I want to take a moment to talk about working fathers. Yes, working fathers.
Why? Despite the fact that the issues facing working dads garner little media attention, they are very real. And these issues are not just affecting men; they’re holding women back too. As part of my role as head of an international headhunting consultancy, I often find myself talking about the issues facing working mums: the gender imbalance at the executive level, gender pay gap, work-life balance, and helping women get back into fulfilling work after maternity leave. We still have a long way to go to achieve gender equality, but these topics are now on the agenda. However, many of the proposed solutions - such as Shared Parental Leave - rely on the working woman’s partner being available to pick up the slack too. And the problem is that this still isn’t happening. And the reasons for this are complicated.
What working fathers are saying
I talk to working fathers frequently in the course of my role; I was speaking to a candidate about this just the other day who told me, “I would love to have the flexibility to be able to spend more time with my family, but my boss won’t hear it. And no other fathers I work with ask for it.” All too often I hear similar things from fathers. They tell me that according to their management their working patterns shouldn’t have to change. Parental leave? That’s for women. Nursery drop-offs and school pick-ups? Your partner should be doing that. School plays and sports days - surely your wife can get time off instead?
Research released this month showed that a measly 1% of fathers took up the opportunity to share parental leave. Yet the same research shows that this isn’t because the nation’s menfolk are Neanderthal, determined that the world of nappies and night feeds should stay the domain of women for ever more. Quite the opposite, around two-thirds of the men surveyed who had young children and were considering having more (63%) said that it was likely that they would choose to take SPL in the future.
Changing culture in the workplace
The will is there, but for initiatives like this to work in the future, culture in the workplace needs to change too, especially in light of new research from Australia that showed that while flexible working can help women progress in their careers, it actually has the opposite effect on men. Men are still afraid of the repercussions they’ll face if they ask their boss to accommodate the fact that they have children and this means that women remain the ‘default parent’ - the one who has to make the sacrifices in working hours, pay and status in order to raise the children.
It also means that when hiring managers have to make a choice between a man and a woman of a certain age and stage, they may quietly choose to hire the man because they know that the likelihood is that he won’t require time off for child-raising at a later date. Companies don’t like to admit it, but it certainly happens.
The stigma of flexible working
If we are to tackle these issues, we need true parity between men and women, and this means removing the stigma against men who request flexible working. The phrase ‘working mother’ needs to be relegated to the history books. In the future, we need to be talking about working parents.
Improving the rights of women in the workplace is only one-half of the puzzle. Improving the rights of men is the other half, and if we are to fix things, we need to set about solving both. Otherwise, parental responsibility will always fall on women and we will never achieve gender equality in the higher ranks of businesses. If we don’t allow men to be good ‘working dads’ we will never be able to get more ‘working mums’ back into work and progressing in their careers. Women advancing is essential, but we cannot do this without giving men a leg-up too.