We Need Men to Fight for Work-Family Balance
To drive gender equality we need more men to take parental leave and share childcare responsibilities
“I just don’t feel you’re excited when you arrive at work in the morning?”
My previous manager said one day, somehow he only noticed this a few days after I asked to work part-time. My commitment to work and the company’s mission all came into question once I uttered the words ‘part-time’.
“I absolutely support work-life balance. But none of us can finish our job in full-time hours, so maybe you can teach us how to do it part-time”.
I wasn’t sure what to say to this, is he being sarcastic? But he claimed to be supportive of work/life balance, so it must be me, I’m being over-sensitive.
Being over sensitive became my go-to conclusion since I had a child, constantly questioning my judgment. When my male colleague, at the time, requested to work part-time to focus on his music, it was cool and people scrambled to make it happen. I also thought it was cool, he’s being realistic. It’s hard to fit the time to be creative and it’s a wise decision to work part-time to accommodate it. And that’s when it hit me, even I was judging him by a different standard. He had good reasons to reduce his hours and was sensible to ask for it. I, on the other hand, was failing to manage my life and letting it interfere with work. That’s what the research refers to as gender bias.
Once a child arrives, a woman receives the gift of motherhood penalty, an extra helping of discrimination where her commitment to work comes constantly into question. She didn’t make it to our (optional) evening drinks twice in a row now, does she even care about the team culture? She asked to go part-time, is she really dedicated to the mission? Is she invested enough?
While women get a healthy dose of motherhood penalty, fathers receive the fatherhood bonus. People perceive fathers as more dedicated, it stems from seeing them as the breadwinners in the family and therefore are more invested in work. Fathers progress in their careers and get promoted. A UK study from 2014 found that fathers receive a 21% wage bonus while mothers saw a wage penalty, earning 11% less than their childless colleagues.
Bias is not new to me, I’m a woman from a migrant background and I have been working in tech (a male dominated industry) for over a decade now. However, I still didn’t see this extra discrimination coming and I didn’t have the tools or the language to deal with it. So, I spent last year reading the latest research in this area, looking for tips to help me ‘lean in’ and ‘have it all’. The more I read, the more I realized the issue is systematic and lies beyond me (or women in general) leaning in. The solution lies with men — surprise, surprise! For us to take balancing family and work life seriously, we need to make it a man’s issue. Women’s problems, though real, are boring.
The Global Gender Gap report 2020 revealed that gender parity will not be attained for another 99.5 years. There is still a lot to be done and motherhood penalty is one the biggest areas we can work on. When babies arrive, an obvious trend gets established: men’s salaries start trending up while women’s salaries plateau and their share of household chores goes up. From this point on, the gap grows exponentially bigger. Here is what typically happens, babies arrive, women stay at home to look after the kids, and they become the primary carers. Those who go back to work, take the job on top of working as primary carers at home, that’s two jobs. However, companies still operate on an old model that was created for families with one working parent. It’s based on 37+ hours/week, emphasizes face-time and after work events, it’s not compatible with school drop offs/pick ups or the long holidays. So, someone has to pick up the slack and that someone tends to be women. These women, who work two jobs, can’t keep up and fall behind at work.
The graph shown below by Jenny Baxter, a researcher at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, is a sobering demonstration of how the arrival of children impacts genders differently. The graph on the right shows the number of hours women spend on work, parenting and household. You can see how it changes drastically when a child arrives and over the course of their first 12 years of life. The graph on the left shows the same for men, very minor changes (if any) to men’s lives.
It’s women who end up adapting their lives, fitting in the extra childcare and housework hours and adjusting their work commitments to keep things humming.
Where to from here
To make the shift from the stubborn gender stereotypes and support women to progress in the workplace, we need more men to become primary/equal carers and pick up those extra hours at home. We need them to experience what it takes to balance the two roles, inside and outside the house. Only then will work culture see a meaningful change to accommodate family life and provide a more equal field for all genders. We’re lucky my husband could take parental leave and work a 4-day workweek, and the difference it made to our family life is massive.
With the changes that Coronavirus brought and many of us working from home, we have an opportunity to shift from the stubborn gender stereotypes and support women to progress in the workplace. If companies expect fathers, not just mothers, to pick up homeschooling, child caring responsibility at home, and if they trust mothers and stop questioning their commitment to the job, then maybe the world will be a more equal place by the time this crisis passes.