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At a time when dads are twice as likely as moms to think they don't spend enough time with the kids, many employers continue to deny them the breathing room needed to get face time with their families. But a new wave of men is quietly (and not so quietly) finding new ways to lean out.

Toronto lawyer Michael Fenrick’s firm, Paliare Roland, has a progressive work culture that accommodates family life, allowing Fenrick to spend more time with his wife, Eden Kaill, and their daughter, Isadora. (Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail)

It’s the latest thing in corporate corner-office chic: top male executives ditching work to hang out with their kids. In August, Max Schireson, head of MongoDB, resigned to take a lesser executive position at the software company. In a blog post entitled Why I Am Leaving the Best Job I Ever Had, he lamented what he had been forced to miss at home while holding down a job that required him to fly 400,000 kilometres a year: consoling his three kids when the family puppy was hit by a car; being there when his son needed emergency surgery. “The only way to balance,” he wrote, “was by stepping back from my job.’ ”

Then in September, eight months after resigning as head of the Pimco investment fund, Mohamed El-Erian wrote in an essay in Worth magazine that he made that decision following a conversation with his daughter, who, upon refusing a request to brush her teeth, had supplied her father with a list of 22 events he had failed to attend, including her first day of school, a Halloween parade, and the season’s first soccer game. “I was not making enough time for her,” Mr. El-Erian concluded.

When men at the top of the pile start exchanging power, privilege and fat paycheques for the chance to spend more time with their families, it says that something really is wrong with the way we work. But that’s also what makes the decision of these top dogs to downsize so darn disappointing for those of us farther down the corporate ladder who can’t afford to reconfigure our working lives to spend all kinds of extra time on the home front. A 2012 study of Canadian workers found that 60 per cent of us are working 50-hour weeks; a majority also take seven hours of work home every week.

Rather than bail from their powerful positions, couldn’t those corporate bigwigs – Mr. El-Erian was once counted as the 63rd-most-powerful man in global finance – have translated their work-life frustrations into sticking around and setting things right for the many people working below them?

So far, not many women at the top, either, are issuing a battle cry for work-life balance. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has famously been urging women to “lean in” to their careers – by playing the corporate game, complete with its macho, hard-driving rules and endless hours devoted to the company. She pays scant attention to the fact that, for many working parents – not to mention lots of childless millennials – getting home at a decent time for dinner might trump their desire to work their way up to Master of the Universe. If only women roared like men, put in the hours, built a private nursery in the office (à la Yahoo’s Marissa Mayers) and claimed more corner offices and boardroom seats, so goes the argument promulgated by innumerable think-tank papers and lunch-time workshops, the workplace would be a more equitable, human place.

The imperial leader who is above the organization – that’s not the approach in the marketplace any more. People are now valued for empowering others, not just for their individual power.
Mark Weinberger CEO, Ernst & Young

On one level, that’s laudable: Men may indeed do more of their share of the laundry these days, but they still account for 92 per cent of the top earners in Fortune 500 companies – and 96 per cent of the CEOs. And those stats have been shamefully stable for years. But telling women to be more like men also conveniently lets employers off the hook. “When you make it a women’s problem, you can really blame women,” says Erin Reid, an assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Management. Companies, in other words, don’t have to change the way they work.

And yet, in many sectors, bottom-up change that nods to work-life balance is exactly what workers are agitating for. In law, more associates are resisting a career track that requires amassing billable hours to make partner. In medicine, incoming male doctors, not just their female peers, are insisting on more reasonable schedules. The tech industry – where, in the words of Kristin Garn of the B.C.-based software company Mathtoons, “the workplace sometimes still looks like the lost island with all the Peter Pan boys” – is debating how to entice and retain more women, a discussion kick-started this year when Google revealed that only 17 per cent of its tech workers are female.

In a fast-changing, global workplace driven by creativity – where study after study has shown that the best leaders demonstrate stereotypically feminine traits (collaboration, empathy, flexibility) – the key to making workplaces more hospitable, say many, is kicking alpha bosses – whatever their gender – to the curb. “The model of male leadership is frayed,” says Karl Moore, a researcher at McGill University who studies leadership. “The approach that says, ‘I have the answers. Be quiet, salute, and follow me’ doesn’t work any more.”

It is part and parcel, suggests Ms. Garn, of “a vocabulary of business that has nothing to do with people, and has everything to do with profit.” And it’s not the only vocabulary in need of change.

