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Few people would disagree that many women face barriers, if not outright discrimination, when they transition to the role of working parent. There is some emerging research, however, that suggests discrimination and unconscious bias in the workplace may not be entirely grounded in gender and it is the “caring element”, or more precisely the reduction in work intensity this entails, that drives the differential treatment and outcomes for men and women.
This infers that the change point for improved gender equality may need to shift from a focus on becoming an “employer of choice for women” to a more sophisticated understanding of gender and the re-construction of the ideal worker paradigm.
Fathers, work and care
Men as fathers have been a neglected area of research in the work and care debate. It has been more or less assumed that fathers are reasonably happy with the longstanding gendered division of paid and unpaid work. Working fathers, however, have rarely been asked directly about their experiences or expectations balancing caregiving alongside careers.
Fatherhood is changing. Both culturally and politically it is becoming more acceptable, if not expected, that fathers will participate in the care of their children. To what “degree” remains contested, however. In Australia we know very little about men’s views and experiences beyond taking paternity leave (short-term leave taken by fathers at or around the birth of their children) or using flexible work practices to “supplement” primary care from the mother. Yet it is primary caregiving that involves stepping away from work for a period of time or reducing work intensity in order to provide care that is important to understand, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it is a fundamental source of discrimination in the workplace for women. The Australian Human Rights Commission recently reported that 50% of working women will experience discrimination during pregnancy, paid parental leave (PPL) or upon their return to work.
Secondly, it is the step away from work to care and the consequences of this in a workplace context that contributes most significantly to the “motherhood penalty”.
Finally, we know very little about this from fathers’ perspectives, and the way in which the important decisions about who cares and who stays home are made within heterosexual couples. What we do know is that PPL has been available to all parents for some time, yet it is the road less travelled for working fathers. They rarely take up leave opportunities to step away from work as a primary caregiver, even in the presence of paid leave to do so.
For the last five years I have extensively studied these anomalies. I have always found it fascinating how (relatively) equal domestic arrangements in contemporary heterosexual couples prior to children quickly reduce to the 1950s model of the family, where the wife is the main carer and domestic chief and the father is the main earner, at least until the youngest child goes to school. This appears to occur in the majority of Australian couples, even if that is not what was intended. It is also the assumption upon which so many, if not all, work and family policy and programs appear to be founded.
The Fathers Work and Care (FWC) study examined the barriers and enablers to primary caregiving for working fathers of preschool age children. It assessed the main influences on the work and family arrangements made among contemporary heterosexual couples where the father is the primary earner of the family – the most common family composition in Australia with preschool children. Drawing on 951 survey responses from fathers and 14 interviews with couples, a number of findings emerged that are of direct relevance to the experiences of transitioning to working parenthood that are shared in this book.
Particularly since the introduction of government PPL in Australia, there has been a flurry of review on best practice models and a more intense focus on fathers. Yet very little attention has been given to establishing their level of interest in primary care in the first place.
The study showed that 85% of fathers agreed they would step away from work to look after their baby for three months or more if there were no financial barriers, and 87% of fathers agreed that each partner should have their own entitlement to paid parental leave (PPL) for primary care.
These figures suggest fathers are indeed interested in primary caregiving. It also appears these aspirations for primary caregiving are unlikely to be realised. Less than 21% of fathers reported having had primary caregiving responsibility for any child in their working life. While almost all fathers in the sample took two to four weeks of leave after the birth of their youngest child, few reported taking such leave to be the primary carer. These results paint a picture of a work and family dynamic that may see fathers as locked into their role as the primary earner as mothers are locked out of the workplace.
Almost 90% of fathers reported they felt pressure to earn the money for the family yet only 33% felt it was natural that they be the primary breadwinner when children come along.
Only 16% of the sample felt that fathers were as accepted as carers in the workplace as mothers.
When asked what drove their primary caregiving decisions for their youngest preschool child, the majority reported “financial viability” and their “partner’s preferences” to be the most decisive factors in making the primary care arrangements.
Fathers expressed frustration with the gendered access to paid leave for primary care. It was access to father-specific, highly compensated PPL that was reported as the most essential policy feature for fathers before they could consider taking up PPL for primary care. The higher the rate of pay on the policy the more likely fathers were to report they would take it.
Fathers expressed frustration with the gendered access to paid leave for primary care, without which contribution to care in a more substantial way beyond “helping” the mother for a few weeks after birth was virtually impossible.
