Contributor: Liz Stiverson
Work and Life is a two-hour radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday from 7 pm to 9 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Brad Harrington – research professor and Executive Director of the Center for Work and Family at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management – about the substantive shift in the role men play in their families from financial provider to equal caretaker, and how organizations can support The New Dad.
Following are edited excerpts of Harrington’s conversation with Friedman.
Stew Friedman: What are some of the major similarities and differences you’ve observed between mothers and fathers immediately after the birth of their first child?
Brad Harrington: The major differences are probably going to come as no surprise. First, becoming a father was more of an incremental experience than was becoming a mom. I remember Carol Evans from Working Mother once said that no matter how well-prepared you are, how much thought you’ve put into it, how many books you’ve read, nothing can quite prepare a woman for the experience of having a child. When that child arrives, all of a sudden all bets are off, and a woman has to re-think what she really wants to do with her life and how the work-family interplay will trade off. For men, the experience is more gradual. We’ve seen in multiple studies that men take only a few days off following the birth of their first child; 16% of men say they didn’t take a single day off.
SF: Is that because they didn’t want to, or because they didn’t feel it was legitimate for them to do so?
BH: It’s some of both, but I would put more onus on the men than I would on the organizations. The majority of men, 76%, took a week off or less, and 96% took two weeks off or less. Only one out of 20 men are spending more than 10 working days at home with their newborns. That contrasts, of course, with the experience of women, who on average take 12-14 weeks, and can often stretch a maternity leave to six months. There isn’t paid leave in most organizations, and there certainly isn’t paid leave across the board in the United States. Although we might say these men would have to take some time off without pay, that’s a sacrifice women have been making for years. One of the ways in which men and women are different is that women spend much more time in the first months of the child’s life bonding with the child, flying solo as a parent, really connecting with that little person. Men don’t have an opportunity to do that, and once they miss that initial opportunity, they are already moving down the path of being a supporting actor to the mother as primary player within the first few weeks and months of the child’s life.
SF: What can organizations do to really make a difference and move us forward on this front?
BH: If organizations can get a data point on where men are these days in their attitudes about work and satisfaction with their careers as well as professional aspirations and their role as parents, they would be quite surprised about the reality of the stereotype they hold about men and their career motivations. In particular, that men have a singular focus on their contribution to the family as the provider is a stereotype that is outdated. When we surveyed men at four major Fortune 500 companies, we looked at six criteria on being a good father and asked which was most important to them. One of the criteria was being a good financial provider. Of the six, that criterion came out fifth in the rating of importance to being a good father. More salient than being a good provider were being present and visible in the child’s life, being a good coach and role model, being a good mentor, and providing love and emotional support. If these new paradigms for young men were apparent to leaders in organizations, they would start to say, “Gee, we might need to really rethink our assumptions.”
Becky (caller from California): My husband and I have two daughters, a 22-year-old and a 19-year-old, and when they were born in 1991 and 1994, it was not very popular to have reversed roles. My husband and I reversed roles out of necessity – I had a standard job with retirement and benefits, and he was self-employed. We faced stigma and lost family and friends who said, “How dare he stay home and babysit while his wife works.”
BH: That stigma is very real, and sometimes it comes from the people closest to the men affected. Their parents and friends say, “You’ve dropped out of the workplace to stay home with your kid? When are you going to get back to your job to make money to support the family?” But usually, over a period of time, more people get up close and see how well this arrangement is working not only for the wife but for the husband and the children. After that people are much more accepting.
As one of my colleagues said, it isn’t about gender, it’s about competence. When women entered the workplace in large numbers in professional and managerial roles 30 years ago, we looked through a lens of “Can women make it? Can women be successful? Are women ambitious enough?” Over the past 30 years we’ve come to realize that it wasn’t gender, it was competence. When women were able to display their competence in leading, negotiating, facilitating, and analyzing, people stopped talking about whether women’s gender allowed them to be good enough in the workplace; it was simply about whether they were competent.
So often – especially in the media – we talk about men in the context of the family in disparaging ways. “He’s 100% committed to his career,” “He wouldn’t know what to do if we left him at home with the kids,” “He’s babysitting today,” “A man could never possibly fix his daughter’s hair or get her ready for school, or find clothes that match for his children.” If we talked about women in the workplace the way we talk about men in the home, we’d be sued for that, and rightly so. The jokes women had to put up with 30 years ago are the jokes men are still putting up with today. We see commercials where men sit around and drink beers with their friends when the wife leaves her husband at home alone and chaos ensues; we don’t see very many commercials of men being competent at caregiving and parenting.
SF: What is the most important advice you would give your kids so that they can have the opportunity to create lives for themselves and decide how they’ll contribute to the world?
BH: Don’t get stuck in a paradigm and assume the way things are is the way things need to be. It’s all about individual choice and having the courage to follow your convictions.
Brad Harrington is the author of Career Management & Work Life Integration: Using Self-Assessment to Navigate Contemporary Careers; learn more about his research in his 2013 white paper The New Dad: A Work (and Life) in Progress.
Tune in to Work and Life next Tuesday, February 11 at 7 PM Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111 for conversations with Jessica DeGroot (WG ’94) and current Wharton MBA students Pamela Freed, Nohemie Sanon, and Meaghan Casey on how couples can share caregiving to mutual advantage and how women planning business leadership roles see their future work and family lives. Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.
About the Author
Liz Stiverson is a 2014 MBA candidate at The Wharton School.