Celebrating working fathers for International Men’s Day

Jennifer Liston-Smith pulls together positive research into the changing nature of fatherhood and celebrates dads’ greater involvement in family life. On International Men’s Day, she offers five actions for employers to create a more inclusive and engaging culture for working fathers. 

Author: Jennifer Liston Smith, Head of Thought Leadership

For some time, the image of women attempting to ‘have it all’ has been one of stressed – or superhuman – figures juggling phone, files, baby, floor mop and more. They often have multiple arms, like the Goddess Durga; clearly the only way to maintain this strenuous feat.

However, as for Hindu deities, multi-tasking is not an exclusively feminine strength. Expectations at home are becoming a lot less gendered. More men are ‘having it all’ in the same full-on, balancing act, prone-to-guilt kind of way (even if the frenzied images are still rather gendered – type ‘juggling housework’ into a search engine and click ‘images’).

More involved, with better wellbeing

Recent times have catapulted progress towards more shared parenting and household chores. During the Spring 2020 lockdown, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that – while mothers’ time spent on childcare rose from almost seven hours to 10.3 hours per day, fathers almost doubled the number of hours during which they did some childcare: from just over four to eight hours per day.

The Fatherhood Institute published research with over 2,000 dads on their lockdown experiences. It’s well worth watching the short video of findings. The study found many fathers did more housework, care-giving and education than before. Like everyone, they struggled at times in keeping it all going. However, the majority said they became more confident as parents and had better relationships with their children, understanding them better, and feeling closer to them.

Sharing parenting has many benefits for couples, and for families, including better educational outcomes for children.

In Bright Horizons’ own Modern Families Index Spotlight in 2021, just over a quarter of fathers (26%) stated that they now do more childcare than they did the previous year; and 80% of these men would like to continue to do so. In the same study, fathers were actively weighing up parenting responsibilities in their career plans. More than 7 in 10 (71%) overall in that random sample of 1,000 working parents would need to carefully consider their childcare options before accepting or applying for either a promotion or a new job. This was indicated by 73% of women and 69% of men.

Caring across life stages

The Modern Families Index also asked about adult and eldercare responsibilities. It emerged that adult care was an even bigger concern than childcare during a career transition for those involved. Three-quarters (75%) overall of those who indicated a caring responsibility would need to consider their eldercare options before accepting or applying for a promotion or new job. This applied to 73% of female eldercarers and to 77% of men with eldercare responsibilities.

The importance of parental leave

McKinsey research with 130 new fathers across 10 countries who each took 2 months or more of parental leave shows remarkable positive impact on wellbeing, commitment between partners, enriched relationships with children and even appreciation of employers and renewed career motivation. These positive impacts need to be amplified in a world in which stereotypical views can pull against them.

Against this context, it is concerning that UK take-up of paternity leave has dropped to a 10-year low and take-up of Shared Parental Leave fell during the pandemic for the first time since coming into effect in 2015. Law firm EMW found that just 27% of eligible fathers took up paternity leave in the year to March 2021. On Shared Parental Leave, EMW found just 11,200 couples applied to use the scheme between 2020 and 2021: a 17 per cent fall on the previous year, when a record 13,100 couples applied.

These may be a pandemic-related glitches. However, if they are related to cultural barriers, it is worrying in a world where shared parenting is increasingly the expectation across all genders and types of couples, as we see also repeatedly in our parent transition coaching across sectors.

In Bright Horizons’ recently published Parental Leave Benchmark, we found a rise in employers enhancing paternity leave (and other parental leave) up from 44% in 2017 to 67% in 2021. Further, 21% of employers now offer more than 2 weeks’ full pay for paternity/partner leave, while only 9% offered more than this in 2019.

That said, 2 weeks is still very little and Shared Parental Leave enhancement is still modest, up from 25% of employers enhancing in 2017 to 48% today. When most employers enhance only 2 weeks’ leave for fathers/partners, or provide statutory pay only for shared parental leave, it entrenches an outdated model of one ‘primary’ carer and one ‘secondary’ carer. This model, underpinned by current legislation, is out of step with the way many working fathers expect to parent.

What should employers do?

The Fatherhood Institute Executive summary begins: “The Lockdown Fathers study grew out of the realisation that, as Britain locked down to cope with the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic (23 March 2020), a significant social experiment was underway. More than 150 years after the Industrial Revolution had removed most fathers from their homes for the working day, fathers – in their millions – were coming home”.

Something has shifted in the last 20 months, and employers have the opportunity to build on that, rather than losing disengaged working fathers to more family-friendly competitors.

1. Recognise what fatherhood looks like today

A very good starting point is the Dad book produced by Elliott Rae and Music Football Fatherhood. It tells it from the heart with “20 powerful and defiant stories about postnatal depression, becoming a new dad during the pandemic, miscarriage, widowhood, stillbirth, co-parenting, childbirth trauma, work-life balance, new dads at work, shared parental leave, being a stay-at-home dad, gay fatherhood and surrogacy, being a stepdad, black fatherhood, raising a child of dual heritage, being a single dad, faith and fatherhood, raising a child with autism, gender stereotypes and more.”

