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Why Parents Aren’t Honest In The Workplace And What Can Be Done To Fix It

This report was produced with our partners at Plum Organics®.

John Willey was working as a photographer for a television station in New York when his wife was pregnant with their first son. As the blessed event approached, he realized that he was legally entitled to 12 weeks off by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and he wanted to take every blessed day of it — but the company had no idea how to deal with his request. He was the one of the first male employees in their history to ask for more than a couple days off for the birth of a child, and certainly the first one ever to utter the term “FMLA.” “They didn’t really know the protocol,” Willey says of his supervisors. “HR even called me the day before I took my leave to make sure I really wanted to do what I was about to do.”

Willey’s supervisors likely weren’t the only ones in his office surprised by how directly he voiced his needs as a soon-to-be-working parent. In most American workplaces, parents might trade stories about a toddler’s hilarious grammatical error or a pre-teen’s Mensa-level LEGO skills, but when was the last time you heard a coworker admit they missed a meeting to attend a dance recital or failed to hit a deadline because their kid is struggling in school? Talking honestly about how the demands of your job conflict with the reality of raising your kid is practically NSFW.

You probably don’t need proof of this, but here’s some anyway: Last year, the childcare provider Bright Horizons released a report that found the majority of working parents are dissatisfied with their current work/life balance, but 77 percent of them wouldn’t bring up the issue with their employer. This self-censoring on the part of employees creates a (lack of) feedback loop that ensures employers don’t address the problem. The same report found that only 34 percent of managers thought work/life balance was a problem for their employees, and 70 percent thought their companies had a culture that supports working parents.

The majority of working parents are dissatisfied with their current work/life balance, but 77 percent of them won’t bring up the issue with their employer.

The Bright Horizons report is just the tip of the research-berg that has formed in the past few years around how working parents deal with — and feel about — the demands of their work and family lives. Since you don’t have time to analyze reams of social science data (because you’re a working parent), Fatherly and Plum Organics sifted through a whole bunch of it to create a snapshot. It reveals a lot about men’s changing attitude toward both parenting and work, and outdated assumptions about gender roles in the workplace.

We also talked to 2 of the nation’s leading thinkers on the topic: Wharton professor Stew Friedman, who won’t even use the term “work/life balance” because he believes it’s a false ideal; and New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose 2012 Atlantic feature “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” became the magazine’s most popular article, ever.

Fair warning: Knowledge is power, and what follows may (depending on where you work) make you the most innovative, or the most subversive, employee at the watercooler.

The Conflicted Father
It has recently come to the attention of the brainiac community that the traditional role of the Working Dad — a checked-out automaton who gets home just in time to tuck the kids in before eating warmed-over casserole and watching SportsCenter while getting the family update from his wife — is a bit outdated. In short, fathers would like to participate in their families as much as the rest of their family does.

According to the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of parents with kids under 18 feel it’s difficult to balance their responsibilities at work with those at home. But while this is usually treated as a working mom issue in the media, Bright Horizons found that fathers stress over work/life balance more than college savings or career advancement — 2 issues employers assumed fathers cared about more.

That’s not to say career isn’t a going concern for fathers. Boston College’s Center For Work And Family found that 76 percent of fathers wanted to advance to positions of greater responsibility at work, and 56 percent expressed a strong desire to be in senior management. Clearly, all these ambitious, work/life-loving guys didn’t get the memo that no one leaves the executive suite in time to make it home for dinner with the kids.

Boston College also identified the source of their harebrained idealism: 57 percent of men they surveyed agreed with the statement, “In the past 3 months, I have not been able to get everything done at home each day because of my job.” And 65 percent disagreed with the statement, “In the past 3 months, my family or personal life has kept me from doing as good a job at work as I could.” Perhaps out of mercy, Boston College didn’t cross check those guys’ opinion of themselves with their bosses.

“I’m doing my best and what’s best for my family. When it comes to work/life balance, good enough will have to suffice.”