These responses express fathers’ willingness to take a step away from work to be a primary caregiver to their children. In fact, over 63% of fathers said they would sooner step away from work to care for a child less than 12 months of age than place the child in formal childcare. This is a critical finding because it not only supports previous findings that parents prefer informal or parental care for young children, but debunks the myth that fathers are not open to caregiving and would prefer someone else to do the caring.
Adequate policy measures that take into consideration fathers’ primary earner role in a family would no doubt provide an opportunity to contribute to care in line with their (and their partners’) work and care aspirations, and would positively contribute to a re-construction of caregiving as purely women’s business. There is also an increasingly convincing body of evidence that highlights the social and cognitive benefits of caregiving by fathers that together make a strong case for some level of primary caregiving from the father. Not the least of these is the direct support of mothers’ return to work sooner rather than later.
A uniform industrial or statutory leave regime that incorporates primary caregiving by the father is yet to emerge in Australia. This may well explain why Australia has relatively poor maternal workforce participation rates compared to other OECD countries, and the Nordic nations in particular. A highly compensated, father-designated leave is a hallmark feature of policy in these countries, and has been attributed to the higher proportions of mothers in paid employment and the less gendered caretaking regimes in the Nordic belt.
Parental leave policy change can create dramatic effects on caregiving. When Iceland introduced its 3/3/3 policy – three months of ring-fenced leave for the father, three months for the mother and three for either parent – paternal participation in PPL rose from 3% to 31% of eligible fathers.
We have a very weak PPL regime in Australia at both the government and private employer level, and certainly nothing like many international schemes that are designed to encourage, if not compel, a more equal distribution of caregiving among couples. Policy, however, is not likely to be the “silver bullet” to engineer shared care between couples. This is evident when looking at the more universally available employment offerings, such as family-friendly/flexible work provisions. Even with a more uniform access for both fathers and mothers, utilisation is as gendered as PPL.
The FWC study respondents, for example, mirrored the patterns found elsewhere. Fathers were more likely to use the non-structural flexible practices, such as changing start and finish times or using flex time, to “supplement” care of their children. The use of the more structural flexibilities that move away from the full-time model of work, and would make shared caregiving possible, were far less common. In fact, more fathers reported not using any flexible practices at all over using part-time work, job share or compressed work weeks.
The interview data from the FWC study provides some poignant insight as to why these gendered patterns of caregiving may persist even when reasonable policy options are available.
While the survey noted the first hurdle is a financial one because fathers are more often than not the breadwinner in the family, comments from the survey hinted that policy at replacement rates of pay may not be decisive. Workplace factors in the form of an enabling environment in the immediate work climate (as opposed to culture), and most predominantly the leadership of the direct manager, appear to play a critical role in the final decision-making for both mothers and fathers.
Study participants alluded to an important undercurrent bubbling beneath the survey results, and an attempt to understand the push and pull factors of distributing earning and caring roles among couples. The workplace, and managers in particular, seem to have a considerable influence on the transition to working parenthood and who takes on the primary earning/primary caring roles. This is experienced by parents in the workplace as a series of implicit and explicit sanctions on caregiving that appear based on the ideal worker as full-time, always available and physically present.
The research show workplace influences on caregiving arrangements deeply affect the private decisions heterosexual couples make in two ways. Firstly, as an influence on the level of caretaking the father can provide. This is his “care capability” and is dictated by the paid policies (and their structure) available at the workplace (or elsewhere) and the willingness of his manager to uphold, comply or promote them.
Secondly, the workplace exerts influence through the mother, in particular the level of engagement with the workplace prior to maternity leave, and the tone and tenor of negotiations when they return. If a return to work is sought, her “offer” (hours, the type of work she will do, etc.) then drives the amount of caregiving needed for the child. Any opportunity for a “policy holding father” to provide primary care is enacted only when and if the mother decides to return to work and a “care deficit” is created.
What, then, determines a woman’s decision to return to work? As it turns out, it is a highly individual and complex assessment. Many factors are included in the return to work conundrum, including their own personal schemas of a “good” mother, and the amount and type of caregiving she should provide. This appears to compete with other factors that mothers weigh carefully.
Returning to work must result in an acceptable outcome, taking into consideration the perceived quality of the substitute care available (including care from the father, which was generally considered the ideal), the enjoyment of the actual role, their career aspirations, financial need and gain, and the perceived implications of long leave on their relevancy, remuneration and work status. The decision to return to work, and by extension the amount of caregiving provided by the father, is highly dependent on the mother and her engagement with her employer.
