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International Men’s Day 2022

A leap forward in mindset, baby steps in behavioural change

In the lead-up to International Men’s Day 2022, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting and talking to How Do You Do It colleagues in the different countries where we operate about what has changed for men (or more precisely dads), this year and what has remained resolutely the same. We’ve been hearing for a while that dads want to integrate their work and home lives more fully and have the opportunity to play a greater role in the lives of their children, so is that starting to actually happen?

I’m very aware that we are lucky enough to work with organisations that have progressive family-friendly policies and are supportive of working parents (after all, they are investing in coaching support for their working parents). What we see is toward the top end of what dads are experiencing. Nevertheless, what we are hearing from our course participants and from the wider market shows a mixed picture that overall gives me cautious cause for optimism.

UK – Risk of paternity leave being relegated to non-essential but paid parental leave is welcomed

On the one hand, Covid has moved on the conversation about flexible working by decades. Rarely do we now work with groups of fathers who aren’t involving some degree of flexibility in their working schedule and the stigma around that for dads does seem to have lifted to a large extent.  Flexible and especially hybrid is now just how many people work and it isn’t particularly limited to working parents (or more precisely working mothers), in the same way that it was pre-covid.

Whilst this means dads are around more and are more able to play an active role in supporting their partner and family at home, we are finding that it is still very much on an ad hoc basis in the capacity as ‘helper’ rather than primary carer. If anything, this perpetuates the gender divide as it still positions mums as the assumed primary carer and leaves us in a situation where dads often disguise the true extent of their family responsibilities.

There is some evidence that a recent drop in dads taking statutory paternity leave in the UK is in part due to it being deemed non-essential. Hybrid working enables them to be at home more anyway without sacrificing any salary.  Certainly, this was true during the lockdown, but figures haven’t returned to pre-covid levels, suggesting a more fundamental shift, (although the impact of the increase in the cost of living on the viability of taking paternity leave is probably more important). The concern here is, that if the already minimal UK paternity leave of two weeks starts being seen as non-essential, it devalues the role dads can play in the early lives of their children, the support they can give their partner and from birth onwards sets a precedent about the division of caring roles.

The change we are seeing in the UK is with organisations that offer paid enhanced parental leave for both parents. Where this is on offer, it is being taken and welcomed by working parents – as high-profile examples such as Aviva continue to show.  While the majority of organisations offering enhanced parental leave tend to operate in more highly paid industries, there are starting to be some notable exceptions – John Lewis being the first retailer to equalise their parental leave policies.

The key for dads is both leave being paid AND it being seen as acceptable to take it.  As more companies leapfrog governmental legislation about parental leave, so the social acceptability of dads taking extended leave becomes greater.  What it risks though is a two-tier, all-or-nothing system, where the experience of sharing parental leave is entirely dependent upon whether your employer offers more than the statutory minimum.

Australia – Competition for talent is driving change and legislation is looking to transform parental leave

Like the UK, increasing numbers of organisations in Australia are offering enhanced paid parental leave and removing the distinction between primary and secondary carers.  Where this is happening,  it is being embraced by dads but with a degree of caution. Firstly, one of the things we hear from the dads we coach is nervousness about how to approach the conversation with senior managers who themselves had a very different experience of parental leave (or none at all). Even where there is a policy, there remains a reluctance by dads to fully access it as the fear about the impression it creates and its impact on career is still real. 

Perhaps, to somewhat mitigate this, what we are witnessing is that dads are taking extended leave, but they aren’t necessarily taking large chunks of leave at any one time. It is very much when their child is born and then at the end of their partners leave to help ease their transition back to work.  What doesn’t seem to be happening is dads having sizeable amounts of time where they are the primary carer.

It feels like the conversation has shifted dramatically in Australia, but the dads who are taking leave in any great amount are still very much trailblazers for their organisations – as this article highlighting 5 dads who have taken leave demonstrates.  When articles like this don’t need to be written, then we’ll have really moved on. 

On the horizon in Australia, however, is what could prove to be a big change for Australian families.  The August 2022 budget contained specific policy announcements aimed at increasing gender parity and these included reduced childcare costs (a significant barrier to gender parity) and a complete overhaul of the way parental leave is organised.   If implemented as planned, it will introduce ‘use it or lose it’ elements of leave for both parents to encourage both parents to take some leave (single parents will be entitled to the whole leave). It will also bring in a phased increase in the total length of leave and the ability to take leave in small increments, for example, 2 days a week over a number of months, to support a phased return to work for one parent. 

While Australia, like the UK, is still very much in a phase of incremental changes in the number of dads taking additional leave, there are signs that legislation will move things more quickly for dads than in the UK. For us, as a business operating in both markets, it will be interesting to see how quickly the behavioural changes follow the legislative ones.

Denmark – Back to the future on ‘use it or lose it’ leave quotas

Scandinavian countries are lauded as having among the most progressive parental leave policies in the world, yet Denmark has been somewhat of an outlier in this regard until recently because of a lack of defined periods of leave for both parents.  Despite generous rates of parental leave pay and childcare costs that Australian and UK parents can only dream about, it hasn’t been common practice for fathers to take extended leave unless offered as an additional benefit by their employer.  

What hasn’t been in place is any compulsion for each parent to take a period of leave, but this changed in August 2022 when new legislation came into force with each parent being allocated a ’use it or lose it’ period of leave.  This brings back a quota for fathers that was originally in place in 1998 and abandoned in 2002. Like Australia, Denmark has concluded, that when combined with leave being paid this is the element that could have the greatest impact on gender parity and therefore the greatest impact on men being able to step into the role of caregiver.

International Men’s Day 2022- cautious optimism with a few curve balls

So, as another International Men’s Day rolls around, I do feel optimistic about the progress that is being made for dads. Yes, it is slow and a bit clunky and there are definite curve balls, such as the cost of childcare that have the potential to derail progress, but the momentum for change is there. Two out of three of our main markets are legislating for more parity in parental leave provision and more and more organisations are recognising the benefits of equalising their parental leave policies.  This, combined with barriers around flexible work starting to crumble and a whole cohort of dads who experienced more time at home during the various lockdowns means I do think 2022 marks a turning point for dads.  Happy International Men’s Day 2022!

Virginia Herlihy

CEO and Founder, How Do You Do It

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