A newly released Boston College study called “The New Dad: Exploring Fatherhood Within a Career Context” indicates that the times are a-changing, at least in the workplace: Modern fathers may be dealing with a problem similar to that which working mothers know all too well.
“Men are facing the same clash of social ideals that women have faced since the 1970s — how do you be a good parent and a good worker?” Joan C. Williams, the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the Hastings College of the Law at the University of California, told the New York Times in a piece published on Sunday (which was Father’s Day, natch). “This is a pretty sensitive indicator of the rise of the new ideal of the good father as a nurturing father, not just a provider father.”
That ideal, however, doesn’t necessarily extend into the office. For the most part, it’s still assumed that if a sick child needs to be picked up, the mother’s going to be the one to do it, and if the dad has to work late, mom’s there to pick up the slack at home. Which makes me think that maybe we need to stop talking about work-life balance and start thinking up ways employers can make things more equitable for all working parents, male and female.
The fact that fathers want to spend less time at the office and more time being good dads isn’t new: A 2007 survey by Careerbuilder.com and reported by CNN found that 37 percent of working dads say they’d leave their jobs if their spouse made enough money to support the family, and another 38 percent say they would take a pay cut to spend more time with their kids. Their ability to do so has been affected by the economy’s current downward spiral, of course — but, then again, the economy is affecting working moms as well.
But according to “The New Dad” study, the women’s movement brought legitimacy to both stay-at-home moms and moms who work outside of the home, whereas men are still struggling to be accepted as something other than the main breadwinner. From the study:
In many ways, the struggle to legitimize being a family-focused worker is more difficult for men. While organizations may have policies in place to assist parents of both genders, a true family friendly culture that supports their use, especially by fathers, often lags behind. The new fatherhood imperative, that requires greater work flexibility for dads to take charge or at least equally share in childrearing and household responsibilities, faces challenges with the reward systems and organizational cultures that have not changed to reflect these new ideals. Ideal work norms still reward on the basis of competition and loyalty where long work hours show commitment to an organization (Williams, 2001). Men who challenge such norms may be even more open to critique than their female counterparts.
I asked Amy and Marc Vachon, authors of Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents, to weigh in on the Boston College study. “We think this is true primarily because while men may be expanding their definition of fatherhood beyond simply “provider,” but they are still holding onto their primary breadwinner role,” they told me. “As long as this is still true, they will have a hard time entertaining the idea of scaling back their hours or their earning potential in order to make room for time at home on par with their wives’.”
“It isn’t easy, even with rapidly changing fatherhood expectations, to circumvent cultural and workplace norms and hold onto your dreams,” they added. “But it is fully possible, and equally rewarding for both partners.”
Other countries have proven that it’s possible to have the best of both worlds — or, at least, a little more of each. Take Sweden, for example. Fathers there get two full months of paternity leave plus other flexible work opportunities that make the US look like they’re in the bottom of the heap when it comes to appreciating what parents need. And the US actually is in the bottom of the heap: According to a 2004 Harvard University study 163 out of 168 nations studied had some form of paid maternity leave, and the United States wasn’t among them. In fact, the US and Australia are the only two industrialized countries without a paid maternity leave — and moms get a better deal Down Under, where their jobs are protected for a year (US moms get 12 weeks).
What do you think companies can do to make is easier for men and women to achieve their goals at work and at home — or at least juggle more efficiently?