How HR can better support dads in the workplace

Following her recent research into the topic, Carina Paine Schofield explores the difficulties fathers face in taking extended parental leave, and how businesses can help them play a bigger part in childcare

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The pandemic was a wake-up call for many working fathers, who for the first time truly appreciated the struggles of juggling work and family life – as well as the joys of spending more time with their children. But our research at Hult International Business School has shown that, while dads are keener than ever to share the childcare load, they are finding it difficult to translate this desire into practice on the ground.

As part of a joint research project with the organisational and executive coaching practice Womba (Work, Me and the Baby), we interviewed working dads who had recently taken extended parental leave about their expectations and experiences of contributing to their children’s care, whether through formal policies or more informal approaches.

We found that many fathers were struggling to take on a greater parental role, both practically and emotionally. Dads told us, for example, that they were finding formal policies difficult and frustrating to navigate and that effective communication with HR was challenging. As a result, they were frequently stepping outside the formal system and using their relationships with managers to negotiate both paid time off and the flexibility they needed to help with childcare. This approach was in direct contrast to the mums we interviewed, who were more likely to adhere to the rules and persist with dealing formally with HR.

Working dads felt their difficulties were compounded by the fact that few others had trodden the path before them and taken extended parental leave. They felt that with a lack of role models to learn from, they had to take on a pioneering role themselves, paving the way for others in their organisation. “For the majority, it’s my generation who are leading this… we will be the role models in the future,” said one interviewee.

In common with their female counterparts, dads were concerned about the impact taking parental leave or playing a bigger role in childcare might have on their current role or future career prospects.

There was a striking contrast, however, in the way mums and dads made their decisions about the work-childcare equation. Men were driven first by the potential financial impact of their choices, with emotional considerations secondary, whereas women tended to be led by their emotions first, with monetary issues lower on their agenda.

Some of our dads also said they were still coming up against generational biases in the workplace around the division of childcare responsibilities. There was still an unspoken (and, in some cases, spoken) expectation that women should shoulder the majority of the caring, with some senior managers likely to raise an eyebrow if their male employees had to miss meetings or take time off to deal with a childcare issue. 

There was a perception that older managers who held these views either didn’t understand the challenges, or perhaps regretted that they hadn’t been able to make the same choices themselves when their children were younger. Equally, dads were often lauded at work by their colleagues for their new, stronger parental identity, and regarded almost as heroes for taking leave to contribute to childcare.

At a time of pressing skills shortages, it is vital that organisations hang on to their talented staff, both male and female. So what can organisations do to better support male employees who want to break gender stereotypes and spend more time looking after their families?

  • Audit HR policies to ensure mums and dads are treated equally when it comes to parental leave and flexible working.

  • Reduce the complexity of policies to provide a clear process and make it easier for employees to navigate their way around the guidance.

  • Close the gap between espoused values and culture and the reality on the ground. Is your organisation really as family friendly as it aspires to be? What can be done to improve the situation for working parents?

  • Coach managers on how to support working dads in their teams. How can you help those who need to make the necessary mindshift?

  • Find out what support working dads need. Would a networking group for working dads be useful, for example, or would they prefer a wider support group that included all working parents?

  • Share examples of the good practice/success stories around working parents happening in the business, so that others can see what is possible.

Dr Carina Paine Schofield is senior research fellow at Hult International Business School