What’s a Working Dad to Do?

by Scott Behson

Quick Takes

  • Own your role in changing the conversation about working fathers
  • Talk about your family at work and ask other men about theirs
  • Start an informal group to discuss your lives outside of work
  • Use work flexibility—and ensure that others see you doing it
  • Take your full paternity leave, so others will model your behavior

I was once on a radio show to discuss the struggles men face in trying to balance work and family demands. During the interview, the cohost told a quick anecdote about a run-in he had when he was a rising corporate lawyer at a prestigious New York City firm.

He was divorced and his ex-wife and his kids lived in London, so he flew there to see his kids every other weekend. After two monster weeks of work, he was heading out of the office to go to JFK airport late one Thursday afternoon when a more senior partner confronted him, saying, “Where are you going?”

The cohost responded, explaining that he’d bulked up the past two weeks to finish his work for his very satisfied client and that he was catching his flight to Heathrow to see his kids. The partner angrily responded, “Bullshit. You see your kids more than I do, and I live with mine. Besides I need you here tonight—and over the weekend.” The cohost pushed back and caught his flight, but shortly thereafter decided to give up his career as a lawyer. Life was just too short.

This is an extreme example, but many working fathers face similar pressures to conform to a traditional gender role that insists they be “all in” for work, regardless of achievement level and regardless of family responsibilities. And this is the case despite the facts that:

  • Dual-income, shared-care families are far more the norm than families with a single-earner and an at-home spouse.
  • Today’s fathers spend three times as much time with their children and twice as much time on housework than dads did a generation ago.
  • Men aspire to be even more involved in their families than they are.1

As a result, it has been reported that dads experience at least as much work-family conflict as mothers, and that in some ways, men are facing a funhouse-mirror version of women’s struggles to attain success at both work and home.2

A few years ago, the Flexibility Stigma Working Group at The Center for WorkLife Law at the UC Hastings College of the Law, consisting of researchers from over a dozen universities, published a series of research studies in a special issue of the Journal of Social Issues entitled “The Flexibility Stigma.” About half of the articles focus on barriers men face in the workplace as they try to balance work and family demands. Among their findings:

  • While men value work flexibility, they are reluctant to seek out flexible work arrangements because of fears of being seen as uncommitted and unmanly, and expectations of potential career consequences. These fears, unfortunately, prove to be well founded.
  • Fathers who engage in higher-than-average levels of childcare are subject to more workplace harassment (for example, picked on for “not being man enough”) and more general mistreatment (for example, garden-variety workplace aggression) as compared to their low-caregiving or childless counterparts.
  • Men requesting family leave are perceived as uncommitted to work and less masculine; these perceptions are linked to lower performance evaluations, increased risks of being demoted or downsized, and reduced pay and rewards.
  • Finally, men who interrupt their employment for family reasons earn significantly less after returning to work.

All in all, that’s a pretty stark set of findings. What’s a working father to do? The first step toward healthier workplace culture is to bring the fathers’ work-family issue out of the shadows and to make it a topic for discussion—and that starts with fathers themselves.

As Gandhi said, “We need to be the change we wish to see.” If you have the security, flexibility, courage, and inclination (I recognize some may have more ability to do this at work than others), here are four things working dads can do in our workplaces to make it easier for all of us to discuss and address our work-family concerns.

  • While at work, talk about your family and ask other men about theirs.
  • Reach out to some male work friends and start an informal group to discuss your lives outside of work. Have lunch together or grab a drink after work and talk.
  • Use work flexibility and let your male colleagues see you do so. Tell people you are leaving early for a school event but are taking work home. Or, explain why working from home a few days a week is so valuable, since you’re able to replace commuting time with helping your kids with their schoolwork.
  • At the birth of a new child, take your full paternity leave. Make a plan and communicate it to others in your company, signaling your commitment as a dedicated father and employee. (As a leader or manager, this is especially important, as others will model your behavior.)

We need to make it more normal for working fathers to discuss and address family issues. I know it is not easy to stand out. But these small steps can lay the groundwork for communicating your needs as a parent and building more supportive workplace cultures.

Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, August 21, 2013.

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