“I don’t think the terms ‘lean in, lean back’ are very helpful,” says Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for Worklife Law at the University of California, Hastings, who has been studying work-family issues for 25 years. “When somebody says I want love and work, and I’m going to divide my time between both, that’s not leaning back. That’s living the kind of life you want to live.”

A new generation of men

“I would rather see the CEOs who get it try to stick around and effect more change in their company,” says Scott Behson, a professor of business management at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University, who runs a blog called Fathers, Work and Family. “It would be ideal if we could figure out how people can achieve the level of success in their career they want, and still be highly involved as parents.”

Certainly on the home front, a new egalitarianism is being established. There’s been an unprecedented realignment in the division of labour and parenting in recent times, transforming many marriages into something approaching co-operatives of two working partners. Sure, negotiation is still required on the division of chores, but today’s fathers spend twice as much time doing dishes and laundry as did their fathers, and triple the time with their children. Young men, especially, now define fatherhood as a care-giving role, rather than just a bread-winning one.

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Video: Scott Behson joins us to discuss work-life balance and men stepping back from work obligations.

In surveys, fathers now report nearly as much – and sometimes more – work-family conflict than do mothers. In a 2013 study by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, 46 per cent of fathers said they weren’t spending enough time with their kids, compared to 23 per cent of mothers.

In a large-scale Canadian study conducted by the University of Guelph, both men and women believed that mothers felt more work-family guilt than did fathers. But when researchers actually asked both groups about it, men were just as likely as women to feel guilty.

Men are now also coveting flexible work arrangements as much as women are, though men are less likely to feel they can access them as easily as their female counterparts. So they tend to use informal arrangements, a reasonable option when you have an understanding manager – or enough security in the organization to bend the rules. But that also reinforces the message that work-family initiatives are a mother’s domain.

In 2011, Boston University’s Reid began interviewing employees at a national management-consulting firm in the United States. At the time, the company was concerned about retaining female employees, but Prof. Reid discovered that men were equally stressed about work-life conflict, and what’s more, that their turnover rate was just as high as that of their female peers.

Many of the men she interviewed were covertly tweaking their careers, specializing in areas that meant little travel, or building up repeat clients who would not expect them to work weekends. “Men were expected to be ideal workers, to work all the time and be totally devoted, but most of them didn’t want to do this, so they found ways of getting around it,” says Prof. Reid. “They crafted different ways of being.”

My immediate boss, who is 15 years older than me, has a very traditional nuclear family, with a wife who stayed home, and he went home whenever. When I say I have to pick the kids up at daycare, he doesn’t quite understand why I am doing this or why my wife isn’t doing it.
A 39-year-old international-finance banker in Quebec

But often not without penalty. Men who become fathers may get a boost in status at work. But research by Jennifer Berdahl, a professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, who studies gender, has shown that, once men hop out for paternity leave, or skip end-of-day meetings for daycare, they pay a “mommy” penalty – the term for the career hit previously reserved for women who leave work temporarily to raise children. The traditional workplace still treats families as a résumé-boosting accessory for men, one that will spur them to work harder to pay the bills. “In our culture today, masculinity is really what is being rethought and challenged,” says Prof. Berdahl. “We have a lot of models of what a successful woman looks like, whereas the idea of success for men is still more rigid.”

For one 39-year-old father in Quebec, a banker in international finance who asked not to be identified, his insistence on a flex-time arrangement has translated into a “lack of commitment” to his job, according to his manager. “My immediate boss, who is 15 years older than me, has a very traditional nuclear family, with a wife who stayed home, and he went home whenever. When I say I have to pick the kids up at daycare, he doesn’t quite understand why I am doing this or why my wife isn’t doing it. It all comes up at performance-review time.”

It’s frustrating, he says, because he’s not working fewer hours, just more efficiently. He dives into his first e-mails at around 6:30 a.m., before putting his daughter on the bus and dropping his son at daycare. He spends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the office – except for two days a week when he works at home – but he leaves every night to have dinner with his family, even cutting meetings so he can catch the train home if necessary. He then works at home, if needed, in the evenings.

“I’m getting to see my kids grow up,” he says. “I compare it to my dad, who didn’t really see us much when we were young, except weekends. That’s irreplaceable.”

