Date posted: 1/12/2016 5 min read

Diversity consultant Graeme Russell on dads at work and home

Major culture change required to support working dads share caring for children

In brief

  • Men who take family leave face lower chances of promotion, pay rises and opportunities
  • Male bosses need to lead by example and use flexible work arrangements themselves
  • Studies have shown men face a harsh “flexibility stigma” when they request flexible work conditions

By Jessica Irvine

Graeme Russell didn’t set out to become a world expert on fatherhood.

A degree in pure mathematics already under his belt, Russell was studying for a PhD in experimental psychology in 1972 when his wife Susan gave birth to their first child.

After six weeks of paid maternity leave, Susan returned to her reliably paid job as a teacher and Russell assumed the bulk of childcare responsibilities while continuing to study from home.

“It was an economic decision. I wasn’t sitting there saying I’m a highly-motivated dad. I hadn’t thought about this at all.

“I grew up in a very traditional household. My dad said basically ‘this will ruin your career’. My father-in-law basically said ‘I’ll take you down to the pub and sort you out’.

“But Susan expected that I would be an equally competent parent. That space was there for me. I got involved.

“Through that experience, I learned that I am a competent parent.”

Russell has since devoted his professional life to the research of families who share caring for children.

Eight grandchildren and six books later, Russell today works as a consultant to major corporations on flexible working and, in particular, helping men to combine work and caring responsibilities.

“Things have changed, but they haven’t changed as dramatically as you might think,” he says.

While more men are involved in childcare and housework responsibilities, the number of families who have achieved true equality between the sexes remains small.

“I would say that the percentage of those has probably gone up, where people are sharing paid work and caring work, but it’s nowhere near what you would find in Scandinavia and other parts of the world.”

As journalist Annabel Crabb notes in her book The Wife Drought: Why women need wives and men need lives, 60 per cent of Australian two-parent families with kids under the age of 15 have a dad who works full-time and a mum who works either part-time, or not at all. Just 3 per cent of such households have a mum working full-time and a dad working part-time or not at all.

“Who gets wives?” asks Crabb. “Dads do. Most mums have to make do with alternative arrangements.”

Fatherhood is invisible in the workplace and so it doesn’t come up as a topic of mainstream conversation.

Invisible men

While the media is quick to focus on the plight of “working mums”, little is heard about the trouble “working dads” encounter in juggling their dual roles.

“It’s true that you don’t hear about working fathers,” says Russell. “Fatherhood is invisible in the workplace and so it doesn’t come up as a topic of mainstream conversation.”

Russell tells the story of a recent session with the senior executives — CEOs and their direct reports — at one of Australia’s biggest companies.

“It was all about mainstreaming flexibility,” he recalls. “But in that conversation, nothing comes up about them as individuals and what their needs for flexibility are and what their needs for fatherhood are.”

Only in informal conversation after the session did the men start to open up about their private lives.

“The first thing that comes up is ‘gosh it’s hard’. They start to talk about their children.”

While this excessive focus on work for men may be tough, it’s tougher still on the wives left shouldering the caring burden at home.

Recent years have seen a growing focus among feminists and gender equity advocates not on helping women to get ahead at work but on getting men to get ahead at home.

If women are to learn to “lean in”, as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg urges, men must also learn to “lean out”.

Lean out

Do men really want to give up their high paid, prestigious jobs to wallow in nappies?

Numerous studies have shown men face a harsh “flexibility stigma” in the workforce when they request flexible work arrangements.

Men who take family leave face lower chances of promotion, pay rises and opportunities for high-profile assignments. In male-dominated workforces, they also face “masculinity harassment” — jibes from male co-workers about being on the “daddy track” and being seen as less masculine.

According to the University of South Australia’s Australian Work and Life Index 2012, men are far less likely to request flexible working conditions. And when they do, they are twice as likely to be knocked back.

In the face of such outcomes, do men really want to “lean out”?

“Are men really motivated to do it?” asks Russell. “I think there are more men motivated to do it than are doing it.”

A 2012 study by the Diversity Council of Australia found a fifth of men had seriously considered leaving their organisation because of a lack of flexibility.

The proportions were even higher for young fathers (37 per cent) and men under the age of 35 with no caring responsibilities (29 per cent).

Russell says this is a “significant gap” between what men want and what they are getting in terms of flexibility.

“If you look at that group of young dads... the lack of flexibility and support in the workforce is having a significant impact on them.”

Another study in 2012 of 784 Australian fathers by the Boston College for Work and Family and Converge International confirmed fathers want to share the burden of caregiving more equally with their partners.

Of fathers surveyed, 65 per cent said both parents should provide equal amounts of care, but only 34 per cent said this was actually the case in their relationship. 

Care package

So what can be done to help men put the “dad” into the phrase “working dad”?

Russell says male bosses need to lead by example and use flexible work arrangements themselves to start overcoming the stigma in the workplace against working dads.

The trouble with high profile campaigns such as the Male Champions of Change mentorship program is that the male champions themselves don’t actually change.

“One of the concerns I have about that is I don’t see a lot of evidence of the men themselves reflecting and changing. Nobody goes to that next stage.” It is also incumbent on dads to really examine their attitudes to work.

Russell has run a successful “men at work” programme targeted at men who he says are over invested in paid work.

“The aim is to get them to look differently at their lives.

“It does require a step change for a lot of men to get out of that framework of being over committed to work and to see that it is possible to have a more sustainable and satisfying life.”

Russell says many workplaces are embracing the need to provide flexible working arrangements for all their employees. But the focus must change.

“I often make the statement that I’m yet to come across an organisation that is serious about gender equality.

“There are many organisations that are serious about gender equality when it comes to women in paid work and promoting productivity.

“It’s a rare organisation that is serious about gender equality and caring, that actually puts men’s involvement in caring and fatherhood up there as the focus.

“It’s changing that culture to get an organisation to see this as a critical issue.”

Equilibrium Man

The Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equity Agency recently launched, with funding from Telstra and Mirvac, the Equilibrium Man Challenge to get men to shift to more flexible work arrangements.

But such efforts remain in the minority.

In reality, says Russell, it suits the capitalist economy to have the “ideal worker”, chained to the desk and not to the sink.

“That idea of the ‘ideal worker’, it’s still there. It’s still totally prevalent.”

Because the capitalist system undervalues caring — both mothering and fathering — men and women will always be short changed on the work they do at home.

The debate about childcare must evolve to focus on the value of caring for children.

It is not enough to simply focus on the value in freeing up women to go to work. “The whole dialogue and debate is based on the fundamental assumption that it’s women’s work.

“We need to change our approach and value fatherhood, value men’s involvement in caring.

“In Sweden, some companies actually prefer to employ men who have taken parental leave. They see them as having a different experience, set of values or commitments.”

It’s also about fundamentally recognising men and women as true equals, no better or worse at work or caring because of their gender.

“This idea that women are more relationship-based, more collaborative... all that does is carry on a stereotype of women that then comes back to bite you on the bum.”

Attitudes are changing, says Russell, but change is slow.

“Things have changed,” he says.

“The dialogue has changed. It started out that men weren’t involved because they weren’t seen as competent caregivers. The reason why men weren’t caring was that men aren’t competent. They don’t have that instinct.

“All that’s gone out the window."

But there is much more work to be done to recognise and promote the value of the care that fathers can give, says Russell.

Doing so will not only involve turning centuries — millenniums, even — of the male breadwinner social norm on their head, but also striking at the very heart of the economic system.

“It’s going to be a long road."

Jessica Irvine is an economics journalist.

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of Acuity magazine.