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Children might benefit from the increased presence of their fathers – but the fathers themselves may suffer at work. A study of unionized workers at various companies showed that care-giving fathers faced the most harassment or mistreatment for not adhering to traditional gender norms. (Jupiterimages/Getty Images)
Children might benefit from the increased presence of their fathers – but the fathers themselves may suffer at work. A study of unionized workers at various companies showed that care-giving fathers faced the most harassment or mistreatment for not adhering to traditional gender norms. (Jupiterimages/Getty Images)

Gender roles

Paternity-leave dads seen as ‘not man enough’ Add to ...

Twins can be a lot to deal with. So when Peter became the father of twins in 2010, he wanted to take parental leave to care for them when his wife finished her own. She would take eight months, then he would take five, with a month’s overlap to make an even year.

For Peter, who worked as a mid-level employee in the consulting industry, the problems soon began to pile on. His application for leave was accepted, but he was asked to play a “minor role” in a project that turned into a serious time commitment. It was made clear to him that if he didn’t keep his hands dirty with work, he’d be at a disadvantage when he returned. And when he finally did, the chiding began.

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“All the guys were joking and saying, ‘Oh, hey, how was your mat leave? Where are your boobs?’” says Peter, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy. He took it in stride – just jokes from the boys – but now admits that it was “maybe borderline harassment.”

Peter is not alone in his experience. For many men in the workplace, taking part in childcare has long been stigmatized for countering traditional gender roles. And it’s not getting any better: New research from Jennifer Berdahl at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management has found that care-giving fathers systematically face more harassment and mistreatment than their childless peers.

“It serves as a really strong disincentive to care for your kids, to take flexible time or take paternity leave,” says Prof. Berdahl, an associate professor of organizational behaviour.

The research also found that women without children – as well as mothers who spend less time care-giving than traditionally expected – face more hostility at work than care-giving mothers.

Both findings illustrate just how deeply ingrained traditional gender roles are in workplace attitudes. The research, a pair of field studies, was published this summer in a special issue of the Journal of Social Issues that focuses on the stigma surrounding flexible work-life policies.

The first study surveyed 232 members of the same union across various companies and looked for time spent in childcare and the extent to which workers felt “not-man-enough” harassment, or mistreatment for not adhering to traditional gender norms. It found that care-giving fathers faced the most of this kind of harassment, and to a lesser extent, women without children. (Women, Prof. Berdahl writes in the paper, both experience and perpetrate this kind of harassment, too.)

This kind of treatment is tough, considering the importance of reputation at work. “Research suggests that for men, and women, one of their greatest social fears is being put down in the workplace,” Prof. Berdahl says.

Just a third of workers were men in the first study, so the researchers embarked on a second, surveying 451 people in a single workplace, four out of five of them men. They again were asked about the time they spend caring for children, and the extent to which they felt generally mistreated in the workplace. It found that men who care for children face significantly more mistreatment in general at work – not just in terms of masculinity.

More notable – and unexpected, as the study initially sought to study men’s experience – was that women with no children in this male-dominated workplace reported that they faced nearly seven times the amount of mistreatment than even the most poorly treated men. While women are often penalized in their career paths for having children, Prof. Berdahl says, an inherent distrust emerges when women don’t adhere to a traditional mother role.

“They’re experiencing a hostile work environment,” she says. “Even if they’re getting ahead in that environment, it’s a hostile swim upstream.”

Prof. Berdahl’s studies offer concrete support to what was long anecdotally known about the mistreatment of workers who didn’t conform to traditional gender roles. Much of the previous research on workplace mistreatment specifically examined pay and promotion, or was based on hypothetical situations, rather than surveys of everyday treatment. (Prof. Berdahl has contributed much to this research, going back to her graduate-school days, when she coined the term “not-man-enough” harassment.)

If this stigma persists while men continue to take on more care-giving duties at home, then they will also increasingly have to face a tradeoff between career and family – which women have always struggled with. Career-driven women, meanwhile, still get the least respect, often viewed as cold or heartless for putting work before children.

The studies’ samples were predominantly heterosexual, Prof. Berdahl says, leaving little to learn about how the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and queer community is treated in the workplace. Studies that focus outside of “heteronormative“ or traditional-family assumptions are one of the next major steps for this area of research, she says.

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