Winds of Change Persistent but Slow for Working Dads

Many fathers fear to ask for time off to balance work and family

By Joseph B. McGhee, PHR Aug 20, 2010

A recent Google search for the term “maternity leave” yielded 12.7 million results, but “paternity leave” yielded only 604,000. Change is coming in the quest for work/family balance for fathers, yet it is slow and gradual. It does not seem to be employers or even workplace laws that are holding things back so much as society itself.

Societal or Generational?

It’s widely known that young generations expect to achieve greater personal fulfillment and work/life balance than was generally available to their older colleagues. This is true of Generation X, those born from 1965 to around 1979. But it is Generation Y (the Millennials), born starting around 1980, who are hitting the workplace by storm in their yearning to achieve high levels of personal and career success. Members of this group are certain to push work/family balance to new levels in the coming years as they start families and exercise their family-leave rights.

Roughly 60 percent of those now earning bachelor’s degrees are women, and women comprise 50 percent of the workforce filling high-level jobs. However, as reported in a 2010 study published by the Boston College Center for Work & Family, The New Dad: Exploring Fatherhood Within a Career Context, when one spouse stays at home to care for children, in 97 percent of cases that spouse is the wife. “The low number of stay-at-home fathers suggests that, for a whole host of reasons, men’s role as father, nurturer and caregiver is still not fully embraced in our society [or] by the vast majority of employers,” the researchers write.

Often, fathers don’t want to sidetrack their careers but would enjoy the work/family balance that mothers strive for. Thirty years ago, women were trying to forge new roles for themselves, challenging the way that employers perceived them in light of their status as parents. Ironically, men today find themselves in a similar situation.

The researchers demonstrate that the tables have turned on which gender experiences more work/life conflict. It examined a 2008 study published by the Families and Work Institute, Times Are Changing: Gender and Generation at Work and at Home, which looked at the work/life conflict experienced by dual-earner couples with children under 18. The results revealed that (in 2008) nearly 60 percent of those men experienced work/life conflict compared to about 42 percent of women. The opposite was true for the previous generation.

Beyond Newborns

The quest for work/family balance extends far beyond requests for paternity leave. Some would argue that balancing work and family life becomes increasingly difficult into the primary school years. In dual-income families, fathers share responsibility for staying home when a child is sick, going to doctor’s appointments and the like. Then there are school functions for which fathers want to be present, even if the other parent plans to attend.

Historically, mothers have been responsible for
most child-rearing activities, so managers,
unconsciously, might extend more flexibility to them.

Yet many fathers fear that asking for time off for these purposes would make them appear less committed to their career. This has long been the case for working mothers—the fear that devotion to family would make them appear less reliable to their employer. The difference is that, historically, it has been expected that mothers would be responsible for the majority of child-rearing activities regardless of their employment status.

That stereotype exists even though fathers are sharing quite a bit of that load with mothers. Unconsciously, managers might extend more flexibility to mothers as a result. And even if they don’t, fathers might perceive that the expectations placed on them are somehow different, that they should think twice about disclosing fully why they need to take time off.

The Boston College study concluded with a poignant quote by a father that summarizes the underlying reasons for the stress men feel:

“Let’s say, for example, a peer of mine who’s a woman has a child of similar age; there’s more empathy, more understanding, more wow, you’re really doing a lot. … I think there’s an assumption that when I go home I’m not doing as much. … [T]here’s just a natural inclination to believe that my wife does the bulk of the work. It’s not a prejudice. … It’s nothing negative or anything nasty. But I certainly am aware of it. And it’s something that is frustrating. I make such a commitment to my family and being there for them.”

Parental Leave Laws and the Role of HR

As reported by the Society for Human Resource Management in School Visitation Leave, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted school visitation leave laws. They range from encouraging employers to allow flexibility to outright mandates of up to 40 hours per year of school-related parental leave (many with maximums per month). In most cases the time off is unpaid, so the direct impact to businesses is minimal.

However, working fathers still face the reality that, culturally, the term “parent” most often means “mother.” Once again, this presents an opportunity for HR to be a pioneer in their organizations and help steer the corporate culture proactively ahead of what is mandated. HR professionals can lead the charge by ensuring that programs and flexibility extended to parents applies equally to employees with children.

Joseph B. McGhee, PHR is a benefits manager in Richmond, Va., and has worked in human resources for over 10 years.

Related Articles:

Family Responsibilities Discrimination Impedes Men, SHRM Online Legal Issues, October 2010

Review Policies on Leave for School-Related Activities, SHRM Online Legal Issues, August 2010

Work/Life Benefits for Dads Can Give Employers Edge, HR News, June 2007

U.S. Trails Other Countries in Worker-Friendly Policies, HR News, February 2007

Related Video:

Family Responsibilities Discrimination, SHRM Multimedia, August 2010

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