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The New Dad

This article accompanies Fathers Know Best.

Sunday, October 16, 2011
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The authors of a 2011 Boston College research study, The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted, surveyed employees at four large companies that agreed to participate in the research study.

The sample of 963 fathers was distributed relatively evenly across the four organizations: an outsourcing services provider, a pharmaceutical company: a global security company and a transportation/logistics company.

The authors summarized their key findings as follows:

* Most of the fathers in our study aspire to share equally in caregiving with their spouse/partner, but often are unable to bring this desire to reality.

Our study showed that fathers today do clearly see their roles as breadwinners and caregivers in a very balanced fashion. This was quite apparent when more than two-thirds reported that they see their primary role as an equal balance between "both caring for my child and earning money to meet his/her financial needs."

However, perhaps the most telling finding from our study is the gap between fathers' desires to equally share caregiving with their partners, and the reality of their situation -- that most fathers are not equally sharing these day-to-day responsibilities with their partners.

The gap between the "should be" and the "is" in the eyes of most of our fathers is very significant. Perhaps much of this can be explained by the fact that 31 percent of their spouses/partners do not work outside the home, that spouses worked fewer average hours, or by the earning disparity between the men and women we studied.

But whatever the reason, men do feel that there is a significant gap between what they are doing in terms of caregiving and what they would like to be doing. Perhaps this gap between their aspirations and their current realities best explain the high level of work-family conflict that men report experiencing.

In addition to this important baseline finding, there are a number of other important findings that may also explain some of this gap between the "is" and the "should be".

* Fathers need time to develop parenting skills, but in the United States, they don't have it. The fact that men don't bear children is obviously an unchangeable biological fact. The fact that men don't rear children is not.

People are not born with the gene that teaches them all they need to know to be effective parents -- neither women nor men. From the first days and weeks after childbirth, many (we hope most) women have the opportunity to spend time with their children, which facilitates both bonding with their newborn and developing competencies as new parents.

In contrast, few men are provided with an opportunity to spend significant time with their young children. In our study, only 1 percent of the fathers took more than 4 weeks off to be with their children after they were born, and only 1 in 20 fathers took as much as two weeks.

Parenting is a skill that must be learned. If men are not afforded the opportunity to take the time early on to become intimately involved in caregiving for their new children, then they may never feel completely comfortable or competent in doing so.

In many parts of Europe, most specifically the Nordic countries, men are encouraged and incented by government policy to take paid leave in their children's earliest days. In addition to helping fathers, this also contributes to the goal of attaining greater gender equity in those countries where such policies exist.

In the U.S. no such government support exists, and the majority of fathers do not take the time off.

 

* Men do use flexible work arrangements, but predominantly in an informal manner.

A surprising percentage of the fathers in our study did use flexible work arrangements with flexible hours and telecommuting being the most common; however the vast majority did so in an informal fashion.

Again, this propensity may have a number of different explanations. Perhaps fathers feel a greater sense of entitlement to simply "take" flexibility and do not feel they need formal permission.

Or conversely, it may suggest that fathers are more comfortable using flexibility in a subtle or "stealth" fashion in order to avoid any negative organizational implications. Remember, more than 99 percent of the fathers in our study reported that their managers' expectations either stayed the same or actually increased after the birth of their most recent child.

With these expectations, and the all too common perception in many organizations that using flexibility is career limiting, perhaps it is not surprising that fathers tend to use flexible work arrangements in a predominantly informal way.

This may have strong implications for employers who spend a great deal of time and effort focusing on formal flexibility programs and approaches.

* Reduced hours/part-time work is not an option fathers utilize.

While research shows that women are far more likely than men to work part-time (BPW Foundation, 2004), our research clearly illustrates how rarely working reduced hours is utilized by fathers -- especially those who have "high career aspirations."

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In our study, where 76 percent of the respondents are interested in higher level positions in their organizations and more than 58 percent aspire to a role in senior management, the use of reduced work hours was virtually non-existent.

Of the nearly 1000 fathers in the study, only two worked part-time -- that's 0.2 percent. While many women use reduced hours to cope with the demands of work and family, it appears this is not an option for professional men (perhaps for reasons of organizational culture or individual aspirations) or at least not an option that men utilize.

* A family supportive culture reaps multiple rewards for fathers and their organization. A supportive culture where the employee is respected as a whole person has been shown to have beneficial impacts in study after study.

This study of nearly 1000 fathers strongly confirms the value of this type of working environment. Demonstrated through organizational policies, leadership support and manager and co-worker responses and actions, fostering a culture that is supportive of fathers in their multiple roles leads directly to more satisfied, loyal employees and a lower level of work-to-family conflict.

* Job security matters greatly to working fathers.

We live in a time when job security seems to be a workforce strategy from days gone by. Companies that were once committed to providing "lifetime employment" for their employees have mostly abandoned this commitment and those very few that remain committed to job security seem anachronistic. Instead, today we see organizations spending a great deal of money on employee engagement, talent management and total rewards programs to maintain top talent.

Yet, what seems to matter most to our fathers is security. While we recognize that it is more difficult for organizations to provide such security in the present economic climate and with the extremely volatile dynamics of operating in a global marketplace, it is nonetheless of tremendous value to recognize the great importance placed on job security by the fathers in our survey.

While engagement, talent management, and total rewards are certainly important, it seems that fathers' basic desire to be secure in their jobs should remain of paramount importance for organizations looking to retain and develop their talent.

* * * * *

The authors are Dr. Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and a research professor in the Carroll School of Management; Fred Van Deusen, a senior research associate at the Center; and Beth Humberd, a researcher at the Center and an instructor and Ph.D. candidate in the Organization Studies Department at the Carroll School of Management.

Read the entire study here (PDF).

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