Aaron Gouveia, the father of 3 boys (7, 2, and 3 months) and a director at a PR firm, is a case study in the compromise today’s working fathers often make. He wrestled with the decision to move on from a previous position — which was close to home and flexible, but didn’t pay well — to his current gig where the pay is better but, the commute creates 12-hour work days.

“I felt incredibly selfish shifting the home and childcare burden almost exclusively to my wife,” he says. He ultimately chose the new job so the family could save for the down payment on a house. “I’m doing my best and what’s best for my family. When it comes to work/life balance, good enough will have to suffice.”

While Gouveia had to make a choice that might seem backwards to progressive-minded dads looking to increase their involvement at home, there’s a generational shift afoot that could have interesting implications on gender roles in the workplace. When Boston College asked millennials if they’d be willing to stay home with the kids, provided their spouse made enough to support them, 44 percent of women said yes — but so did 51 percent of men.

Not all the men surveyed were fathers, so you could speculate that these 51-percenters don’t realize what the hell they’re signing up for. But millennials in the same study also consider work/life balance to be an important definition of career success — more so than job satisfaction or even salary. So, you could just as easily speculate that they also have high expectations of what work should look like. Maybe those high expectations will eventually translate to more family-friendly workplaces.

“I see millennial men as our great hope, because the millennial men that I work with really do expect to be fully engaged parents”

Anne-Marie Slaughter certainly thinks so. As head of New America, one of the nation’s leading public policy think tanks, she oversees some of the most innovative young minds in Washington D.C. She finds one group, in particular, to be inspiring when it comes to issues of family and work life.

“I see millennial men as our great hope, because the millennial men that I work with really do expect to be fully engaged parents,” she says. “Interestingly, when we set a parental leave policy here, it was the men who said it needs to be longer. The other thing I see [are] millennial women who are the principal breadwinners. So, the father can play any role: lead breadwinner, lead caregiver, or full co-parent.”

The Conflicted Mother
Of course, most working mothers will look at the Conflicted Father and say, “Welcome to the party, bro.” Men increasingly grapple with work/life issues in an attempt to be as present as possible for their families; for women that’s just one front in the battle. The other front is at work, where institutional gender bias as taken root over decades.

As Slaughter points out, having a kid tends to affect the careers of women in the exact opposite manner that it tends to affect men. “When a woman has children, it negatively affects her career. She makes less money. She’s less likely to get a bonus. She’s less likely to get promoted. That is ‘The Mommy Tax.’ When a man has children, he often gets promoted, gets a raise. It is still a deeply ingrained assumption that her job is to care for the children, and so because she’s caring for the children, she’s going to do a bad job at work. His job is to support his family and now that he has a family to support, he will be that much more motivated. That is Leave It To Beaver thinking.”

Leave It To Beaver went off the air more than 50 years ago, but don’t tell that to the average American workplace, where women experience a wage penalty of approximately 5 percent for every child they have; where women are considered less competent than men, and mothers less competent than childless women. Stanford sociologists Cecilia Ridgeway and Shelley Correll have gone so far as to identify the general concept of an “ideal worker” as someone who works 40 hours a week or more, without interruption, until retirement and devoted the majority of their time and energy to work. Guys who see that description as a little suspect are a relatively recent phenomenon; for women, it’s been an impossible ideal for generations.

So, it’s no surprise that Pew’s ” Raising Kids And Running A Household” survey found that 41 percent of moms reported that being a parent made it harder to advance at work, compared to only 20 percent of dads. Or that 6 out of 10 women responding to a Washington Post survey said they had quit a job or switched to a less demanding position to make time for their family while only 4 of 10 men said the same.

Welcome to the party, bro.

This Isn’t About “Employer” vs. “Employee”
On paper, you could argue that this is already the Golden Age of family-friendly workplaces in the U.S., with tech giants like Facebook and Netflix making generous parental leave the norm. In fact, there are so many large employers offering innovative flex-time policies that Fatherly tried to rank 50 of them. But, despite the willingness of employers to make progress their policy, many men seem unwilling to take them up on it.

