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Four ways working dads are pioneering gender equality

Alison Green, Director - WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby)

For working dads, COVID-19 considerably changed their relationship with work and family. Not only did it prove to be an awakening – with many dads for the first time appreciating the challenges of juggling work and childcare – it was also a period that showed parents a different and better way forward. Now, many have no intention of returning to the outdated, pre-pandemic routines that prove to be barriers to a healthy work-family balance.

And yet, despite dads wanting to participate more actively in family life, a joint research study* – exploring how working parents experience the transition to parenthood in an organisational context – found that many have found it difficult to take on a greater parental role. 

We found that dads are frustrated and angry with a parental leave system that is not designed for them. In fact, one interviewee explained that confusion with his HR team over paternity leave policy lasted two months and to resolve it, he needed to obtain legal advice. Unhelpful assumptions and generational biases, including those of men as breadwinners and women as the primary caregivers, present further obstacles for fathers wanting to take leave or have more flexibility.

On one hand, the lack of support and structured policies for working dads are a source of anxiety, partly due to dads’ initial focus on practicality regarding financial responsibilities associated with starting or growing a family. 

On the other hand, they leave dads with no other choice but to challenge the system and work out a plan for themselves. Many of the dads in our study were the first they knew to take extended parental leave. 

But working dads are doing more than just driving the need for equal paternity policies. They are reframing cultural norms around parenting and helping to ensure the responsibility of childcare can be shared enabling both parents to continue to manage their careers. Ultimately working dads are helping to build more diverse and equal workplaces.

Working dads have become the pioneers of gender equality. Here are just four ways how:

1/ Changing attitudes towards working mums
Our own study revealed that, while going through the process of leave requests and spending time with partners, working dads developed more empathy as they saw some of the issues their partners face. With this new appreciation, working dads are helping to squash outdated judgements and stereotypes that limit women in the workplace.

2/ Forcing leaders out of old ways of working
Dads can help leaders to understand what the real issues for working parents are and encourage them out of old ways of working and thinking that act as barriers to equality. There are unintended but damaging consequences to well-intentioned managers making assumptions about what a working parent wants, needs, or what they think is “best” for them. 

3/ Reducing the need for mums to limit their careers
Equal and financially-backed parental leave policies for dads reduce the need for mums to choose between their family and their career. Giving dads additional paid time off to spend with their children enables families to establish a pattern of shared parenting responsibility. In turn, mums would be better able to balance their career and family. 

4/ Encouraging the adoption of working practices that support parents
COVID-19 gave many dads a deeper understanding of the personal and family challenges that come with working from home and being on the frontline of parenting. With this increased awareness, working dads are more likely to encourage their employers to adopt working practices that support parents, such as flexible and hybrid working.

Without the right culture, efforts could be futile
Without doubt, working dads are a key part of addressing gender equality. However, employers must understand that building a healthy culture is central to making change happen. It is all well and good introducing or enhancing policies for working parents, but if parents do not feel they can use these arrangements without being penalised, these changes could be futile.

*WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby) & Hult International Business School (Ashridge) Research Project: ‘The Shift from Worker to Working Parent’. A research study exploring how working parents experience the transition to parenthood in an organisational context. 

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