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Work / Life: A Balancing Act For Fathers, Too

Being a working parent comes hand in hand with a permanent state of guilt, and the challenges facing working mothers are well recognised. But spare a thought also for working fathers. As International Men’s Day approaches, we’ve put them in the spotlight for a change.

You don’t have to fish around Google for long on the subject of gender balance in order to uncover a plethora of information about the struggles of balancing work and family life. What’s notable though, is that the vast majority of these articles focus on how this impacts women in the workplace – the need for flexibility, work life balance and the overall impact of this on career progression. It’s hardly surprising really. In spite of living in far more enlightened times than our predecessors, tradition and society still dictate that the default parent is generally seen as the mother, even regardless of whether both parents work. And anyone who answers to the name of Mummy or Daddy will know only too well that life with children is far from predictable from one week to the next. From school performances to childhood ailments, from vaccination appointments to after school activities – the need for parental input and support is constant, and even the length of the school day shows no regard for standard working hours (much less with travel time on top!).

There is no better opportunity than International Men’s Day to shine the spotlight onto working fathers. What is it really like to be a working father in today’s world? More specifically, an involved working father. One who, whilst recognising that he can’t witness every milestone and special moment and earn the family crust, would like to at least participate in the Dad’s race at Sports Day (running spikes at the ready – this is a serious business!), arrive home before bath time more than once in a blue moon, and be greeted with at least a vague flash of recognition by the class teacher on parents evening. It isn’t necessarily all about the ‘good stuff’ either. Every working couple dreads the arrival of chicken pox and all that it brings; a week of cancelled work arrangements, house arrest, and Topsy & Tim on repeat. Needless to say, for most couples, it’s the battle of the work diaries – whose work world will stop turning if they call in to cancel, and who has the most accommodating boss?

It’s hard, though. Harder in some ways for the involved working father than for the working mother, not least because of the cultural barriers they face regarding working flexibly and balancing work and family life. Requests to leave early or work flexibly for anything family related are still seen as ‘unmanly’; men are traditionally positioned by society as the breadwinners, the protectors and the providers. The overriding expectation is usually that there will be a female partner at home to wear the parenting hat. And the fear of being seen as lacking in commitment or career drive is understandably off-putting when you are, in fact, the main (or sole) breadwinner for the family. Despite an internet packed full of data on the challenges facing working mothers, it is hard to find much in the way of recent stats documenting the plight of working fathers. But, according to government statistics, men are far less likely to request flexible working: just 17 per cent of fathers applied for such schemes in 2010 and 2011, while 28 per cent of mothers did. This is starkly at odds with the 82% of men who work full time but would like to spend more time with their children (according to researchers at the Lancaster University Management School). So why is that? Are they simply reticent to ask? Fearful they’ll feel in some way emasculated as a result? Or anxious it will permanently damage their career?

Public support has a massive shift to make before the lot of the working father improves. A recent British Social Attitudes survey highlights the gulf between genders on the subject of flexible working and work life balance. Whilst 43% of respondents feel that mums should work part time, only 5% were in support of fathers doing so. Employers are guilty too; according to government statistics published in 2012 by the Department for Business, working fathers are twice as likely as working mothers to have flexible working requests turned down. And in this regard, gender equality issues go full circle. Until society and business both recognise the importance of family and work for fathers, just as much as for mothers, the glass ceiling will never go away for women either.

So what needs to change in the workplace, both in practical and cultural terms, in order for men to have a fair crack at the whip?

Role models. There is nothing more powerful, in the world of diversity and inclusion, than a role model who can prove that the seemingly impossible can be easily achieved with the right support. Without doubt, breaking down the machismo stereotypes of what it means to be a working male relies on just such role models, and the more senior they are, the better. It’s all about leading by example (the boss heading home early to ferry kids to after school clubs) and demonstrating that this doesn’t have to curb career progression.

Make flexible work requests accessible to all. Don’t just assume it will only appeal to female workers, and ensure that you give every request due consideration, whatever the reason. Every flexible working request matters, whether it comes from a mother needing to fit in the school run, a father wanting to work part time, or, for that matter a dog owner of either gender needing to get home in time to walk Fido before dark fall. What matters is not how much you respect the reason, but whether your business can reasonably accommodate it. What matters even more is that there is no detrimental impact on the employee for making the request.

Consider a more flexible stance towards the working day / environment. This places the onus of responsibility onto the employees, and removes the need for them to make specific requests in order to implement small, but important, adjustments to their schedule. Allowing workers to start two hours early and finish two hours early, for example, may make no impact to the quality and output of their work, yet allow them to participate more in family life at one end of the day or the other.  Similarly, creating a work culture which allows employees to work from home occasionally (diaries and workload permitting) means that they can be home for tea with the kids without any impact on their working hours.

Actively promote a culture of acceptance. Seemingly harmless office banter often goes hand in hand with any colleague (but especially a male) packing up the desk before 5.30pm. Jocular comments such as, ‘part-timer’, or ‘you need to have a word with your wife, mate’ may not be meant with any malice, but they most certainly reinforce all the wrong stereotypes and unconscious biases. A culture in which employees are encouraged to work core hours with flexibility at either end of the day can also help in this regard. When everyone, regardless of family status, has the option to choose when to start and end their day, it isn’t viewed as ‘special treatment’ or ‘different’, and passes largely without comment or judgement.

For most men, supporting their family is instinctive. And whilst that traditionally translates as bringing home the bacon, the 82% of men who report a desire to spend more time with family would certainly value a more inclusive and open approach to adopting flexible practices in the workplace for men.

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