Where have all the good men gone?
"This may be the most important sentence in this whole book: If you routinely work a fifty-five or sixty-hour week, including commute times, you just won't cut it as a Dad. Your sons will have problems in life, your daughters will have self-esteem issues, and it will be down to you. Fathers need to get home in time to play, laugh, teach and tickle their children." - Steve Biddulph, Raising Boys
I'm going to assert that the Dads reading this will, pretty much universally, say that their kids are the most important thing in their lives. If they aren't then this probably won't resonate with you anyway. Most of us can also agree that our kids need our time - both quantity and quality - more than anything else. They don't really care about our money, our status, or material things. Steve's quote above sounds brutal, but the more I think about it the more I agree with it.
So why, then, are Dads not leading the charge when it comes to the new wave of flexible working models? My good friend Graham is a Dad of two and Executive Director of one of the world's leading property firms. His company are having to run panel sessions on balancing work and family as men are still not taking up their generous shared parental leave policy. At Honeycomb, we recently advertised for four new hires - all super flexible, part-time, client-facing roles. We got over 30 applicants, but not a single man amongst them (no complaints - I've got four awesome women joining and couldn't be happier with our team!)
Maybe the most striking data point is the fact that blogs about shared parental leave written by Dads like Jonny Scholes are seen as unique and unusual. When was the last time you bothered reading a blog from someone taking maternity leave? (Jonny's blog is brilliant by the way - well worth a look)
We know that men say they want more flexible working - surveys typically show 80%+ of men would value it, and a recent Deloitte and Daddilife survey found that 63% of men had actually requested a change to their working patterns since becoming a father (as all employees with over 6 months service are entitled to). We also know that companies are struggling to say yes to these requests: almost half get turned down.
All this got me thinking. Why is this shift so difficult for men to achieve? There are so many pscyho-social, financial, and cultural barriers to consider. To start figuring this out I spoke to Nick Coppin, Dad of three who has been working flexibly for recruitment consultancy Holker Watkin for many years now. He's made it work through a combination of having the confidence to ask; a supportive wife; and an employer with a culture that doesn't allow Nick to be "side-eyed" when he leaves the office at lunchtime on his agreed day each week.
Talking to Nick and others has helped me crystallise five reasons that all throw up huge barriers to men wanting to move to a more flexible working model:
Reason 1: Fear - men are scared to ask the question in the first place, for fear that the request is likely to be rejected, and their reputation will be damaged just for asking
Reason 2: Finances - like it or not, many men are still in the position of being the primary breadwinner for their families once they have children. While flexible working is much broader than reduced hours for reduced pay, if men do look to work fewer hours it can require their other halves to change their working pattern to make the numbers work. Outside material lifestyle change, this is difficult to achieve for many families
Reason 3: Friends & Family - impact on perceived status is a huge driver of inaction. How can I face my fellow men if I "just" work part-time? There is also an element of projected guilt here - why should I have my cake and eat it when that wasn't possible for my father? The reality is that technology makes many things possible that weren't before
Reason 4: Flagellation (self) - working flexibly without the right mindset, self-perception, or confidence in your output can make the guilt unbearable. At first you think flexible work will be great - more time at home with the kids, or to exercise, or whatever you choose to do. When it comes to it, the reality can be hard to manage when you beat yourself up for letting everyone down constantly (and I know many Mums who can relate to that)
Reason 5: Flagellation (colleagues) - One of the major reasons flexible working fails is because changing policy doesn't change culture, mindset, or pre-conceived ideas of how work must be done. You get a new working pattern agreed, but your colleagues resent you for it and make sure you know how they feel. Nick has the benefit of a hugely supportive culture at Holker Watkin, but I have personally experienced this in the past at other companies - regularly getting feedback that I wasn't in the office enough (when leaving at 1815 and working on the train home...), or having to justify to clients what I was doing with my 'spare day' on a 4 day a week contract as a freelancer
This is important so let me spell it out: No-one has the right to judge the validity of what you want to do with your time. Flexible working is about making a mutual commitment with your employer. If you meet that commitment, what you choose to do with the rest of your time - whether it's the school run, fund-raising for charity, getting drunk, or just lying down and staring at the ceiling - is nothing to do with them.
Without actively addressing all of these root causes the shift to flexible working is going to continue moving at a glacial pace, and leave a lot of men stressed and unhappy in the meantime.
I'm aware I've flagged up a bunch of issues with no proposed solution, no concrete actions for people to take. That's because these reasons are all real, and valid, and not easy to address. My initial plea to my fellow men and fellow employers is to try to break the cycle of fear, step out of your employer / employee personas to view each other as humans, and ask yourselves this simple question: How can we really help each other to be happier and more successful?