A couple find themselves sitting at home, gazing silently at the new-born bundle that they have just transported so carefully from the relative safety of the hospital. Those of us who are parents, at whatever stage we are in life, will no doubt vividly remember similar “What on earth do we do now?” moments and the foreboding realisation of responsibility. For this particular couple, a question broke the silence:
“John, you have asked for paternity leave and about going part time, haven’t you?”
What came out as John’s response was:
“Well, I started the conversation with Mike, but we got side-tracked. It’s been kind of difficult since, what with the baby, hospital, families and everything else. I’ll ask tomorrow.”
His stuttering undertone and awkwardly shifting body posture revealed much more about what was going on with his internal dialogue:
“I know this is the right thing to do!” “What impact is it going to have on my career?” “Men don’t take time off at our place, not even for sickness.” “Part-time workers seem to get a raw deal.”
“Come on, just go back to Mike! The legislation is in place. Just ask him!”
“But women seem to get a tough time when they return from maternity leave.” “I love my partner and our new baby. Of course it’s the right thing to do.” “My mum was a working mum but my dad didn’t take time off!” “People won’t think I’m pulling my weight!”
“Mike is not going to like this……”
Recent research undertaken by the Boston College Center for Work and Family, shows clearly that increasingly younger men want to share parental care and career responsibilities with their partners. Data also shows that when this happens, children do better at school and are happier and healthier. What’s more, with shared care and career responsibility, both parents are happier, healthier and perform better at work. Organisations often have clear policies in place to support flexible working, and legislation supports parental leave policies in many countries. However, the concerns in John’s internal dialogue echo the realities of many current workplace practices and reflect cultural ‘unwritten rules’ that propagate many myths and limit opportunities.
Mike‘s initial response to John had been:
“Of course John. Paternity leave, it’s a good idea. I’m sure we can get around the problems.”
There is a stark difference though between the conscious thought “Paternity leave is a good idea” and Mike’s unconscious response. Even though he could quote policy verbatim, his negative, visceral reaction to John’s question leaked out through his tone and behaviour and, not surprisingly, John felt uncomfortable about having even raised the matter.
The unconscious response is a consequence of our brain’s rapid referencing of our past experience. So our own response would reflect all we’ve ever learned and have come to understand about gender roles in society and project it through subtle behaviours, often revealing our true beliefs. Naturally, all our experiences of the ‘carer’ and ‘bread-winner’ type roles would influence our response, along with our perceptions of family, care and career models and which manage the balance most effectively – if any. Add to this the perceptions we’ve developed through working experiences, of what or who has balanced career/family effectively – or not – and associated perceptions:
“Part-time workers, do they pull their weight?” “Flexible or home-working doesn’t work –too many distractions!” “Clients need availability.” and so on. All this unconsciously influences our responses, driving our behaviours and our decisions.
And there is more. The culture of the organisation itself influences our response too. Every organisation has its ‘unwritten rules’ – perceptions, beliefs and expectations that are not written down and are often unspoken. They can require presenteeism for promotion, dislike the kinds of people that ‘take time off’, define what ‘dedicated’ or ‘hard working’ look like etc. Finally, we need to recognise that – in the main – the generation who are managing new parents are also more likely to have had very different work and life experiences to those of the people whose careers they are affecting.
Overall, the fact that John’s response to his partner radiates his hesitation to raise the matter again at work, is not surprising. He will have registered the cultural undertones in his colleague’s behaviours and heard the ‘banter’ around the office and it will all be having its impact right now.
So what do we do?
Whatever your role, we all have a responsibility, so:
But what if you, like John, have this internal dialogue and are concerned and uncertain about how your boss and colleagues will react?
Despite more than 60% of men claiming an interest in taking up additional parental leave, so far less than 10% of new dads are taking more than their two weeks statutory leave. There are still huge cultural barriers to overcome and both employees and businesses have a crucial role to play in facilitating that change.
We have to create together the inclusive environments where both parents feel that they can progress their careers as well as creating a fulfilling family lifestyle. We can do that by putting practical policies in place, being ready to embrace the possibilities and creating an environment where we can all be flexible and grow successfully, secure in the future joys of personal and family life.