It is easy to see how the influence of the workplace, and managers in particular, can creep into this assessment. Managers were considered either “good” or otherwise, and the manager’s approach to work and family was associated with final arrangements couples made. It was also noted that different managers in the same organisation could yield two very different results, expressing the limits of policy, values and culture, and the powerful role subjective and unconscious bias may have on the actual distribution of work and care among the couple.
The role of managers is becoming clearer, presenting as both an opportunity and a threat to wider gender equality.
A related issue was the finding that family-friendly arrangements were considered a privilege or a “favour” meted out by the manager and largely based on some subjective criteria. Sometimes this was provided as a result of “special” characteristics of the employee, including trustworthiness, tenure and position, number of children, and relationship with the boss. In other instances, the outcome of requests were attributed to the manager’s characteristics.
Asking for work adjustment or leave for care was a measured and premeditated decision where the likely “consequences” were taken into consideration. In the survey and the interviews, operating outside the ideal worker framework and bringing care responsibilities into the equation at work clearly held significance in terms of the employees’ value, their competence and potential promotion opportunities in the future. This is of course contra to the policy mandate and intent. Again, the negative judgments passed on employees when requesting work adjustments for caregiving was considered harder on fathers compared to mothers.
The study shows just how deeply the ideal worker norm has penetrated the adult psyche and its far-reaching consequences in terms of the distribution of work and care, and likely wider gender equality.
Traditionally, it has been men who have been able to more readily fit this ideal worker mould because they had wives at home taking care of the children, and work and home life remained very separate.
While working mothers have been operating in the workplace for some time, they have always struggled to keep up with the expanding demands from the workplace. At the policy level their presence has been accepted and accommodated. At the behavioural level it appears to me more akin to being tolerated and they must keep up!
Thus, in the absence of an acceptable alternative source of care suitable to the child’s needs at various ages, they have ultimately taken (or been forced to take) a back seat in the workplace – usually relegated to lesser jobs, on lower pay, and with less visibility and influence than their male cohorts.
Importantly, the role of managers in this is becoming clearer, presenting as both an opportunity and a threat to wider gender equality. A successful career is not necessarily in lieu of successful motherhood. However, a successful career does rely on an alternate source of care for children, and more often than not undertaking a full-time, high-intensity work load.
This was the essential barrier the working mothers in this group faced as they transitioned to working parenthood. This was also the experience of the FWC study sample when undertaking or imagining taking up a greater role in the care of their children, indicating that the motherhood penalty may in fact be a parental penalty. A daddy track, though less worn perhaps, appears just as real and detrimental in the contemporary workplace.
With all this talk about motherhood penalties, daddy tracks and ideal workers, what’s a girl to do? The first and most critical step is to understand that there is very little work for women left to do on this front. The “heavy lifting” must now be done by organisations, to take a bold step and move beyond aspirations to be an “employer of choice for women” and for the government to support it.
There is a vast difference between a gender-sensitive organisation and a gender-equal one. The latter does not occur by accident. After many years researching gender in the workplace, I have found there are some clear markers that indicate a gender-equal enterprise, and that serve as sensible goals for organisations to aspire to.
Within a gender-equal organisation you would find a strong assumption that every worker of childbearing age will be a primary carer for a period of time. It would hold managers accountable for ensuring their employees understood and had access to the policies that would help them make the transition to parenthood, and then further to working parenthood. It would deliver these policies in ways that were consistent, measured and beyond the murky realms of subjective judgment and unconscious bias. Finally, it would ensure that taking such leave or making adjustments to work patterns to accommodate care would be normative practice and without (as far as practical) negative consequences or penalty. Though such an organisation does not yet exist, it is possible.
We once lived in a world where men were forbidden from attending the birth of their children. Now things have changed, yet no law or policy was passed to engineer this shift. There was instead a groundswell of demand from partners, married with institutionalised accommodation from hospitals, that together created a new norm. Men stepped up and stepped into this transformation, and there is every reason to believe they will do the same again. The question is whether organisations will also do the same.
This is an edited extract from the book Career Interrupted: How 14 Successful Women Navigate Career Breaks by Norah Breekveldt. Receive 20% off the RRP by entering the code guardianoffer20 at the checkout.