With so many initiatives geared towards ensuring women stay in, and progress along the talent pipeline, I am surprised that encouraging and supporting men in doing more caring is not seen as a more obvious accelerant. Particularly as research indicates they want to. Those organisations that recognise this opportunity, and do something with it, will have a real source of competitive advantage.
“If men were more involved in caring, women could progress further in their careers.” says the Equality and Human Rights Commission in The Gender Pay Gap, 2017. Yet it is still the case that in working families in the UK, women are eight times more likely to take the primary role in caring for children.
This is in spite of recent research from Business in The Community (BITC) called Equal Lives that explored what men want with respect to caring. It noted “they wanted to be more present for their children…but perceived expectations and organisational practices stood in their way.” Crucially, men want to do more – over half (56%) said they would like to be more involved in their caring responsibilities.
This represents a huge opportunity for HR to impact on talent pipelines, attraction and retention.
Many men say they would be encouraged to use policies to support them with balancing work and care if they were confident that it would not impact their career prospects or if there were more visible examples from senior leaders in their organisation. No different to how women feel in fact. So unless we can encourage and support men in doing this we will stay stuck in male breadwinner models, and the career cost will continue to fall to the women. Three times more women than men feel that their partner’s work affects their careers as they take on a greater share of care.
Men taking on more caring responsibilities is not a women’s issue, men and business benefit hugely. It is not motherhood that stalls women’s careers, it’s men taking on more of the active parenting and doing more of an equal share of the work at home. This requires men, women and organisations to be courageous enough to help make that happen. Why courageous? Because moving outside well-baked gender roles, that have been millennia in the making, takes courage.
Leaving the comfort of role expectations
Social norms are a comfort, and belonging is important to us all. It is critical that we applaud the men who have the courage to step outside the constraints of their gender expectations that can keep them bound in ‘career primary’ roles. Women still talk to me about feeling judged if they hand over more caring responsibilities to men, and men still talk
about feelings of having their ‘manliness’ diminished. There is a huge bias towards women and their ‘natural’ role in caring that disadvantages men who want to be more involved on the home front.
We need to remind ourselves we are all constrained by gender biases that we need to confront in ourselves, as well as in others, and move beyond. Organisations have a key role in helping make this happen and will reap the rewards.
Let’s not forget that one of our cognitive biases is that we will tend to choose the option that is perceived as the least risky or that preserves the status quo. Companies can be influential in mitigating the perceived riskiness for men of taking on more caring by normalising and celebrating it, and challenging the organisational status quo.
Sarah and James
I was recently working with a professional couple in their early ‘30’s expecting their first child who were discussing how they would manage their careers once they were parents. Sarah had a new promotion opportunity and was keen to get back to work after 6 months maternity leave, James was very keen to be an equal partner on the childcare front if not take on most of the caring. His comment to me however was “Sarah has a legitimate reason to jump of this hamster wheel, she’s having a baby, I am relegated to bread-winner and the career cost to me of taking up flexible working is far greater than it is for Sarah”. A sad indictment on his organisation, and not a unique one.
Pioneering is tough. Not only do both men and women often feel ‘stuck’ in archaic gender roles of ‘carer’ and ‘breadwinner’ they don’t experience their organisations as supporting pioneering working practices that will enable men and women to be both – enabling women and men to progress in their careers at the pace and seniority they aspire to.
Evolving working practices
While we ride this evolution, transitioning towards evolved families and evolved careers, we need to ensure our workplaces and work practices are evolving in support of them. Because those companies that get there first will attract and retain talent in a way that others will struggle to emulate fast enough.
Shaking up gender role expectations of the career-focussed man and the family-focussed woman is critical and that means HR must continue to actively champion men working flexibly. Not only will it ensure women’s progression and retention it will do the same for the men.
A huge challenge is the line manager – I know we always blame the poor line manager but we also recognise that by better enabling them as decision makers we can set so many of our old tired, out of date and constraining practices free. The reality is that men expect their employer to support them in the choice of being a carer. Organisations that are not doing this risk losing talent and in particular young talent – men under 35 are significantly more likely than older groups to want to do more when it comes to caring. Yet research from the Fawcett Society finds that fathers are twice as likely as mothers to have requests for flexible working turned down.
What can we do?
* Make sure men are actively encouraged to apply for paternity leave and flexible working
* Role modelling is critical, we need senior men to openly demonstrate their participation in caring roles
* Ensure Line Managers are aware of a bias towards men and women and their carer roles
* Give Line managers guidance on flexible working NOT as simply an accommodation to women with children
We can’t have caring responsibilities disadvantage men, or have women’s career responsibilities disadvantage women. It isn’t easy to be pioneers, so as organisations we need to be actively championing men who want to take on more of a carer role. We all benefit.
Listen to Grit in the Oyster podcast on making dual career coupledom work. https://pennydevalk.com/podcast-grit-in-the-oyster-navigating-careers-and-caring
Penny de Valk is an internationally experienced Chief Executive and qualified coach who helps women build powerful professional lives. Visit her blog for great advice on how to be your best leadership self. www.pennydevalk.com