Other really helpful sets of insights come from Han-Son Lee’s book You’re Going to Be A Dad! The New Dad’s Guide to Pregnancy and the First Year of Fatherhood, and the earlier book by James Millar and David Freed: Dads Don’t Babysit.

2. Be flexible

In the Fatherhood Institute research, three-quarters (76%) of those fathers who were full-time at home during lockdown said they’d like more flexible working, and nearly two-thirds (63%) would like more home-working in future.

Scott Behson’s HBR article What Working Dads Can Do When a High-Pressure Job Asks Too Much has advice for working fathers finding themselves bound up in the ‘working dad’s career trap’ of earning and providing, with accompanying long hours. Among his tips: “explore flexible and remote work; prioritize father-friendly employers”.

If a professor of management and US authority on work-life wellness advises those steps to employees, then employers need to be ahead on those points.

In the UK, read and respond to the current consultation on ‘Making Flexible Working the Default’ and consider how you will adapt: not only to a Day 1 ‘right to request’ but how you can also recruit flexibly and ensure that people of all genders, family structures, or of course, without family, get included in the conversation about new ways of working.

3. Review your parental leave policies, and the programmes you put around them

As well as making sure that any conversations about flexible working include men, we need to keep supporting fathers to take time out when they start, or expand, a family.

This BBC article from 2019 shows the media glow that follows enhanced leave provisions with examples at Goldman Sachs, Standard Life Aberdeen, Vodafone and Diageo. Aviva, Volvo and others have made similar headlines with their enhanced leave packages.

At our recent Think Tank with our employer partners, conversations about talent engagement among new parents confirmed that shining a light on male senior leaders taking shared parental leave or extended paternity leave helps create role models and break through perceived cultural barriers.

Consider your own policies and how gender-inclusive and father-empowering they are. Bear in mind also the finding from our Benchmark that many employers are using other key ways of engaging and retaining talented people, including: facilitating a phased return; establishing a parents’ network; online/app-based coaching/advice; wellbeing services (e.g. antenatal classes, gym, yoga); providing parental leave coaching; and training to line managers.

4. Provide family-friendly enablers

I guess I would say this; but that’s because they do work. Our 2021 Work+Family Snapshot research with client employees bears this out. 1,300 employees took part across 170 of Bright Horizons’ clients, reflecting on their lives and on the impact of having access to Back-Up Care, Workplace Nurseries, or near-site nursery places, Parent Transition Coaching and app-based advice, and other family supports.

As the report’s executive summary sets out: “when asked about the impact of having access to these work and family services, more than three-quarters reported a positive contribution to both wellbeing and engagement while two-thirds noted an upward impact on productivity and on commitment to their employer. This was purely based on having the services available. When respondents had actively made use of back-up care, the experience was even more positive with over 8 in 10 reporting it enhanced wellbeing and engagement and three-quarters noting a positive impact on productivity and on commitment to their employer.

"Respondents in the survey also scored 20 percentage points higher than the overall UK population in their perception that their employers and managers care about their work and home balance.

The responses indicate highly positive results from the purposeful action of family-friendly employers. The highest rated forms of support from employers included: a culture of flexible working; back-up care services for loved ones of any age; line managers with the knowledge and confidence to understand and support work life balance.”

5. Enter for family-friendly awards

I’m privileged to have been part of the Judges Panel of the WM People Top Employer Awards for over a decade. Every year, it’s a hard task, weighing up the many innovations that are making life easier and more fulfilling for employees and improving talent retention and attraction for employers. Working Families Benchmark is another important measure. Or more broadly, a D&I index such as HR Datahub.

Taking part in all these processes will focus your mind on your successes to-date and – if you don’t win – then studying the winners will provide ideas on the distance you still have to travel.

Make sure your employees are part of the journey; in our connected world the employer brand does need to match the employee voice very closely. When you do win, make sure your teams are part of the celebrations, too.

Making a difference for International Men’s Day

The more these 5 actions become the norm, the more all working parents will flourish (and non-parents, too, as the culture grows to pay attention to other aspects of work-life blend).

19th November is International Men’s Day. The UK themes for the Day are:

  • Making a positive difference to the wellbeing and lives of men and boys
  • Promoting a positive conversation about men, manhood and masculinity
  • Raising awareness and/or funds for charities supporting men and boys’ wellbeing

What will you be doing this year? Are you well on your way with the above 5 actions? What can we each do, personally, to promote positive conversations about men, manhood and masculinity?

Coming back to where we started, one step is to open our eyes to the way that gender roles are changing and to talk about that as the norm; to recognise progress rather than dwelling on how far we yet have to go. Let’s change our mental images.