The Blog

Dads Are Not Just for Father's Day

Father's Day is all done and dusted for another year. The card shops have moved on and all those surveys of what dads want have been published. Last week saw the usual plethora of polls and research published about dads at work.

Father's Day is all done and dusted for another year. The card shops have moved on and all those surveys of what dads want have been published. Last week saw the usual plethora of polls and research published about dads at work.

One survey last week found more than a quarter of all fathers say they are unhappy with their work-life balance and more than half say they want to work in a different way to their current working pattern, either by having the ability to work remotely from home or leave the office an hour earlier. However, half of the fathers surveyed said they felt that working flexibly was perceived as a sign of lack of commitment and, as a result, were afraid of asking. Some 42% also said they worried it would affect their career progression.

Another international report - the first State of the World's Fathers report - found dads who were more involved in childcare are healthier than other dads. It argued that gender equality would not be achieved unless men were engaged in the care of their children and families, a subject it said was "virtually invisible in public policies and in public discourse".

But it can't just be for Father's Day that we focus on these issues. Dads are dads all year round. They face the issues thrown up by the surveys on a daily basis yet the media is peculiarly silent on them for the other 51 weeks of the year. Anything to do with flexible working and family support is more or less guaranteed to be about mums. Most of the events about childcare or flexible working are packed with women. And women are the ones who are still vastly in the majority with regards to seeking formal flexible working because they need it to arrange childcare around. Men, if they work flexibly, tend to have informal agreements to leave a bit early or work from home on an ad hoc basis.

Some employers, however, are leading the way and supporting dads to be more involved in childcare. The London School of Economics, for instance, offers workshops for new dads, shared parental leave with 16 weeks at full pay plus an innovative research leave policy, which allows any academic who has been absent for more than 18 weeks a teaching-free term on full pay to catch up on research. The workshops for new dads are also offered to the partners of female employees, even if they don't work for LSE.

Shared parental leave

Many have put great faith in Shared Parental Leave to make a difference and help dads to be more engaged from their children's first months. So far there have been a lot of surveys showing mums and dads are interested in sharing the year after their baby is born, but many are cautious about actually requesting this new right. Part of the reason is that it is fairly complicated, but pay is a big issue. Many employers enhance maternity pay. Some are offering to do the same for Shared Parental Leave. Virgin Management announced earlier this month that it would offer mums and dads with over four years of service SPL on full pay for year.

It will take time for the legislation to filter through in any event, but it does at least recognise the links between workplace equality and domestic equality. The State of the World's Fathers survey shows that there is no country in the world where men and boys share the unpaid domestic and care work equally with women and girls. "This imbalance has widespread negative effects. It hurts men, women, and children," it says. "Women lose opportunities for work and income, and girls are often held back from educational opportunities, which exacerbates gender inequality and gendered poverty. Boys and girls lose out on the benefits of having an involved father, and men miss out on the connections and closeness that fatherhood can offer. Even economies suffer."

Dads are understandably worried about their careers - and their pay packets - suffering if they take time out or work flexibly. They've seen what has happened to many of their female colleagues, their partners, their sisters, their mothers and their daughters. But unless men do work more flexibly the chance of any widespread, lasting change for those female colleagues is low and men will be missing out on a lot of time with their children that they will never get back.

Of course, there is also the financial argument. It's all very well to advocate something when families are struggling to make ends meet and dads are still the main wage earners. But that is changing. More and more women are the primary earners in their families and women graduates outnumber their male counterparts.

Women's groups are very active campaigners for flexible working. Are they shutting the men out of the conversation or do they simply not want to share the childcare role more equally? There has been a lot written about maternal gatekeeping, but even so initiatives aimed at both men and women don't tend to get a lot of airplay.

What can be done then? Employers say positive role models have had an impact in promoting flexible working in general and that having senior managers who walk the walk on flexible working also helps. Normalising flexible working where this is possible by advertising jobs as being possible to do on a flexible basis, by rethinking job descriptions and work cultures, is a vital step forward and a growing number of employers are showing how they are doing that and how it has benefited them. In the end, though, it will all boil down to just how much people - men and women - really want change.