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Dads Are Now Experiencing the Motherhood Penalty. That’s Not Good.

The answer lies in a little known phenomenon called the 'flexibility stigma.'

Evan Porter, a 32-year-old Dad from Atlanta, worked at a marketing agency before his daughter was born. His company provided him two weeks of paid family leave and he was excited to take that time off to spend with his newborn, before returning to the workplace. The company, he says, was supportive. But then a blunter truth emerged: His new role as a father would not help him succeed. Although he didn’t realize it, he was starting to experience what some scholars refer to as the motherhood penalty, or the flexibility stigma. 

“Individually, they were great. They didn’t hassle me about my schedule changes.” But when Porter returned from his leave he came to a realization: There was no viable path forward for dads who had a hard out at the end of every day. 

“A lot of the culture was conducted at long, after-work meetings that were happy hour drink sessions,” says Porter, whose daughter is now four. “Those were things that I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, attend. A lot of the leadership at the company above me were great people. They were supportive. But they were childless workaholics.”

Porter didn’t feel punished. He didn’t receive negative performance reviews. No one questioned his commitment to work because he couldn’t make the happy hour meetings. But he was functionally left out of major brainstorming sessions that happened after work and company culture building events where he would have gotten valuable face time with higher ups. He was blindsided by struggles he didn’t see coming. The top-down, always-plugged-in, always-available office culture in which he came up made sense before his baby. But after? The situation became impossible to work. Eventually, found another job — a remote one — but still struggled.

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Any employee who has young children knows how hard it is to juggle work and family. And the fact is that most of the jobs in the past (and many in the present) are inflexible. Employers operate under the assumption that jobs, more than family or life, should take precedent for an employee. #Hustle culture is real. But that puts working parents in a bind and creates a very serious stigma. 

“When someone wants to structure their work to meet family obligations, there’s a bias against that the worker is less serious about their job than other workers,” says Scott Coltrane, the Provost Emeritus in sociology at the University of Oregon and family sociologist who has done decades of research on dads and their shifting roles as parents. 

 “The flexibility stigma applies to flexible scheduling, working fewer hours, and not taking overtime — the sorts of things that many jobs [don’t offer] as you go higher up in the managerial or professional ranks,” says Coltrane. Such jobs — like the kind occupied by the CEO who is on Slack all night or the boss who gets into work at 7 a.m. every morning — are not tenable for dual-income parents. 

“It’s very hard to be a parent and do that,” Coltrane adds.”The flexibility stigma suggests that workplaces will value those who are childless or, at least, who ignore their child care obligations and give everything to their work.” 

Even though 70 percent of Americans support some form of paid leave, men are still not taking the full extent of the leave offered, if they’re taking at all. In fact, men don’t take nearly as much time off as women when their baby is born, despite the fact that both men and women discuss the need to have such a program equally. 

If men want to take time off after the birth of their baby just as much as women do, why don’t they take advantage of it when the leave is paid? Much of it has to do with the flexibility stigma, a phenomenon that women in the workplace have experienced for decades, and one that is just now starting to hit men as they do more child rearing and take on more household tasks. 

Ultimately, the impact of flexible work or taking parental leave is gender neutral. When people take time out of the workforce, whether through paid leave or for a kid’s sick day, their earnings are depressed. That women are more likely to take paid leave than men is likely due to the fact that men are socialized to be providers, while women are socialized to take a step back and either exit the workforce or gain an entirely new relationship to it. (As well as the fact that women are generally the ones who give birth and breastfeed.) But that model of socialization — and the employment models that are built around it, jobs that value people who can stay late, grind, work longer hours, and are always available to hop on a call, answer an email, or go to an after-work happy hour meeting to launch an advertising campaign, for example — only makes sense in a world where one income is enough to support a family.

Porter, who had not considered that he might have to change careers after having his daughter, ended up working at a media company in a full time, remote position. But even then, he still had problems. 

“I don’t think I was prepared at all for how much becoming a parent not only changes your schedule, but also your priorities. I was grateful to have paternity leave and to work for a company I thought was flexible, but it wasn’t until I got into parenting a little bit deeper when I realized work was not aligning with what I want my life to look like,” says Porter.

Shannon Serpette was a reporter at a mid-size media company for nearly a decade before she decided to start having kids. She held off on purpose — she had seen other women reporters get sidelined and treated as uncommitted to their work after having kids — and wanted to show her commitment to the work. But still, even after delaying having kids to save her career, she found that having any commitment outside of work consistently sidelined her. 

“Any time I called in sick after my kids were born, my supervisor grilled me about whether the time off was for my own illness or my children. If there were assignments outside of my regular work hours I couldn’t cover, he would say it was probably because of my kids — and he would say ‘kids’ like it was a dirty word.” Meanwhile, Serpette says her childless coworkers would just say they had plans and they couldn’t take the assignment. “They were never questioned about what they were doing in their personal time,” she says.

Today, according to Coltranes decade’s of research, men do two to three times more with their children and in the household, are still not taking leave, and are, understandably, feeling extremely stressed about the whole thing. Fathers are just trying to work as hard and play (with their kids) as hard as they can. It’s hard. Really hard. In fact, Coltrane says, dads are feeling more stressed about balancing their careers and their role in raising their children than ever before — suggesting that there’s a threshold where work duties and real life duties meet and become untenable. What women have begun to experience since the mid-80’s, flexibility stigma, has come for men. 

The good news, if there is any, is that despite the prospect of losing wages or being shut out of the workplace for being an active parents, men are still doing more. Like Evan Porter, many parents start to reconfigure what a career means to them — and if professional success and raises mean as much as the ability to go to doctor’s appointments or catch the school play. The other good news is that while men can expect to be sidelined, they might all be sidelined together.

“When I was doing research in the 80s and 90s, and doing interviews with men, many of them were in the [dad] closet. They couldn’t talk about their kids or put up pictures. They were pretending they were going off to another obligation, or a sporting event, rather than saying, ‘I’m picking up my kids from school,’” says Coltrane. It’s hard to imagine that happening today. And, the fact of the matter is, with a tight labor market and a low unemployment rate, employers are loathe to not offer benefits to potential hires.

As a result, certain labor markets — like white collar, strong, upper-middle class office jobs — have begun to cave to the pressures of life outside of work, of being a parent, of raising a child. 

“Studies show if there’s a critical mass of high paid workers who are demanding something, the employers pay attention. In fields where it’s more equally balanced between men and women, we see more change,” says Coltrane. 

Until all of it changes —  the culture, the law, the office attitude — men will be disincentivized from taking the leave they’re offered, many parents will feel sidelined in their careers, and many will look for other options outside of the typical 9 to 5. 

“Before, there were few enough men doing little enough work in their own families that it didn’t stress them out,” says Coltrane. “But we’ve reached a tipping point where it’s more similar for men and women now and men are stressed out, like women have always been.” Workplaces, he says, are still so masculinized and look towards the single breadwinner model. “Today, we’re in a more tag-team parenting mode, where it’s more about other people balancing parenting and rotating in and out.” Until more employers understand this, the situation won’t improve.