 50/50 parenting arrangements where practical as a starting point. The family law act states that both parents are equally responsible financially for the upbringing of a child. 50/50 parenting arrangement would cancel out child support all together. (Submission 28) It would be reasonable to assume that with equal shared care—that the concept of a payer and a payee would no longer apply. The current system is working as a spousal maintenance system, where despite the sharing equitable time and costs, one parent pays the other if they earn more income than the other. (Submission 68) Fathers expressed their frustration and anger that mothers were enabled, and financially rewarded, by the system when they did not work or worked less hours than fathers. The solution, therefore, was to require separated mothers to work, and preferably full-time. Remembering that the payer needs to work and obviously has more expenses than a payee sitting at home. … I believe that the child support formula was actually supposed to be based on both parents working and carrying their fair and equal share. (Submission 112) When children are in shared care there seems little obligation on parents working to similar hours. Why should one parent work longer hours than the other parent when care level is 50%. This is not fair! (Submission 109) The issue of resident parents in receipt of high levels of support who opt to work part-time, when they could be working full-time in their current positions, be addressed. (Submission 12) In this newly conceived gender-neutral world, men’s calls for mothers to work full-time like fathers relies on the assumption that care work is invisible, or at least, that it can be easily performed by someone else. This argument is made in the excerpt below. In this father’s submission, it appeared that the only solution to manage work and care post-separation was for him to carry on in work. This father’s need for a child-carer was contrasted with the situation of the mother, who did not “have to” find a new partner or engage in work: Also often the paying parent is working full-time and has no option but to engage in another relationship in order to care for their children. Often the custodial parent does not have to work for various reasons and does not have to engage in another relationship to provide care. This situation can cause a lot of grief. The payee should be expected to work just as the payer is by the CSA. (Submission 25) This quote above is particularly interesting because, simultaneously, it implicitly argues for gender equality in the mother’s household where she is expected to work on the same basis as the father, but in the father’s household, the traditional gendered division of labor can continue within the new relationship. While, in a roundabout way, this father did recognize the unequal capacity of each parent to care, this was largely absent from most submissions. In only two cases was such capacity explicitly acknowledged: Agreements should be directed by the assessment to determine how much care each parent has the capacity to provide and wants to provide, with a 50/50 shared parenting schedule the starting point if one parent nominates this and has the capacity to undertake this parenting responsibility. The capacity to undertake a parenting role should not be influenced nor determined by the other parent. (Submission 34) If this [shared care] is the case then both parents automatically deserve the right to care for their child 50% of the time (or if not 50% of the time at least a % up to 50% of the time that is agreed on by the parent who isn’t able to provide 50%). (Submission 77) Each of these excerpts recognized that parents, typically fathers who work long hours, may not have the capacity to care for their children fifty percent of the time. However, rather than acknowledge the limitations that caring responsibilities place on mothers’ employment capacity, fathers instead focused on the extent to which they desired control over the division of care. Overall, and notwithstanding the individual issues raised, the analysis of the submissions identified two subtly different “frames” of the problem of the child support system in the post-2008 “equal treatment” era. In the first instance, under the “gender-biased system” heading, the arguments frame fatherhood and fathering as being ignored by the system, while it simultaneously elevates or supports motherhood. This critique was often bound up in solutions premised upon “fathers’ right” to fifty percent shared care. Conceivably, arguing for equal treatment of care time in this way was meant to even-up the recognition afforded to fatherhood and motherhood in the system, because the practical realties for fathers to manage care and employment were largely ignored in this framing. In the second instance, under the heading “seeking gender equality in the division of work and care,” the arguments were framed as a lack of gender-equal outcomes that fathers construed as being caused by women’s unequal and unfair ability to opt out of work. While the child support formula may treat both parents’ incomes and care time equally, there was great discontent that this did not produce equality of child support outcomes and expressed as no need for child support payments. Fathers’ claimed mothers were being financially rewarded by the system, which sometimes was seen as merely providing spousal maintenance where shared care was operating between parents of different financial means. Within this frame, the solutions offered by fathers were not to demand equal treatment of incomes, because this was already in place under the “incomes shares” model, but to demand gender equality in women’s employment time to even up the monetary child support outcome. Again, the practical realities of combining caring and working were ignored and so too were the gendered disadvantages faced by mothers in the labor market. Discussion Our analysis shows that in the written submissions to Australia’s most recent child support inquiry, fathers sought to promote their own sense of “fairness” by arguing for reform of the child support system around the principle of equality. In particular, fathers argued that both mothers and fathers had equal opportunities to earn and care, and should be compelled to do so. They believed that the system should support fathers’ caring role on equal terms with mothers’ and mothers should be compelled to work on equal terms with fathers (i.e. full-time). However, such equal opportunities were illusionary and—even if compelled—would not result in the equal outcomes that fathers suggested given the gendered reality of family work and care. UNESCO (2014, 60) states that with respect to gender policies, we need “targeted measures” to compensate for the “historical and social disadvantages” that stop women and men from becoming equal, noting that this might require different, and unequal, treatment. The redistributive function of the child support formula provides one such example. It is action on gender equity, through the transfer of resources from the wealthier parent (typically the father) to the less wealthy parent (typically the mother), that can lead to gender equality. Sun (2014, n.p. original emphasis) sums up these discrete yet inter-related concepts nicely: Equality aims to promote fairness, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same help. Equity appears unfair, but it actively moves everyone closer to success by “levelling the playing field.” Sun’s (2014) description of equity measures appearing as unfair is exactly what we propose underpins men’s negative evaluations of the child support system, as such measures disrupt and unsettle the existing gender hierarchy (Lombardo et al. 2017). The extent to which child support is, and should be, a vehicle for delivering gender equity is precisely what is at stake. As Orloff and Shiff (2016, 110) describe, while the necessity of formal gender equality—that is, equal treatment under the law—is largely taken for granted, if and how states or other institutions should press for greater equalization of resources, rights, and responsibilities is contested. We contend that fathers’ qualified uptake of gender equality discourse is a response to the disruption of the existing gender hierarchy and gender contract that occurs post-separation. In our analysis, following others (Frericks 2012; Levtov et al. 2014; Ratele 2014), we found that fathers adopted the rhetoric of gender equality but usually only in ways that buttressed or privileged their position. Unlike Levtov et al. (2014), whose International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) found that “men did not perceive gender equality as a ‘zero sum game’ where gains for women meant losses for men,” a zero sum game was precisely how separated fathers regarded child support, where any child support or care-time “win” for one party translated directly into a financial or care-time “loss” for the other. Pursuing gender equity, as the child support formula seeks to achieve, can be seen by fathers as unfairly advantaging women, namely by privileging women’s choices about how much to work or care. Such policy settings have led researchers such as Smyth and Henman (2010) to describe child support as an unsolvable Rubik’s cube, where it is impossible to balance the interests of payers, recipients, and the state. In this inquiry, fathers talked about providing love and care for children, but talked little about the practical work of care, mirroring previous research (Craig 2006; Olchawski 2016; Smart 1995). There was clearly resentment of the structural gender inequality that men faced as separated fathers. Mothers were positioned as having the best of both worlds, while fathers claimed they faced a double inequality of being trapped in a traditional breadwinning role by child support liabilities and trapped in a traditional gender division of care (with attendant gender inequalities in the labor market) that prevented the mother from equally sharing the burden of earning. Often, the solutions that fathers proposed in response simply reproduced gender inequalities, despite apparently striving to achieve the opposite. Fathers’ submissions, while claiming greater gender equality, and frequently using gender neutral language in doing so, never really challenged the capacity of employed fathers to provide 50/50 care or the capacity of mothers to work full-time while also caring. Rather, gender equality arguments tended to be premised upon a father’s right’s perspective (or child’s right’s perspective) to provide (or receive) paternal care. Deployed under the mirage of gender equality, this apparent equality discourse did little to challenge the status quo of traditional gender roles. Fathers made no real claims to promote gender equality through wider policy actions that would de-gender parental obligations, or achieve equality in terms of income, wealth, or division of caring responsibility pre-separation. While women remain financially and socially disadvantaged by their caring roles and the recognition of such within the existing child support formula, unusually in this policy context, it is men as separated fathers who regard themselves as disadvantaged by their advantageous labor market position. Yet, such structural concerns about gender relations or labor market positions were absent from fathers’ gender equality arguments. Their submissions to this inquiry did not challenge or problematize the gender pay gap (BCEC and WGEA 2016), the gendered distribution of caring responsibilities that exist pre-separation (Craig 2006; Dinh et al. 2017) or the gender of poverty post-separation (ABS 2012; ACOSS and SPRC 2016; Skinner, Cook, and Sinclair 2017). Rather their arguments around the unfairness of the current child support system prioritized men’s right to care—but without generally acknowledging their capacity to do so—and elevated women’s responsibility to earn on an equal basis to men—while ignoring their capacity to do so. Fathers’ solutions mainly focused on requiring help from the state to recognize their “right” to care and compel mothers to work. In fathers’ submissions, there seemed to be no role cast for the state to improve gender equality, apart from dealing with mothers in some way, most often punitively. Conceivably, addressing wider gender inequities in society could render the child support scheme obsolete, as men’s and women’s employment, income, and caring would become more equal. As noted by the United Nations Population Fund (2005), gender equity approaches, actions, and interventions lead to gender equality, not the reverse. Levtov et al.’s (2014) research supports this assertion, with Norwegian survey data showing that material realities, such as balancing economic resources within couples, for example, played a greater role in driving gender-equitable practice than did men’s attitudes towards gender equality. But while practical equality offers a fruitful way forward, research also indicates that this is far from a reality in many nations, including Australia, due to the gendered reality of work and care (BCEC and WGEA 2016; Cancian and Haskins 2014; Craig 2006; Dinh et al. 2017; Olchawski 2016; Qu et al. 2014). Applying a feminist lens, we argue that fathers’ solution of “fairer” equal work and care responsibilities fails to address the unfair and unequal socio-political conditions that structure mothers’ and fathers’ lived experiences and opportunities to work or care. As such, while fathers’ calls for gender equality could be