The cost of long hours

His story highlights another problem: The same Carleton University study that showed we’re working 50 hours a week also found that 54 per cent took extra work home with them on evenings and weekends (and that 28 per cent would be willing to work less in their current position for a smaller paycheque.) And yet, all that extra work isn’t doing us any favours, or even increasing long-term productivity. It’s hard to make a health argument for women leaning in – or men hanging in – with longer work hours when overwork has been linked to an increase in heart disease and diabetes, higher rates of depression and suicide among middle-aged men. Recent research has even raised alarm bells about the risk of sitting for long spells.

What companies get in return for all that toil is debatable: Workplace studies have found productivity among knowledge-based workers falls off steeply after six hours. A 2013 Australian study by Ernst & Young found that women with flex-time arrangements wasted less time at work – the equivalent of a week and half a year – compared to both men and women working full-time.

Yet the “flexibility stigma” persists – for both genders. When Prof. Reid presented her research about the pressures on male employees to the consulting firm, she recalls, “a senior partner looked at me, and said, ‘Well, maybe these aren’t the guys we want anyway.’ ”

But those were exactly “the guys” the company rated most highly in performance reviews – the men making behind-the-scenes adjustments to their schedules and projects for the sake of family.

“So, on one level, the organization is saying you have to work all the time, you have to have a stay-at-home wife, you have to be really devoted,” says Prof. Reid, “but then at the same time, they are rewarding a different set of behaviours.”

Do women do it better?

A few years ago, Rohini Mukherji, a public relations consultant in Toronto, crossed paths with a terrible boss. She was autocratic, and micro-managing, expecting even the interns to report directly to her. Any document not submitted in 11-point, double-space Century Gothic font was summarily rejected as wrong. She dominated meetings, often interrupting employees, and, Ms. Mukherji says, made staffers feel guilty for taking time off. “She embodied classic textbook bad-boss characteristics, and then some,” says Ms. Mukherji. By the time the manager finally moved to another department, more than two-thirds of the staff had left – including Ms. Mukherji, who says she’s now working for a wonderful female manager.

Bad bosses, it goes without saying, come in both genders. Recent research, however, has been declaring female leaders more effective in today’s workplace. In 2012, Zenger Folkman, a U.S.-based leadership-development firm, released an analysis of more than 7,000 executives and managers who had received “360” assessments – performance reviews in which feedback was sought from the leaders themselves, their supervisors, their peers and the people working under them.

The finding, as Zenger Folkman cheekily called its paper, was that “Women do it better than men.” Female leaders slightly edged out male peers on “overall effectiveness.” And women ranked higher than men on 12 of 16 skills – including relationship-building, inspiring others, and teamwork.

But they didn’t just do well in those oft-mentioned “nurturing skills” – a backhanded compliment that reduces the things women do well to a version of corporate child care. The female managers also outscored men in taking initiative, in honesty, and in pushing for results. (Again, to the home: CEO Jack Zenger speculated, in an interview, that women had learned to “take initiative” because they had a “disproportionate” role managing the household and juggling multiple tasks.)

Another meta-analysis published earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology reached the same favourable assessment of female leadership. The study analyzed 99 data sets, with sample sizes ranging from 10 to more than 60,000 leaders, from nearly 100 journal publications, unpublished dissertations and books dated between 1962 and 2011. The study found that male leaders tended to give themselves better ratings than their female counterparts – but that their staffs didn’t agree. As workplaces become more fast-paced and diverse, the authors theorized, it may be that “a more feminine style of leadership is needed to emphasize the participative and open communication needed for success,” thus giving women an advantage with their co-workers.

Still, sociologists are quick to point out that the difference within genders is often greater than the difference between them. That female managers score well against their male peers doesn’t mean that all women, in fact, “do it better.” It suggests that our myths around leadership are flawed.

The imperial leader who sits in the corner office barking orders, never engaging emotionally with employees while demanding they constantly remain in sight, can’t lead in a performance-based workplace in which the most talented workers expect to be trusted with their time.

Leading by example

Not long after becoming the CEO at Ernst & Young, Mark Weinberger flew to China for his first big speech. In the audience were the company’s top partners and their spouses.

During the followup Q&A session, Mr. Weinberger announced that he’d have to skip dinner at the Great Wall, so that he could catch a red-eye back to Washington: He had promised his daughter that, no matter what, he would be home for her first driving test.

