The social prejudice that women should carry the overwhelming responsibility for caring for children isn’t just driving gender pay gaps – it’s also hurting men. Family-conscious fathers are regularly prohibited from playing a more active role at home. Two in five dads who have applied for flexible working have had their requests turned down, while a report by the Women and Equalities Committee found some men have been mocked by colleagues after opting to work part time to share childcare duties.
All of which deters other men from even broaching the subject with their employers, which is a great shame because research shows that ‘hands on’ dads are not only happier and healthier, but those who took sole charge of babies at least a few times a week before they turned one were as much as 40 per cent less likely to break up with their partners, regardless of other factors such as living arrangements or wealth.
Much has been made of the fact that government policy has historically prohibited men from becoming more involved parents. For example, by only allowing women to take 52 weeks of statutory leave until 2015, effectively forcing them to become the default carer. However, the introduction of shared parental leave has far from revolutionised things, as just 2 per cent of eligible couples have so far chosen to split caregiving in their newborns’ early months.
Although the lack of take-up has been justified on the grounds that ‘it makes financial sense’ for mothers to become carers, this isn’t a valid interpretation. Not only are a third of British working mothers now the main ‘breadwinner’ for their family, but there are many highly paid professional men who could easily afford to take time off to help care for their children but don’t, because it’s still not seen as culturally acceptable in the workplace.
The price of which is that the UK is now facing a crisis of ‘fatherlessness’. One in four families with children are now single families and 30 per cent of UK fathers work 48 hours a week or more, meaning they are unlikely to see their children during the week.
Three ways to eliminate ‘daddy discrimination’
With half of all men saying childcare should be shared equally, here are three ways to help them achieve the family-work balance they need to thrive:
Support dads from the outset
Instead of just educating soon-to-be mothers about their maternity rights, make sure soon-to-be-fathers are also informed of their rights, and encouraged to act on them. For example, even though early days bonding creates a secure family unit, making fathers more involved and confident and less likely to separate from their partner, many men don’t take shared parental leave. They often don’t realise they can take their leave at the same time as their partner, or overlap, before the mother returns to work.
Normalise flexible working
Just under a third of the Sunday Times Top 20 Best Companies to Work For now offer school-hour contracts to all employees. But there’s still a long way to go. Critical to creating a culture where men feel able to ask for flexible working is ensuring managers are focused on assessing performance based on the output people are generating, and not just time input, which can also help to address low productivity issues.
Men who are already playing an active role in their children’s lives should also be encouraged to talk openly about how they use their flexibility to play a more active role at home, to help normalise this.
Don’t just offer maternity coaching
Employers such as law firm Sidley Austin support working dads by recognising that family-friendly workplaces aren’t just mother-friendly, they’re also father-friendly. By offering parental coaching, traditionally only offered to women taking maternity leave, the firm recognises that becoming a parent is also a significant life change for fathers.
By supporting men who are about to go through the huge transition of becoming a father, or who are already fathers and want to achieve a better work-family balance, you can help them to become more active role models at home and support them to work flexibly, while continuing to progress their careers. This also supports women, because until parenting is shared more equally, gender equality at work will remain a distant dream.
Helen Letchfield is co-founder of Parent and Professional