viewed as laudable, their claims rendered invisible women’s unequal access to resources, rights and responsibilities (Orloff and Shiff 2016). As the previous child support policy reforms have indicated, when fathers were able to define the child support policy problems and solutions through a male gendered lens that focused on “equal treatment,” the outcomes tended to exacerbate rather than reduce gender inequity (Cook and Natalier 2013, 2014, 2016). Thus, it is a concern that policymakers might adopt fathers’ gender-equal rhetoric despite the fact that resultant policies are likely to reinforce the existing social order, as occurred in previous Australian child support policy reform (Smyth and Henman 2010; Summerfield et al. 2010). Our findings provide useful insights for gender policy studies with respect to differences between equality of opportunities, equality of treatment. and equality of outcome (Beckerman 2017), and the differentiation of gender equality from gender equity policy aims (United Nations Population Fund 2005). Fathers’ support for equal treatment as a pathway to equal outcomes was based on the erroneous assumption that there existed equal opportunities. When arguing for equal outcomes that would render the child support system obsolete, fathers typically ignored the gendered reality of mothers’ and fathers’ unequal capacity to work and care. Given these omissions and conflations, it is important for feminist policymakers and analysts to understand the type of gender equality being argued for and to consider the implications of pursuing one type of equality over others. We suggest a careful reading of men’s qualified uptake of gender equality discourses to identify the competing priorities as well as what is lost in various configurations of equal opportunities, treatment, and outcomes. In doing so, we suggest feminist policymakers strive for solutions that address the underlying equity issues. Drawing on the parlance of Frericks (2012, 16), it serves as a warning for child support and other policymakers to be suspect of calls for equal treatment measures: [T]he elimination of earlier forms of (positive) discrimination can bring with it unexpected hardship, if the conditions that originally motivated the positive discrimination—such as a gendered division of care, or economic dependency—persist. Policymakers need to be highly sensitized to arguments of “gender equality” and understand that equality is not synonymous with fairness. Women and policy advocates need to continually foreground the reasons why gender equity needs to remain central to post-separation policies, as these address unequal opportunity structures, and critique the extent to which equal treatment policies will achieve equitable outcomes. For example, the 2008 technical changes to the child support system that de-gendered treatment via the “incomes shares model” did nothing to tackle the status quo of unequal caring and earning capacities, but further entrenched single mothers’ financial disadvantage (Smyth and Henman 2010; Son et al. 2014; Summerfield et al. 2010). Conclusion This research sought to understand fathers’ problems with the Australian child support scheme, following the introduction of the “income shares” formula. Fathers’ submissions to the 2014–2015 inquiry revealed that their arguments have moved on from being a matter of equal treatment within the child support formula to being an issue of mothers’ equal responsibility to earn and fathers’ equal right to care. In doing so, fathers moved beyond an equality of treatment discourse to demand equality of outcomes, regardless of whether equality of opportunity existed in reality. In analyzing the claims for gender equality that some fathers put forward, we are not suggesting that these are representative of all separated fathers, or men in general. Rather, what we suggest here is that fathers were able to express their frustrations with the child support program in terms of gender inequality and recommended changes to the program to make separated mothers and fathers more equal. However, left unchallenged, such seemingly laudable arguments write out the historic legacy of gender inequality on which child support was built and thus, further entrench gender inequity. We suggest that equal outcomes, in terms of the zero child support liabilities that fathers seek, is a structural impossibility given Australia’s deeply gendered, and inequitable division of working and caring roles. This analysis, however, presents an opportunity to mobilize men in feminist campaigns to de-gender work and care as a solution to the failures of post-separation policy. However, fathers’ submissions to the inquiry were not very politicized. They did not argue that gender inequality on separation had its roots in policies that failed to de-gender care work or create more gender-equal divisions of labor in families pre-separation. Instead, fathers tended to understand the outcomes of such structural inequalities as the individualized fault of mothers who were regarded as not attempting to work more or care less to create gender equality. They contended that the system simply condoned and supported women’s behavior as mothers, while simultaneously downplaying or exploiting their role as fathers. We contend that it is not for the child support system to “fix” gender inequality, as these structural issues run much deeper than the Band-Aid solution provided by distributing income from a breadwinner to a caregiver post-separation. However, until Australian policies can more meaningfully grapple with the gendered distribution of earning and caring responsibilities in society, child support will remain a flashpoint for challenging seemingly “unfair” gender relations that are impossible to resolve using this policy instrument. Kay Cook is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Swinburne University. Her work explores how new and developing social policies, such as welfare-to-work, child support, and childcare policies, transform relationships between individuals, families, and the state. Her work seeks to make the personal impact of these policies explicit in order to provide tangible evidence to policy makers to affect more humanistic reform. Christine Skinner is Professor of Social Policy. Her research has explored the consequences of family breakdown for separated parents, including the impacts on lone parent families, their standard of living and work opportunities. She is a leading expert in child support policy and her work has involved extensive and intensive investigations into the experiences of separated fathers and their child maintenance obligations. 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Published: May 8, 2018
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