Jamie Ladge was picking up her three kids from an after-school program recently when she overheard one father ask another if he could get a copy of a presentation the two of them had discussed. The second man said he couldn't lay his hands on it because the employee who had written it was on paternity leave. The pair then decided that paternity leave was too generous at their respective companies, saying it interfered with work getting done properly.
Ms. Ladge, a management professor at Northeastern University in Boston, was astonished.
Here were two fathers, involved enough with their own children to be picking them up from school, complaining about a program that allowed other fathers to be involved with their children. It was an example of the conflicted dichotomy with which men – and organizations – are approaching the evolving role of fathers in the workplace, something she has captured in a study that is being published by the Academy of Management Perspectives.
In the report she harks back to the 1950s, the era captured in journalist William Whyte's bestseller The Organizational Man, when fathers were focused almost entirely on work. They didn't pick up their children during work hours. They weren't expected to have much of a life beyond work. These days that is changing, her study shows. But the transformation is slow and uncertain, as we know from our own lives or those of others – and as the conversation at the after-school program illuminated.
"Parental leave is seen as outlandish when they are talking, yet here they are picking up the kids at 4:30. They weren't organizational men – the organizational men wouldn't be picking up their kids – yet the organizational man would complain about parental leave," she noted in the interview.
It might well be true that sometimes material gets lost in a bottleneck these days when men take parental leave. But she found there are several important benefits when fathers have greater parental involvement with their children:
- They have greater job satisfaction, which is not only good for them but the organization;
- Their work-family balance is enriched;
- They experience less work-life conflict; and
- They develop fuller relationships with others at work who are parents because of the shared mindset.
That's all independent of the benefits to their children, families, and the men themselves. "People need to know about the benefits of fathers' involvement," she said in the interview.
To illustrate the need, she talks of a committee she served on at her own university to develop work-life policies. She insisted the policies not just be for women but for all employees, and that was approved up the line. But when the program was unveiled, the description said it was just for new mothers. "I wondered, how does that happen? It wasn't in any of the documentation. We have to be conscious of our unconscious biases," she said in the interview.
The study, conducted with Beth Humberd of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Marla Baskerville Watkins of Northeastern University, and Brad Harrington of Boston College, involved intensive interviews with 31 fathers of young children in professional roles, followed by a survey of fathers in four Fortune 500 companies who agreed to be interviewed after seeing a notice on their corporate Intranet.
They were struggling with their hybrid role as fathers and workers. "Despite desires to be fully involved as parents, participants' perceptions of their expected and accepted connection to their careers often made it difficult for these desires to always become a reality. Many participants expressed that they wished their career identity was not such a big part of their overall sense of self, but that it was unavoidable," the report states.
But while fathers in the 1950s – and far more recently than that – have seen their role primarily as providers, these fathers considered other care-giving responsibilities as equally, if not more, important in defining what it means to be a good father in general.
In the survey, the three attributes of "provide love and emotional support," "be involved and present in your child's life," and "be a teacher, guide and coach" were rated by fathers as higher in importance than the other three, more traditional or limited attributes offered of "provide discipline," "provide financial security," and "do your part in the day-to-day child care tasks."
The study found these fathers thought less of themselves at work unless they had an understanding manager, a situation that made them feel better about their careers.
Also of interest was the fact that they didn't look to formal arrangements to find the time for their children but in effect did it by stealth, taking the time they needed to pick up children or attend soccer games. They assumed they had the right to do this, whereas women – perhaps because they still have the greatest burden of child care, Prof. Ladge suggests – feel they have to forge a formal contract with their employer. She also notes that there is a greater stigma at work about mothers than fathers – more fear they won't be fully present – so men feel more comfortable informally finding ways to handle their family responsibilities.
As for parental leave, she feels more fathers would benefit from taking it – even if it might rile the other menfolk. She feels maternity leave gives women a chance to reflect on their new role and that men, given the conflicts they are experiencing, could benefit too from some time at home with the child to understand that responsibility better and come to terms with how to balance career and children in the future.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org