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Could Working Dads Be Underserved, Too?

A small study of working fathers reveals an identity crisis and the need for better work/life balance.

Could Working Dads Be Underserved, Too?
[Photo: Flickr user Dani Vázquez]

There is a subtle, but potentially seismic shift happening in the workplace. From sweeping diversity initiatives and radical strategies that tackle the gender wage gap to extended paid parental leave policies, the next decade could reveal a very different picture of American workers.

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But change often comes with backlash. In the case of working mothers, we’ve seen unprecedented numbers among the rank and file of companies and finally a few more making it to the executive suite. At the same time, a long-term study of young adults revealed that gender roles are still very much in place, and the current generation of young men do not expect to take on primary caregiving roles. This is despite the fact that men see value in changing what it means to be men (and stand to benefit from gender equality).

New research published in the Journal of Business and Psychology reveals that as fathers take on more caregiving and other family responsibilities, workplace norms still see them as “organization men” married to their jobs, which potentially inhibits their development as true, involved fathers. The study also found that there isn’t much in the way of formal support for working dads.

The researchers first conducted a pilot study interviewing first-time fathers with children under the age of two, whose spouses also worked. All the men were professionals and some were management-level employees. They then added a group of dads for a further study, all of whom had working spouses and children under the age of four. The group of 31 men was predominantly white, and their average age was 33. One man was part of a gay couple, and some had multiple children.

The researchers asked three groups of questions. One focused on career history, satisfaction, aspirations, and responsibilities, as well as asking whether or not their current job made it easy to combine work and family. Another set asked personal questions about the man and his family. The third asked participants to describe what fatherhood meant to them, to rate themselves as fathers, and to list the ways their workplace supports their ability to be good dads.

Several themes emerged that indicate men toggle between seeing themselves in the traditional role of breadwinner dad and variations of the more modern involved father. They also found that the workplace influences the way they see themselves, and that can cause tension between the different images. Despite the tension, most of the fathers surveyed held on to the multiple images, either by embracing synergy between them or accepting the ambivalence among them.

Still Not A “Nurturer”

Not surprisingly, all the men interviewed saw themselves as providers, which subscribes to the long-held societal norm of father as breadwinner, even though all of them had working spouses. Most of the men also saw themselves as role models for their children.

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In addition to these traditional roles, 90% of the men said they believed that being a good father also means being a good spouse who shares in taking care of children, including changing diapers and being there for important developmental milestones. They used “we” rather than “I do this and my spouse does that,” indicating their comfort with such a team effort. Only about half described themselves as sharing equally in the childcare chores.

Only around 25% expressed that their image of father was one of nurturer, even though they asserted that they would be there for their children as much as they could be, and that their kids would always know without a doubt that their father loved them. The researchers noted that even though being a nurturer was something a lot of the men aspired to, some didn’t want to take credit because they weren’t the sole caretaker.

Everyone Wants Flex Time

Daddy bonuses notwithstanding, the fathers surveyed said becoming a father allowed them to make better social connections with other working parents, almost as if they had a private club filled with people who could relate to the pitfalls of raising children.

Nearly all participants admitted that work cramped their ability to be more involved fathers. Demanding projects, customers, and the broader demands of an advancing career pushed the subjects to working longer hours and not seeing their children or spouse as much as they’d like.

Like most working moms, the fathers interviewed for the study expressed a desire for more flexible work hours and the ability to work from home, yet only one had a formal arrangement to do this with his company after he became a dad. Most of the fathers surveyed said they only received informal support for managing their work and family. This is further exacerbated by the fact that most men don’t take off when a child is born, or if they do, they only take a week or two.

While one man expressed relief that a run-in with the boss with his son in tow was friendly instead of a reprimand for leaving early, others found themselves in a similar position as many working mothers. This study revealed that some fathers found themselves judged by other working fathers in their organization who made it a priority to continue to be dedicated to their job, despite their children.

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The fathers also revealed that during watercooler small talk, trading anecdotes about kids was fine, talking about achieving work/life balance, not so much. “People don’t want to give away that they are feeling stressed out,” one participant said.

What Lies Ahead for Working Dads

As men, particularly white men, continue to dominate upper management, the researchers believe that they can and should be agents of change. This study shows that fathers seem to only be strengthening current expectations of men at work as they defend traditional roles and opt to create a multilayered identity from multiple images of themselves. One father even said that becoming a new father hasn’t inspired him to create new programs or projects that are more family oriented.

Something’s got to give. Now that more than half the workforce is female, it’s never been more important to support working fathers in their caregiving roles. The ad hoc way men approach workplace flexibility isn’t sustainable, they say, and there needs to be better development and deployment of work/life programs that include men.

“Employers need to consider fatherhood as a more serious and time consuming role than it has been seen to be in the past,” they write, “in recognition that many of today’s fathers desire to be more than the traditional ‘organization man.’”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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