Take the professional services firm Ernst And Young as one example. The company is ranked 30th on Fatherly’s ” 50 Best Places To Work For New Dads,” yet the Wall Street Journal found that, while the company offers 6 weeks of paternity leave, 90 percent of employees only take 2 weeks. The guys interviewed claimed that the reason they spurned their company’s relatively generous offer was because they were afraid they’d be perceived as less committed to their jobs if they took it.

So, how do we overcome the social and psychological barriers that keep fathers from doing what’s best for their families, even when their employers are trying to help them? If we were Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway, or Canada, we’d pass legislation that requires men to spend time with their kids. In those countries, men must take a certain amount of time off during the first year of their kid’s life, or their family (meaning their wives or partners) forfeits their right to the full leave legally available to them.

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Unsurprisingly, these policies are effective. According to the Guardian, when Germany enacted its policy, the rate at which men took parental leave rose from 3 percent to over 20 percent in just 2 years. When Quebec hatched a similar scheme, the number of men taking their leave increased 250 percent; now a whopping 80 percent of pères québécois do so.

But, the issue extends well beyond new fathers. The aforementioned Boston College study about fathers and work shows a widespread belief among those surveyed that their bosses would not be cool with more flexible work schedules. Fifty-two percent who didn’t use flex-time thought their company wouldn’t allow them to. Seventy-nine percent of those who worked in an office thought their companies wouldn’t let them telecommute. This, is despite the fact that many of their colleagues have either formal or informal work flexibility arrangements.

Those findings are particularly confounding, given that the majority of men in this study claimed their manager and coworkers were supportive when family or personal issues needed to be taken care of. So, why weren’t these guys proactively leveraging their company’s policies specifically designed to help working parents?

The Path Forward Involves Honesty, Transparency, And Dialog
Boston College recommends employers “give men a place and permission to talk,” and “take proactive measures to encourage discussions among men about issues such as parenting and work/life balance.” The Bright Horizons report notes bringing this stuff up with your employer is key to preventing absenteeism and burnout in the workplace.

Those recommendations follow the lead of Professor Friedman, who gave up on the term “work/life balance” in favor of “work-life integration.” As he points out, the concept of balance is zero sum: For you to get more “life,” your employer has to accept less “work,” or vice versa. He encourages all employees to open a dialog with their bosses, which goes something like this:

“It doesn’t take a lot of effort to say, ‘During this window of time, I’m not going to be available except on an emergency basis, and here’s why I think this is a good thing for me and for you. Can we try that for a couple of weeks or a month and see how it works? If it doesn’t, we’ll make adjustments or go back to the way things are now.’ Experiment over a short period of time in a way that’s low risk, because your goal is to make things better for your boss as well as for yourself.”

Friedman didn’t just pull that off the top of his head; he’s been studying how corporations can get more out of their employees — and how employees can be happier with their corporations — since the late 80s. “What we found is that when people go through this process, they end up spending less of their attention, their waking time, on work and more on other parts of their lives. And they perform better at work,” he says. “Because you are less distracted, you’re less stressed, you’re more energetic, more focused, and more committed to the things that matter most. You’re working smarter.”

John Willey didn’t know any more about Stew Friedman’s research than his HR department knew about the Family Medical Leave Act, but his insistence on taking the full leave available to him was straight out of the Friedman playbook. It forced his company to understand the changing needs of their employees and update their HR policies accordingly. And it forced Willey himself to understand what mattered most to him.

He returned to work after 12 weeks without any negative repercussions to his career — at least, not from his employer. The leave did introduce him to the rewards of childrearing, though. Two years later he decided to become a stay-at-home dad. Reflecting now on being the first guy at his company to take a real paternity leave 11 years ago, he calls it “the best decision I ever made.”

This report was produced with our partners at Plum Organics® , the nation’s no. 1 organic baby food brand and creators of #ParentingUnfiltered, an award-winning campaign about the realities of parenting – the good, the bad and the downright smelly. Because Plum Organics believes by revealing our true experiences as parents, we open ourselves up to solutions that make life more amazing. See more about how parents work here.