If you want to know why only one in 50 fathers take up paid parental leave, listen in on the conversations they have with their male colleagues and bosses, says Fiona Smith.
We know men want to be good dads and partners. Time and time again, they will tell anyone who listens they want to spend more time with their families and yet they don’t follow their hearts - even when offered paid time off and other inducements from well-meaning human resources departments.
It is a conundrum that has puzzled employers and, some years ago, the prestigious Harvard Business Review asked Professor Michael Kimmel to examine why men were not leaving their desks to enjoy the first few weeks and months of their children’s lives.
“A few companies asked, ‘Why should we offer a benefit that nobody wants?’” Kimmel, who has spent his career studying men and masculinity and is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook University in New York, said.
When he asked new fathers if they had taken the leave offered by their employers, every single one admitted they hadn’t.
One man said he had planned to, but when he spoke to the other men at work, they said: “Huh. I guess you are not that into your career are you?”
Another was told by his supervisor that he could take it, but that he would be put on the “daddy track”. “You will never make partner or anything, but you can definitely do it,” he was told.
One lawyer in a large Manhattan firm had to face his senior managing partner, who said: “Now you listen here”, leaning forward and stabbing his finger into the desk: “I'm 64 years old and I have three grown children and I cannot, sitting here today, tell you their birthdays. You are going to have to make some sacrifices.
Said Kimmel: “That was the moment, this guy told me, he knew he was not long for this firm.”
Kimmel and some other self-described “refugees” left their big firms to set up a “boutique” style operation.
“They are doing quite well, but they all have kids’ pictures on their desks and they all remember their children’s birthdays,” says Kimmel, the author of Guyland- The Perilous World Where Guys Become Men and Angry White Men- American Masculinity At The End Of An Era, books that examine the state of males in today’s world.
Kimmel says these men wanted to be there and take care of their children.
“And every single one of them lacked the main ingredient they needed to do that. And that is: the support of other men.”
According to research by the OECD in March, Australian fathers have one of the lowest rates of taking parental leave, even though they are offered two weeks of Government-paid leave that can only be taken by fathers and non-primary care partners.
Why parental leave for fathers is important
• Fathers who take care of children in their early years are more likely to stay involved as their children grow up.
• Men who engage more with their children report better life satisfaction and physical and mental health.
• It supports women’s well-being and their careers (If men are equally likely to take parental leave, employers will be less discriminatory about hiring women of childbearing age).
Nearly 40% of companies reporting to Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency offer secondary carer’s leave, paid on top of the Government allowance.
In New Zealand, partners can take one to two week’s leave, depending how long they have been with the employer.
While 2% in Australia take up the offer, it rises to 40% or more in leading Nordic countries and Portugal, which have some generous parental leave policies.
Kimmel says men need to have a conversation about how to support each other and challenge each other.
Part of that conversation is unravelling the contradictions about what is means to be a “good man” as opposed to a “real man”. A good man is caring, fair and honourable. A “real man” is the stereotypical hyper-competitive, powerful person who never cries and “gets rich, gets laid”.
“I think that all men have a conversation between those two ideas all the time,” Kimmel said.
A “good man” will support other men’s desires to be good fathers, while a “real man” scoffs that they have become wimps.
“We learn what it means to be a real man from other guys. There will be times in all of our lives when we will be asked to betray our own ideas of what it means to be a good man to prove that we are a real man in the eyes of other men.”
“It costs us when we do the wrong thing, it erodes our sense of ourselves as good men,” he warned. “You won’t look yourself in the mirror in the same way again.”
“I think this is an easy ask for men. Not to say, I want you to live up to somebody else’s definition, but to live up to your own. This is not asking somebody to be different, this is asking them to be more authentically themselves.”
Fiona Smith is a freelance journalist who writes on leadership, specialising in careers, management and company culture. This column was published on ANZ BlueNotes, 24 May, 2016