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The changing role of fathers at work – IMD2019

International Men’s Day 2019

A reflection on the changing role of fathers at work

When I started How Do You Do It in 2006, I thought it was vital to include fathers in the support given to working parents, both for their own wellbeing and as a way of supporting gender parity for women at work.  Consequently, I designed programmes for dads as well as mums, but the reality was that the take-up for dads and what organisations would provide to support them was very limited. Parenting largely equated to motherhood and the expectation was that mothers would be the primary and often the sole carer. Only really progressive clients wanted to engage and even the dads seemed a little surprised to be invited to talk about the challenges they felt as working fathers.

Fast forward 13 years and the argument about why it is important for fathers to be considered in any discussion about parenting and the care of children is largely won. There is a lot more advocacy around support for men and acknowledgement that becoming a parent is a monumental life transition for men just as it is for women. It would be fair to say all our clients are now interested in programmes for working fathers.

Changes in the way parental leave is structured in some of our markets, coupled with the work of groups that advocate for men to play a larger role in supporting gender equality such as Male Champions of Change, and Token Man demonstrate there has been a significant shift in how fatherhood is perceived and a greater recognition of the role men are saying they want to play in the lives of their children.

But…and there is a but, this recognition still isn’t translating into the consistent practice within organisations that would enable a real shift in the roles men and women play at work and home. In addition, the financial barriers to dads taking parental leave mean that for the vast majority of families sharing leave is just not a viable financial option. As a result, family and career responsibilities continue to divide along gender lines to the detriment of achieving gender parity for men and women.

As the Millennial Dad at Work study showed, dads are feeling the real tension of wanting to be more involved as parents but not yet feeling able to access the working practices, legislation or support that will enable it in a way that is meaningful for them and which could support their partners to step back into their careers after having a child.

Having worked with hundreds of fathers on our programmes the same themes frequently crop up:

  • Men still have relatively few outlets to talk openly about the challenges and solutions for combining their roles at work and as parents. Our programmes are often the first opportunity they have had to share their experiences and comments such as “It allowed me to open up and realise my challenges are not something only I am feeling” are typical. Until it is OK for men to talk about fatherhood in a work environment, the prevailing attitude of ‘carry on as usual’ with regards to how men are treated once they become dads will continue.
  • We also find that men are going through the journey women went through a while back of looking at the options around flexible work and wondering if it will affect their career. Overwhelmingly, the answer when they look around at most of the available examples is ‘absolutely’. They see the impact of parenthood on the careers of the women who work flexibly and not altogether surprisingly draw the conclusion that flexible work will be career limiting.
  • Regardless of company policy, it is what men are seeing and experiencing that hugely influences how they act. When men look up there are even fewer role models for them than there are for women. Senior men working flexibly are thin on the ground and many of the senior people in organisations are still from a generation that had partners at home and little direct involvement in childcare. Therefore, is it any wonder they often just put their heads down and carry on with work in much the same way as they did before they became a parent?

If we want to enable more people to move away from this one version of successful career and family life, then men need to speak up and pursue what they are telling us they want; more involvement in family life and take the risks that women have been taking for a while in asking for flexible working arrangements to better accommodate a sharing of care and career responsibilities among both parents.  Organisations need to respond and be open to creating the modern workplaces that talented people are telling them they want. This will go a long way to normalising things for everyone rather than making a dad working flexibly or a mum in a flexible and senior leadership position the exception.

13 years on from starting How Do You Do It, there has been a lot of progress in the belief dads have in themselves as equal parents and their desire to be so, but less progress in turning that into a reality for working fathers. However, the momentum towards change seems unstoppable and my hope on this International Men’s Day is that it isn’t another 13 years before we see those shifts in attitudes really translate into changes in the way all parents are able to combine their dual roles at work and home.

Virginia Herlihy, CEO and Founder How Do You Do It

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