Stay-at-home dads

I got back from the US a couple of weeks ago, where I interviewed men who have opted out of successful careers. By now I have conducted interviews in Finland, the UK and the US (and I am still looking for more men, so please let me know if you are or know of anyone in these countries who I could interview: theoptingoutblog@gmail.com. Thank you!).

Luckily everything I heard about interviewing men when I set out has been proven wrong. The stories I have collected are incredibly rich in detail and so interesting. I just love interviewing, and although I haven’t started to systematically analyze my data yet, I do have some tentative impressions. One is that although it at first seemed that men who opt out pretty much follow the same pattern as women (see my post Men who opt out), the more I interview the more complicated it gets. While the stories of the women I interviewed were all very similar, I’m finding that the men’s stories are all over the place. They are actually all quite different.

The decision to leave seems to have come about differently for men than it did for the women I interviewed. The women typically set out to have a career without any plan what-so-ever to ever leave, but finally did leave due to a crisis that pushed them to rethink their lives and their values (see for example How do you decide to opt out?). The decision for men to opt out on the other hand – not all of them but many if not most of them – seems to have been less about being pushed to make a decision and more about just doing it.

This, of course, could be because men aren’t potentially as forthcoming about talking about crises as women, but that is not the whole truth. Men are socially expected to work, to be the breadwinners, and to support their families, whereas women aren’t. If a woman pursues a career, she has to overcome social norms and expectations. In fact, we often assume that women who pursue careers do it for selfish reasons – self-actualization – while men do it for selfless reasons: to support their families. That is not true, however, both do it for both selfish and selfless reasons. Both may have families to support and both do it because they find it meaningful, but still this is how people often subconsciously see it. So a woman has more social barriers to overcome when pursuing a career than a man does, which probably means that if she has made it that far in her career, she has done so because that is what she really wants to do. And if that is true, she is not going to give it up very easily, unless something happens that makes her rethink her priorities.

Men on the other hand, are expected to work, to have a career, so all men who have risen in the corporate hierarchies might not have gotten there out of pure conviction and grit. So I’m thinking, maybe the decision to leave may therefore just be something they decide to do and not necessarily as a result of a crisis. Maybe it is just their next step, whether it is for good or for a period of time until they come back again.

Many of the men I interviewed in the US either are or have been stay-at-home dads. I suppose that is to be expected as there is no legislative parental leave and affordable high quality daycare is harder to come by in the US than it is in Europe.

For these men, it was therefore naturally often children that made them decide to leave. They saw their family as a unit and together with their wives (who also had successful careers) they decided that the best thing for the family whole was for the wife to work and for the husband to care for the children, and then that was what they did. And all of them were very happy about their decisions. Despite the hard work (because staying at home with kids really is hard work), it felt meaningful and they cherished the time they had with their children.

But, the truth is, when it comes to social standards they are the anomaly. In their respective communities, they are the only stay-at-home dads in what continues to be a predominantly woman’s world. And here are some of the frustrating things they hear from other women, often strangers:

  • “Oh you’re babysitting your kids today!” (How can a dad possibly babysit his own kids? They are his kids!)
  • “Oh you must have forgotten her jacket at home!” (No, this dad knew exactly how much his daughter needed to wear in that weather.)
  • “Oh how sweet, are you helping your wife out today?” (…)
  • “When are you going to find a job?” (Something you generally wouldn’t ask a woman in the same situation.)

And the most incredible thing I heard was something that one man told me happens on a regular basis when he takes his child to the park. Strange women will come up to his child sitting in the stroller and fix things like hats and jackets, thinking that this dad needs all the help he can get. Anyone with children will know how unsettling that is. You don’t want strangers touching your children and if a man did that – just walked up to a woman with a stroller and started touching the child – it would definitely be frowned upon, right?

It seems that although we are becoming more open to men and women breaking gendered norms, we really have a ways to go. Even in Finland, which is considered one of the most gender equal countries in the world, very few men actually take parental leave. Many men take out their legislated paternity leave and stay home with the mother and the new baby for up to three weeks right after the baby is born, but the percentage of men who actually stay at home and are the main caregivers until their children start daycare or school, is in the single digits. Last I heard it was about 3 or 4%. And a lot of it is due to organizations not supporting fathers who want to do this. Although they would never deny a Finnish mother to go on maternity and parental leave, I have heard many stories where employers have told fathers that it may be your legislative right, but here we just don’t do that.

