Daddy’s Home: How to Support Working Fathers

 -  4/2/12

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Shaun Hawkins, the chief diversity officer at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co., will tell you he has four offices — one at home, another at Starbucks, another at a nearby Panera Bread, and, of course, a spot at the company’s headquarters in Indianapolis.

As the father of three young girls, Hawkins isn’t always able to get all of his work done from 9 to 5 at one office. When gymnastics practice starts in the late afternoon, it might be Hawkins who is heading out to drop off the girls. When one is sick, don’t be surprised if Hawkins works remotely so he can take care of her. His wife is also flush with work in her own corporate career.

Hawkins’ tale is like that of many working fathers. Once perceived solely as a family’s breadwinner, with child caring duties left for a child’s mother, working dads nowadays want to play a greater role in the process of caring for their kin, according to a 2011 study from the Boston College Center for Work & Family.

In fact, most of the roughly 1,000 working dads included in the study said they aspire “to share equally in caregiving with their spouse/partner,” according to the study, “The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted.”

“What you see is, at least among these dads, a real shift away from ‘I don’t see this [child caregiving] as my problem,’” said Brad Harrington, executive director of the Center for Work & Family. “There’s a movement toward at least an intention to be more involved in shared caregiving.”

Moreover, 53 percent of the study’s participants said they would consider not working outside of the home at all so they could act as caregiver if it was financially feasible. But when asked how child caring duties were actually delegated between them and their spouse, just 30 percent said it was split equally.

The problem, Harrington said, is cultural: Many working dads are stymied in their desire to spend more time at home because of age-old perceptions of men’s roles, both at home and at work. But it’s also partly because men want to have the best of both worlds. While many men in the Boston College study expressed an increased interest in being at home with their children, a large percentage also said they wanted to have greater responsibilities at work.

“Right now, I think men are in the stage where women were 25 years ago,” Harrington said, “where they thought they could be ‘super mom’ and have all of this career success.”

Either way, the need for organizations to recognize the values of working fathers is apparent, said Charlotte Hawthorne, a work-life consultant with Eli Lilly, which was one of the organizations included in the study.

Hawthorne is quick to point out that many organizations provide a suite of offerings for working mothers who strive to balance child-caring duties with a busy career. These offerings usually appear in the form of flexible working arrangements. But Hawthorne added that this is an area where some companies could use improvement. These programs are designed well, but are in most instances exclusive for mothers.

Hawthorne said such flexible working arrangements shouldn’t just be designed for working moms — or dads, for that matter.

“Who’s to say that maybe because you’re a single woman with no children, maybe [that woman] is at a point in life where [she] wants to train for a marathon?” she said.

This is part of the reason Eli Lilly took a step back last year and re-adopted a broader flexible working policy for all of its employees, Hawthorne said. The idea wasn’t necessarily meant to address issues surrounding working parents, but for employee engagement in general.

“We just want to get our jobs done,” Hawthorne said. “And we recognize that we have active employees [outside of work].”

But even with flex working arrangements available to all, barriers for working fathers persist, and the fathers themselves are in large part responsible. One of the most surprising findings of the Boston College study, Harrington said, was that despite laws that say fathers are able to take as much as 12 weeks of unpaid time off to be at home with a newborn, most take just a week or less.

As a result, parental roles are defined early in a children’s lives, because men are not spending significant time with them once they return home from the hospital and in those early days and weeks thereafter. Hawkins said much of this has to do with breaking down the perception that men need to be at the office at all times to provide financially for the family, be successful and advance their careers.

“When we talk about flexibility,” Hawthorne said, “women are much more apt to work in those arrangements on a formal basis. Men certainly take advantage, but they do so much more on an informal basis.”

Hawkins said what’s most important is for senior executive fathers in any company to set an example for younger, aspiring male executives. Having a candid conversation with a supervisor at the onset of the hiring process is also important — so expectations are set from the get-go.

“When you see a CFO [chief financial officer] spending time coaching their kid’s basketball team,” Hawkins said, “you should step back and be able to say, ‘Wow, of all the things that person has to do, I should be able to prioritize my family.’”

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@diversity-executive.com.