What Do Professional Fathers Need?

d&i strategies fatherhood smart and flexible working work life harmony working parents Jun 15, 2018

June is a month which holds much focus for fathers. Several countries celebrate Father’s Day and it is also the month for International Men’s Health Week (June 11-17), celebrated annually to promote and honour the importance of the health and wellness of boys and men.

It seems an ideal month therefore, to take a step back to look at the evolving role of fathers and highlight again what is required to close the gap, to meet their needs in the workplace. So, what has driven the evolution of the role of a father?

There are many views. Some say that millennial men & generations following are different because they grew up with different expectations and role models, often where both parents worked. Others put it down to the reforms to support for working mothers which have accelerated from the 1970s onwards, as a result of many campaigns lobbying for change in the workplace. Others say fathers who now have daughters in the workplace witness their world and it’s enough to evoke change - this latter opinion reminds me of an advertisement for P&G which went viral over 2 years ago. It provided a powerful message urging fathers and husbands to help professional women with family & household chores, with the hashtag #SharetheLoad. The advertisement shows a father in India reading a letter to his daughter, who is seen bustling about the house, multi-tasking on the phone as she takes care of her family and job. Worth a watch!

The cause for the changes is somewhat irrelevant. Thankfully, these roles have evolved. To respond to the needs of the 21st century family, governments and organisations alike must reform workplace policies and cultures to support fathers to better balance their parental responsibilities and work. So, where to begin?

A good place to start is understanding the challenges of today’s fathers. In our work at Thriving Talent, we see more and more fathers feel the stress as they try to juggle their roles of being hands-on father and professional. Let me share some of their stories which reflect many fathers’ views:

I would like to have longer at home after the baby is born but I am not sure it is possible as the policy is too short and I have not heard anyone else do this.

It feels like you need to make a choice to move off the “fast track” to the “slow track” if you want to be a hands-on father, despite leadership aspirations.

I fear that my career will not be taken seriously if I make use of flexible working or even consider working at 90% which I would love to do.

We are a gay couple who want to adopt yet we will have no financial support to make it possible as neither of us is eligible for paternity cover.

Culturally, it is assumed that one’s wife is fully responsible for childcare and I hear the “corridor talk” -  I would be far too embarrassed to ask my manager for any additional paternity entitlements.  

It feels like I am existing on a shift system: Shift 1 (work) - Shift 2 (home) - Shift 3 (work late emails) - Shift 4 (personal) - all feels overwhelming, especially as we are a dual career family.

So, what is needed? Very simply, it is what mothers have also been asking for, for many years. Fathers want to be supported at work to take a more equal share of childcare when children are young or even as they hit later school years and need more support academically &/or emotionally.

Let’s start with flexible working as this is a common need and an expectation even for many younger employees; irrelevant of whether you are a parent, looking after an ageing parent, celebrating Ramadan or pursuing an interest outside work. Having a flexible working and more applicably, a flexible working culture, is the most successful lever to attract and retain your workforce.

As the above quotes reflect, fathers often face greater stigma and judgement when they are adapting their hours to be responsible for drop-off/pick-up, childcare and sickness. To ensure such a policy is embraced, it requires an inclusive leadership model, rewarding and recognising results over presenteeism, one where the senior leadership team ‘walk the talk’ and apply flexible working themselves.

Then there is legislation and policy. Although fathers’ participation in the active care of their babies and children has increased steadily in the last half century, policy and legislation has not kept up with the pace of social change.

Some countries have implemented paid statutory paternity leave and shared parental leave although often it is not taken up for financial reasons. In Switzerland however, in October 2017, the Federal Council recommended that people vote against an initiative, which proposes the right to a paid paternity leave of at least four weeks, to be taken within the first 12 months of a child's life. This negative recommendation was the outcome despite the fact that more than 107,000 signatures were gathered in support of the initiative and a 2015 opinion poll carried out showed that 80% of Swiss voters were in favour of some kind of paid paternity leave.  Instead, in the private sector, employers must grant employees “regular working hours and days” off for family events. New fathers can therefore ask their employers for one to two days off for the birth of their child but there is no guarantee, hence the reason fathers asking more about policies when considering switching jobs.

Thankfully, today, more and more organisations are incorporating long term paternal absences into their talent planning as they recognise its importance to both attract and retain the best talent. Coming from the UK and having made Switzerland home, let me cite a few examples.

In November last year, Aviva, an Insurance company in the UK, announced a new group-wide policy to offer men and women equal parental leave for 26 weeks. Parents employed by Aviva are eligible to the same amount of paid and unpaid time off, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or how they became a parent (birth, adoption or surrogacy).

The driver for Aviva? To tackle one of the barriers to career progression. They believe that it will create a "level playing field for men and women" who want to take time out of their career to spend time with their family. To ensure its success as a strategy, cultural change is required and current perceptions challenged. Typically, managers need to be trained to actively promote take-up and male role models visibly celebrated (especially in leadership to quash any fears around career jeopardy), to show it is acceptable to take up the offer of parental leave.

In Switzerland, things are moving but more slowly. Today, the leaders of paternity leave, at 20 days, are Mobility, Ikea, Liip, Banque Alternative and Wochenzeitung. What we do know is that when companies start seeing their competitors lead the way, and witness the millennial generation and younger choosing these organisations with family friendly policies over their own organisation, the business case starts talking.

Shared parental leave is gaining more traction in some countries. Unilever expects 20% of fathers will take up their shared parental leave in the 5 years, due to the demographic of their employees.  Unilever believe that shared parental leave is not enough and organisations must continue post the early days and also focus on elder care and other caring issues. One of the reasons Unilever believes they are a highly desirable place is that “we are a mature modern workplace which is agile”. How does this work, ie deferring work? “We have talent pipelines with lots of candidates and planning and good management of talent. The plan for the individual and the plan for the role.”  In Scandinavia 20% of Fathers take time off.

What else is needed? Mothers letting go…...Maybe couples opting for shared parental leave will help with this one.  Often, a Mother on maternity leave becomes the “expert” at the childcare and maybe rather controlling over how things should be done….to the extent that the other parent takes a step back. Caveat here – this is a generalisation but one based on coaching & training 1000s of women during and post maternity who admit that they become rather domineering in the early baby days and feel their way (which of course has been tried and tested daily 24/24 for 5 days a week is the only way!).

Shared parental leave prompts conversations between families regarding the sharing of work.

If the 2nd parent took shared parental leave, they would then be “in charge” and together, this accelerates the acceptance that everyone has their own way and the responsibility of parenthood falls on both parents.

Finally, there is the need for less linear career pathways, which offer greater agility and allows one to press the pause button during periods when employees may need to focus more attention on caring. This applies of course to all employees, not only fathers.

Why bother implementing all these approaches?

80% of millenials and younger in Europe will look at what family benefits exist within an organisation when choosing to apply for jobs. They are attracted to those organisations who  market themselves as an Employers of Choice. Given the current demographics in Europe and discussions of “talent wars” between competitors, this becomes a USP.

In addition, inclusive organisations which advocate and support career and caring, significantly reduce sickness & potential burn out - this is becoming an increasing cost to businesses. In an EU-funded project carried out by Matrix (2013), the cost to Europe of work-related depression was estimated to be €617 billion annually.

Call to action - what is one action you can commit to, within your own behaviour &/or organisation to better support the role of fathers?

Sources: BCG Consulting, CIPD, EU-OSHA, Mc Kinsey

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