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Where Men and Dads Fit in the Work-Family Balance Equation

It can be easy to paint work-family balance issues, and the policies that could make a real difference for the economic security and well-being of our families, as women's issues only.
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At an event at the Center for American Progress on Wednesday, the White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, discussed his own challenges as a new dad. He noted that he was lucky to work with people who, despite the unusually demanding aspects of his job, appreciated his efforts to prioritize his family life (his boss, President Obama, famously goes home for dinner with his family most nights around 6:30). "That's the kind of work environment that a lot of people don't have access to," he said.

Amidst the growing conversation of work-family issues, not to mention the ongoing discussions of "leaning in" and "mommy tracks," it can be easy to paint work-family balance issues, and the policies that could make a real difference for the economic security and well-being of our families, as women's issues only. Although women face unique challenges and much research has been justly devoted to exploring these issues, the truth remains that work-family policies -- paid sick days, paid family leave and equal pay protections -- affect men as well as women.

How men experience conflicts between their work and home lives is less-researched and less discussed, but it is clear that the American workplace is geared to an out-of-date ideal, fitting a time when a family could afford to have a breadwinning father, unencumbered by family responsibility, and a home-making mother. Today, both partners work in 59.1 percent of couples with children, and nearly two thirds of mothers with children under 6 work.

Not only has our economic reality changed to one where families often need two incomes to make ends meet, but so have our ideas around gender roles. Fathers themselves report that they want to be more involved at home and we now expect fathers to be involved parents, sharing care work and domestic responsibilities with mothers/partners. In fact, between 1977 and 2008, the percentage of father reporting work family conflict rose from 35 percent to 60 percent.

Consider these statistics about men's work-family conflict:

  • Studies show that men actually have more access to flexible work arrangements, such as changing work hours or work location, than women. Still, the little research that exists suggests that most men do not take these flexibility opportunities -- and with good reason: Some research suggests that men who request to use flexibility options face lower wages and fewer promotions, among other things, than their counterparts.

  • Currently, only 12 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave and men are much less likely to take leave. In other countries, particularly in Scandinavia, where gender neutral leave is the norm, men are far more likely to take time off to care for a new child.
  • Both culture and workplace policy around men's caregiving help the gender wage gap persist: When men are discouraged from using or lack access to flexible work arrangements and family leave, caregiving responsibilities continue to fall to women and mothers, perpetuating the causes of the gender wage gap. Caregiving itself is devalued, associated with women only, and stigmatizes both men and women caregivers as less committed to their work, rather than trying to balance their work and home lives.
  • Because of these cultural attitudes and workplace policies, while both fathers and mothers report that they strive for equality in home and care work, it should not be surprising that reality does not reflect the ideal: Fathers have increased their caregiving hours considerably over the last 40 years, but mothers still spend more time in housework and caring for children. Furthermore, women face greater penalties in workplace advancement for having children than men do -- in some cases, men even experience a "fatherhood bonus."

    Policy can help bridge the gap between home and work, helping working men and women in the process. "Right to request" laws, like those in San Francisco and Vermont, protect workers who ask for flexible work arrangements from retaliation by their boss. These laws, too, help to promote a work culture where, for example, asking to start and leave work early to better fit with children's school schedules, is less stigmatized for both men and women. Comprehensive paid family and medical leave, too, is important because it can be used by both men and women for new-parenthood, as well as other family situations, such as the illness of parent or spouse. In this way, policy can change culture, and our workplaces can move closer to our ideals, where men (and women) are both productive workers and involved parents, partners and family members.