Mr. Weinberger represents a group of male CEOs changing work by recognizing the economic case for a diverse work force and for a better balance between home and office. Ernst & Young judges partners not just on traditional deliverables, but on how engaged their teams report they are, and on how well flex time has been accommodated.

“Leadership is evolving,” he told The Globe and Mail in an interview. “The imperial leader who is above the organization – that’s not the approach in the marketplace any more. People are now valued for empowering others, not just for their individual power.” He added that, when it comes to flex time, “women do not want to be singled out, and men don’t want to be left out. People have to believe that it’s a culture, not a giveaway to a [certain group].”

What’s more, he says, they have to see the CEO setting the example. “You can have all the initiatives you want, but until [employees] see people in senior positions standing up and taking advantage of it, I don’t think they fully believe they have permission, that you can still get ahead and take advantage of those programs.” Professionals in their 20s and 30s, he added, talk about flexibility not as some wistful goal but as a job requirement.

In China, Mr. Weinberger didn’t get a standing ovation for his speech. But he did get one when he spoke of getting back to his family.

Adds the CEO, “Not a single person really sent me anything afterward focusing on my speech. But I got hundreds of e-mails about the commitment to my daughter.”

Three men who are leaning out

Daniel Ryan, 43, Montreal, senior manager at Deloitte, father of three daughters

Daniel Ryan with with his daughters (left to right), Annie, Justine and Frederique. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

His lean-in job: When Mr. Ryan worked at a smaller firm before his children were born, flexibility was harder – there weren’t a lot of other employees to fill in. Even so, he didn’t hesitate to take unpaid leave, at one point travelling in Europe for three months with his future wife. “I never accepted being in a position where I didn’t have a choice but to work, work, work.” Even so, one of the reasons he eventually moved to Deloitte was that the larger firm could offer more flexibility.

His lean-out decision: “I am always home for dinner,” says Mr. Ryan, who was one of the first in the company to take paternity leave, in 2002. Even though his three daughters are now teenagers, he still works flex time – four days a week for eight months of the year, five days during the peak tax period. That day off is spent with his wife, a self-employed accountant. “It was important to me to arrive at a real balance,” he says. “There is something else other than work.”

Andrew Greer, 31, Kelowna, B.C., program manager at Accelerate Okanagan

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Video: Andrew Greer on why he left Xerox and how it led to greater balance in his life.

His lean-in job: In his 20s, he sold printers for Xerox, working long hours and weekends. “I was making more money than I could handle, but I didn’t have time for a drink with my friends.” It was also soul-crushing. “I was a tree hugger selling devices that kill trees. I had to have more purpose.”

His lean-out decision: He quit Xerox and took a job at a non-profit in Kingston, Ont., working only 30 hours week. It meant a 40-per-cent pay cut, but Mr. Greer says it was worth it. He learned to play guitar and kite-surfed. “I actually started to enjoy life,” he says. He eventually moved west, to Kelowna, to work for a non-profit tech incubator. His office is five minutes from the beach; he often bikes to work. There are 15 other companies in his building, so collaboration is common. Right now, he’s the only man in the office. Every morning, the employees meet and stand in a circle to share a piece of good news. “It brings us together as people,” he says. Adds Mr. Greer: “There’s this celebration around being so busy, to fly around and make deals happen, and grow and grow and grow. But when is it enough?”

Michael Fenrick, 36, Toronto, lawyer at Paliare Roland, father of six-year-old daughter

Lawyer Michael Fenrick, 36, near his downtown Toronto offices. (Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail)

His lean-in job: “Everybody hears in law school about the people who have wives who drive their kids into the office, and they kiss them on the head and go back to work,” he says. “But I think they are becoming increasingly apocryphal stories.” New lawyers, he says, won’t accept those conditions. “You’re going to drive a tremendous amount of people out of the profession if you don’t change the way firms operate.”

His lean-out decision: It’s a tricky balance, he says, especially early in a career. “You are learning to be a lawyer and learning to be a parent, and there are skills you can’t learn without putting in the hours.” Technology has made it easier for him to go home, if necessary, though it helps that his wife, a law clerk, has a 9-to-5 job. His law firm, he says, has a progressive work culture that accommodates family life. “I am able to work these things out with a little bit of freedom because the understanding is there from the senior people in the firm.”