Work-life balance is vital, but if it were a storyline on a favorite TV show, we’d say it had jumped the shark. We discuss the importance of implementing family-friendly policies and promoting work-life balance for working mothers ad nauseam. In some ways, the more interesting question, because it remains relatively unexplored, may be: What about the working fathers?
Parenting challenges are often compartmentalized as women’s issues because of biological realities; only women experience pregnancy, childbirth, and the physical recovery that necessarily follows. However, the physical and emotional bonding that parents everywhere do with their newborns is something that can, and should, also involve fathers. But what are we doing to help working men who want to be actively involved in their children’s lives?
The results of a recent study by Erin Reid, an assistant professor at Boston University School of Management, suggest that the answer is too often “not much.” She examined the (work) lives of employees at a hard-charging consulting firm and how they handled cultural expectations for complete loyalty to their work. The firm’s workforce was three-quarters male, and the leadership was even more lopsidedly male. So this pseudonymously named firm offers insight into a work environment largely created by, and for, ambitious men.
While Professor Reid’s focus was the impact of workplace intensity on all employees, regardless of age, sex, or parental status, her study has clear implications for parents. She kindly agreed to answer my questions about her study via email, including how her findings may impact American families.
Our interview focused in particular on how fathers were treated by the firm, because of the firm’s demographics and Reid’s findings. Her study, which she published in Organization Science and described in Harvard Business Review, offered several troubling examples of men suffering professionally for expressing interest in being around their families, particularly their newborns.
For example, an employee named Michael told Reid, “When my daughter was born, one of the first things I wanted to do was take off three months and do the full FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] and be a stay-at-home dad... I felt like this was the only time in my career I would be able to do this… But the original reaction I actually got inside of [the firm] was, ‘Oh no, you can’t take three months off.’ As Reid recounts, “he settled for six weeks of unpaid leave and worked 80-hour weeks, traveling weekly, for the rest of the year. Yet he found that ‘people still talked like I was out three months.’… In a subsequent conversation, he reflected, ‘No one questioned my commitment until I had a family.’”
Men can be subject to a ‘not man enough’ penalty when they show significant engagement in family life.
A second man told Reid:
I took a two-week paternity leave. And the idea of a guy taking paternity leave was just [makes face] for my managers. Guys just don’t do that… They teased me… Then one of the partners said to me, “You have a choice to make: Are you going to be a professional or are you going to be just an average person in your field? If you are going to be a professional then that means…nothing can be as important to you as your work.”
Given the man’s identification only as “Firm alumnus,” it seems that he decided his family was more important than singular devotion to his work.
One roadblock facing these men was the firm’s lack of a legally required paternal leave policy (they apparently had maternal leave guidelines, but not paternal). Asked how the firm managed to skirt the law in this case, Reid emailed, “Not sure. I don't think that is that unusual.”
Reid’s study notes that “Formal accommodations are treated as most available to mothers but are not perceived as an option for other people,” like fathers. That left each father’s situation to be treated on a case-by-case basis, with universally poor results. In Reid’s academic parlance, those men who requested “more formal accommodations such as parental leave, thereby revealed their deviance [from the firm’s norm of complete devotion to work] and were penalized.”
Professor Reid emailed:
The firm really prioritized total devotion to work. Both women and men who signaled that they were not wholly devoted to work were penalized. Certainly other research (e.g., Jennifer Berdahl’s work on the flexibility stigma) shows that men can be subject to a “not man enough” penalty when they show significant engagement in family life.
The men who were able to spend more time with their families without calling attention to it or asking for accommodations tended to be more professionally successful. Each man found ways to “pass”—spending time with family while maintaining the appearance of 24/7 availability—whether by using technology to his advantage, building a local client base, or confiding his deviance from expectations to a few trusted people on his team. The important thing was impressing clients, or those higher up in the hierarchy, to shield himself from criticism of being insufficiently committed.
Reid believes that her study’s main take-away is for organizations:
Requiring this level of work devotion leads to problems with work hours among both men and women, and moreover, the ability of many men to pass suggests that long work hours are not necessary to produce work that is high-quality. Therefore, organizations need to change their expectations of men, as well as women.
The larger question is whether professional services firms are capable of, and willing to make, such a change. Can we make the American workplace more humane, urging everyone to work smarter, rather than harder?
There is good reason to think this shift, which would clearly benefit working parents, is also in companies’ best interest. Last year, Harvard Business Review reported on the positive results of a six-month work-life study at a Fortune 500 company that involved 700 employees in the IT division. Some employees made up a control group, while others were offered more flexibility “over when and where they worked, and more supervisor support for their family and personal lives.” At the end of the study,
The people in the treatment group experienced a significant reduction in work-family conflict — that chronic sense of being pulled in two different directions… [Parents and people with less supportive supervisors initially] benefitted most from the intervention. Parents reported working one hour less per week than non-parents, but others did not have to increase their workloads to accommodate parents. People in the treatment group also reported that they felt they now had adequate time to spend with their families while managing their workloads. Overall, they felt more in-control and less overwhelmed.
As the Harvard Business Review went on to note,
This is the first study to offer evidence based on a randomized trial that workplace interventions, such as increased schedule control and supervisor support, can reduce employee work-life conflict… The research shows that there is a way to move away from…individual accommodations that a person negotiates with his or her boss — and toward systemic change in an organization that benefits all.
Whether they’re parents or not, happy employees are productive employees, an outcome that should please managers, clients, and investors alike. If corporate leaders can think more creatively about how, when, and where employees work, they are likely to find that they can benefit the bottom line while also earning workers’ loyalty and helping to strengthen families.