When It Comes To Work-Life Balance, It’s Hard to Know What Dads Really Want

This post originally appeared in Huffington Post on 

According to recent anthropological research, men played an active role in child care and egalitarianism ruled the day in the earliest human societies. It was with the advent of agriculture — and the ability to accumulate resources — that gendered roles began to take hold.

 

Fast forward several thousand years and the struggle for gender equality persists. We have the millennial generation trying to rewrite the rules while facing powerful headwinds pulling them back into traditional roles. We often emphasize how different it is for the millennial generation today with men and women prioritizing equality and a healthier work-life balance. And no doubt there have been shifts. But the primacy of work in men’s lives remains front and center. In working with a team at the Boston College Center for Work and Family (BCCWF) on a report for this Father’s Day, I saw familiar patterns with regard to gender roles and career decision making. A formidable obstacle to gender equality is how men and women conceptualize work-life integration differently.

 

The BCCWF began a New Dad research series in 2009 with the goal of studying the evolution of fatherhood. The just-published 2016 report The New Millennial Dad: Understanding the Paradox of Today’s Fathers documents the experience of millennial men – and women – working in corporate positions for large successful companies. In the research we found there remains a substantial divide between men’s egalitarian ideals and their actual experiences with two-thirds of fathers indicating child care should be shared equally with their spouses while only a third reported equal sharing was the reality.

 

Fathers provided mixed messages regarding their work-life priorities. It was clear dads highly valued their family lives. Fathers were more than twice as likely to report their life outside of work – versus their career – was ‘very or extremely important’ in defining who they were. In a 2013 Pew Research study, men similarly reported having a successful marriage and being a good parent was nearly twice as important as being successful in a high paying career.

 

Yet, the vast majority of fathers in the New Dad research privileged their career ambition, wanting expanded responsibilities and promotions while acknowledging the costs of advancement. Nearly 90% of dads wanted greater responsibilities, increasingly challenging assignments, and advancement. Eighty-six percent were willing to put in a great deal of time at work. Simultaneously the perceived costs were high. Nearly half of fathers thought 50 hours was the minimum workweek to get ahead and 40% thought turning down a promotion or transfer had serious negative career implications.

 

When it came to navigating their careers, fathers prioritized work rather than a more balanced approach taking into account the important connections between careers and caretaking responsibilities. For fathers, the most important criteria for taking a new job was career opportunity while for mothers it was work-life balance. In evaluating potential employers, men more highly valued career challenge while women more highly valued a wide range of factors ranging from meaningful work to organizational culture to flexibility. A similar gendered pattern emerged with regard to factors for consideration in leaving a job. Fathers highly prioritized money and career while mothers were more inclined to leave for factors related to work-life integration such as work location, flexibility, and reducing work stress.

 

A study of millennial men and women at elite graduate schools found clear differences in how each group thought about and approached work-life integration. In considering how to combine work and family, men were far more likely to not have thought about it or to anticipate relying on their spouse. Conversely, women were very concrete about both work-life challenges and potential solutions.

 

Millennial dads report wanting egalitarian marriages. They say family is important to them and they want to be more involved at home. Yet their careers command a large amount of their time and energy and they seemingly want more of it. You could argue that what millennial fathers really want is to “have it all” – to be involved parents while simultaneously having successful careers- just as women have been striving to do for decades. The good news is that millennial dads collectively have great influence and a critical role to play in solving the problem

 

As we celebrate Father’s Day, it is my hope that millennial dads can find new ways to think about work-life integration so that they can minimize the gap between their aspirations for equality and the reality. Here are some ideas for dads to get started:

 

  • They can help to change work cultures, as managers and leaders and as role models, to create new norms that enable employees to have full integrated lives as professionals and caregivers.
  • They can consider how to design their jobs and careers in ways that enable more time in their lives for priorities outside of work. Here’s some great resources to get started.
  • They can proactively support pay equity so that women are in a stronger position to support their families – and to be full economic partners – which enables the men in their lives to feel less pressure and have more choices.
  • They can start a father’s network group at work and ensure dads sit on the many panels women’s groups host to discuss work-life fit issues. They can mentor men more junior in their careers about how career planning and work-life planning go hand in hand.
  • They can talk to other dads about how they manage their professional and parenting responsibilities. They can seek support from and provide support to men in their lives as they try to figure out the work-life equation for the 21st century. They can join with over 6000 dads across the country thinking about fatherhood.
  • They can take parental leave to seed a caregiving partnership with their spouse from the outset and to build confidence and competence in being a father.

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