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Men should be more ambitious about work-life balance

Men should be more ambitious. It is an unusual message from a book that purports to be part feminist manifesto, part career advice to working women. It is also the best bit of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. Her guidance to men, however, is to strive harder not in the workplace but in the kitchen and nursery.

Facebook's chief operating officer has received a frenzy of criticism over her exhortation to women to take career risks and stop people-pleasing. Critics have accused her of being too privileged to offer any meaningful lessons. But, as so often when it comes to women and work, much of the reaction to Lean In has missed the point: Equality needs men as well as women.

Unless men step up to their duties at home, Ms. Sandberg claims, women will find it impossible to step up at work. "I don't know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully – and I mean fully – supportive of her career," she writes. "No exceptions."

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I am under no illusion that I personally am a "leader" (Ms. Sandberg would no doubt counsel against female modesty) but her point has resonance for me.

After nine months' maternity leave, I recently returned to the office. In my first week I was struck by two emotions. The first, utter delight at being able to talk uninterrupted to other grown-ups. The second, unbounded irritation at the number of times colleagues asked how many days I was working. Not one person demanded the same of my partner. The assumption is that the mother adapts her career to her family's needs while the father gets on with business as usual.

This, it turns out, is also the way things are in the broader corporate world. Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, who has researched fatherhood and companies, says that when women have children the expectation is their commitment to their career will decrease. On the other hand, that of fathers will either remain unchanged or they will redouble their efforts at work. Mr Harrington calls it "the daddy premium versus the mummy penalty."

This division needs to be changed. I am a grateful beneficiary of a more enlightened approach to working women than my mother's generation. However, it saddens me that men have not also benefited from the idea that work and family are compatible.

Even in Sweden, lauded for parent-friendly policies, companies are reluctant to see fathers bearing equal responsibility for children. Linda Haas, a sociologist at Indiana University, who has studied Swedish corporate culture, notes: "They're not even as good as American companies at talking the talk."

Yet younger men are challenging the status quo. A recent survey by Allen & Overy, the London-based law firm, found that 79 per cent of men aged 25 to 34 would consider taking increased paternity leave – which could stretch to a year – when new rules are introduced in the U.K. in 2015. One new father from my prenatal group, who reduced his working week from five days to three after his daughter's birth, says he has been approached by a number of men interested in following suit.

If women are going to be equal partners at work, they need equal partners at home. They do not need "help" from their partners, because that implies they still have the main responsibility for the household.

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When Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's chief executive officer, banned working from home, and then U.S.-based electronics retailer Best Buy followed suit, the public verdict was that this was a blow to working mothers. Fathers were, as ever, somehow not part of the debate.

In my own home, it is my partner who has made the greatest change to his working life – exchanging a job in television for university teaching, with regular hours and holidays.

This is not necessarily common (nor do we make any claims to have got it right). Women are typically the ones who reduce their working hours, go home on time and take days off when their children are ill.

Men risk being stigmatized for doing the same. Sir Suma Chakrabarti, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, was labelled the "part-time perm sec" (permanent secretaries being the top bureaucrats in Britain), and mocked by newspapers when it was discovered he was working flexibly so he could spend time with his daughter. In fact, he was not working fewer hours – he had simply juggled them around.

A corporate culture that discourages men from family-friendly working is creating anxiety. Michael Sinclair, a psychologist in the City of London, its financial district, observes tension rising in his male clients – lawyers and bankers – who want "to juggle family and work. They don't feel they can reduce their hours. It's a real struggle." The downturn, he says, is exacerbating the problem.

It can take guts to challenge the stigma suffered by men working round their families. Joergen Larsson, a sociologist at Sweden's University of Gothenburg, interviewed "exceptional" Swedes who had decided to work part-time in order to become "involved fathers" to young children. (Still, only 13.7 per cent of employed Swedes are men working part-time, while 39.6 per cent are female.) The more male-dominated a workplace, he found, the less likely they were to alter their work practices.

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Those that did go part-time shared, says Mr. Larsson, a desire to subvert social norms: "They were very critical of traditional masculinity of being the breadwinner." The rewards for them were great, however. All reported a richer home life. Professionally, it did not mean career suicide. A few won promotions.

Employment policies may be gender-neutral but, if the role models and the people in the flexible-work brochures are only women, it creates a culture in which men feel unable to make the same requests as their female peers. It would be a mistake to thwart men's ambitions.

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