A few years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Norway* to learn about the country’s innovative efforts toward gender equality. Norway had legislated that the boards of all publicly traded companies have to be 40 percent women. But that was only one side of the equation. If women were going to be empowered at work, the country reasoned, men would have to be more empowered at home.
Norway already offered lengthy paid parental leave (now 46 weeks at full pay) to be divvied up between new moms and dads, but when legislators realized that moms were taking the majority of the leave time, they created a period of parental leave reserved only for fathers – now ten weeks long. “Use it or lose it,” became the mantra – if dads don’t take paternity leave, they miss out, and moms can’t use that time in their stead. The law does two things. First of all, it ensures that fathers are taking on more of the heavy lifting at home after the birth of a child.
Secondarily, tn makes employers consider younger men and women the same way when hiring them – male and female applicants will likely be taking time off if they have children, so employers can’t cite looming maternity leave as a reason not to hire women.
The cultural change hasn’t been seamless, though – even in progressive Norway. During my trip, I met with a “daddy day-care circle” – a group of young dads on paternity leave. One of them talked about how he was offended when an older woman had stopped to straighten his child’s hat while he was taking a walk with the stroller, as if he, a man, couldn’t possibly have gotten it on right. Another talked about how his family didn’t approve of his taking time out of work to be with his child. A cab driver mentioned that his son was preparing to take time off work to spend with his new child, but he himself was glad his kids were grown up because spending time at home wasn’t interesting to him.
I was also asked repeatedly during the week what I thought American men would think of the “use it or lose it” paternity leave scheme. Most people responded with surprise when I said I thought they’d love being able to spend more time with their children – especially younger men of my own generation.
That brings us to the here and now. Pew recently released the results of a study on modern parenthood. Researchers found that fathers in the US are now more worried than mothers that they are not spending enough time with their kids. Almost half (46 percent) of dads say they think they should be spending more time at home. A quarter (23 percent) of moms said the same.
The Pew survey indicates that traditional gender roles are becoming increasingly blurred here in the US. It also indicates that many workplaces aren’t keeping up, and that matters for men and women.
According to Pew, in 1965 fathers, on average, spent a grand total of six and a half hours per week on child rearing and housework. Today it’s 17. Half of working fathers (50 percent) say they have a hard time juggling work and family. About the same proportion of working mothers (56 percent) say the same.
It would be easy, as women, to offer to play the world’s tiniest violin for these men. After all, being a working dad is far more acceptable to society than being a working mom. If you need proof of that, simply look to the results Pew produced when the same group of people was asked what’s best for a child – a full time working mom (16 percent), a part time working mom (42 percent), or a stay-at-home mom (33 percent).
Pew didn’t even deign to ask how having a working dad affects a child. As KJ Dell’Antonia pointed out in the NY Times, the survey reinforces “the standard trope that it’s women, not men, who are ultimately responsible for children.”
Too many companies still consider work/life a “women’s problem,” rather than a workforce problem – or better yet an employer problem. That’s why it is counterproductive to discount the work/life challenges men face. The fact that men – the dominant group in most workplaces – are having this problem shows how little companies are doing to address the personal needs of their employees.
It’s time for companies to wake up to the fact that their employees – men, women, people with kids, people without kids, people with aging parents – want to have full lives. At a time when traditional gender roles are changing, companies need to provide pathways to enable all of their employees to do so. Our culture is evolving – it’s time for corporate policy to evolve too.
*The trip was paid for by the Royal Norwegian Consulate in New York.