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Working fathers experience momentum for real change

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There have been passionate father campaigners for decades, and there have been high profile trailblazers, though only a few followed their lead. But it seems that now there is finally a critical mass and a momentum for real change.

Today, loud voices say that men want to be actively engaged as dads, without having to make the kinds of compromises at work that have been forced on women. The 'breadwinner/ideal worker' and 'homemaker' model is being challenged.

This is a big shift, that in my view has been made possible by how women have engaged in work and pushed for change over the past 40 years.

During that time the numbers of women at work has increased from one third to half the workforce. This increase has almost entirely been among mothers so that, today, a person with children, mother or father, is more likely to be in paid work than a person without children.


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Of course, there have always been men calling for equality. But until recently I’d suggest that the greater pressure and campaigning came from working mothers. 

They worked out pretty quickly that more opportunities for men were needed, otherwise we’d endlessly be trying to change how things were for women when what is needed is fundamental change for everyone.

But being fought for by women, combined with deep-rooted assumptions about the proper roles of men and women as breadwinners and homemakers, has resulted in really lopsided progress. Maternity leave was introduced in 1975.

It took another 18 years, until 2003, for any rights to paternity leave to emerge, and then only for two weeks. And today, almost 20 years later again, it is still only two weeks. 

The argument for greater workplace equality seems obvious. But the question has to be, what’s in it for the men? 

When you look at discrimination against mothers, it is not encouraging: maternity and pregnancy job losses, the motherhood penalty, the gender pay gap. And when you realise that men are twice as likely as women to have requests for flexible working turned down, that suggests that the deep bias about the ‘ideal worker’ works against them too, when they step out of role. 

It’s a perverse form of equality, seeing men today being penalised for taking leave or working flexibly.

But lockdown working has given many more men a taste of time at home, and of having more flexibility to engage in family life. The demand for some level of flexibility to continue, as businesses bring people back on site, is strong among men as well as women. 

Widespread hybrid working may thus be a tipping point for fathers and male carers.

Although it offers only locational flex, hybrid may open up the possibility of fresh thinking about other forms of flex, about when and how long people work, which could benefit men, including those in jobs not suited to home working. 

We need to build on pandemic experience and lean into what the new generation of working fathers is asking for. Employers can encourage men to work flexibly by making it safe, easy and normal. 

Senior leaders and corporate messaging can sell flex like a product, making it clear that the business encourages men to take it up.  Policies can be written accessibly and well publicised. 

Managers can be trained to build a conversation about working hours and patterns into regular touch points. Parent and father networks can provide support and ‘real’ role models, peer examples of other men working flexibly.

Being father friendly will rapidly become a differentiator. Smart organisations will take action now.

 

Sarah Jackson, former CEO of Working Families and visiting professor at Cranfield University School of Management