So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with a long way to go. But based on the stories of the men I interviewed, it is a truly valuable and cherished experience for both the father and the child. Fathers can be just as attentive and caring as mothers and if we just give them the chance to participate in childcare on equal terms, I really do think the world would be a better place.

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Flexibility is the future, so what are we waiting for?

I read an article in the New York Times the other day, about how job flexibility is the answer to closing the gender gap. This was great for two reasons. The first reason is of course the fact that articles like this prove that there at least seems to be some interest in closing the gender gap. The other reason is that it makes me very pleased that people more and more seem to talk about – and argue for – increased flexibility in the work place. Flexibility makes it possible for people to have a life not just a job, and it provides them with a sense of coherence and control, which is essential for their sense of well-being. And this is exactly what the article argued: how people want and need to have more control over their time.

The problem, however, is that this need for flexibility is seen mostly as a women’s issue, and this article was also mostly about women. The argument was that if women had more flexibility they could better combine work with children, which, in turn, would mean that they could compete for the top jobs they previously may only have dreamed of.

But here’s the catch. If it is only women who are considered to need flexibility and if only they are provided with this possibility, they will continue to be seen as deviants, people who for whatever reason don’t live up to corporate expectations. As a result, most of them will most probably not be able to compete for those top jobs after all. Because let’s face it, there are still a lot of companies who do not offer flexible solutions, not to women and especially not to men. A real man will just do the job, right?

No, that’s not right, but that’s the norm. However, the article did also mention that 48% of fathers rate flexible work schedules as extremely important. That’s right, that’s almost half. Despite popular belief there are many fathers who want to be able to be with their children more, and many of them have wives or partners who expect no less. So you see the problem here. Many men value flexibility, but as long as we only speak of it as something women need, it will not be offered to men, at least not readily. And as long as we continue to create solutions only for women so that they can combine a career with children, we continue to set them apart from men – they will continue to be seen as an exception – and men will continue to work the long hours that do not really make it very easy for them to be more present in their children’s lives. And as long as we do that, the gender gap will certainly not be closed.

But we’re in the 21st century. We need to break out of a mold that was created decades ago in a time long past. Creating more possibilities for flexibility, for combining work with other areas of life (because you know what they say about all work and no play), and making it possible for people to create their own individual solutions for how they can do that, is something we need to make available to everyone – men and women. If we do that, we create the possibility for men to be more involved in their children’s lives without the risk of seeming unmanly or not serious about their jobs. Like Anne-Marie Slaughter says, it is only if men also start doing more non-paid care work, will we stop devaluing it so much, and only then will the amount of men and women doing different kinds of work in the public and private spheres be more balanced.

A few months ago I participated in a seminar where a representative of DNA, a Finnish telecommunications company, presented their new HR solutions. They had turned conventional rules regarding time and place of work upside down. They had given their employees complete freedom in deciding where they wanted to work. They did not have to come in to the office at all if they didn’t want to.

This is quite unusual because many people I’ve talked to in the business world say that this is something you just cannot do. You can’t give employees complete freedom when it comes to where they work, because then no one would ever come in to the office. But this is not what happened in the case of DNA. You see, most people, despite not being forced to, really do want to come in to the office to work several days a week. Some might appreciate keeping work separate from their private life, some want to come in to meet colleagues, and then there are things like meetings that tend to gather people anyway. It is just that most people really appreciate the ability to choose, to have the option to spend some of their time working offsite, wherever that may be, when they want or need to.

This new arrangement naturally meant that the managers of DNA also needed to develop new management routines. After all, if all your employees aren’t physically in front of you at all times, you need to adjust to that. And they had the technology, but more importantly they had the will.

Another argument I often hear from companies is that if you have people working offsite, how do you know that they are actually working? Well, to be honest, how do you know that they are working when they are in the office? Just because they are there physically does not mean that they are working. Besides, I once heard someone say, if you can’t trust them, why did you hire them in the first place?

The ironic thing is that what seems to be a giant leap of faith for organizations, doesn’t necessarily mean that dramatic a change in practice, as most people will continue to come in to work regularly anyway. Although it will mean some new routines, the main difference is that this freedom provides employees with a sense of control, and a possibility of combining their work with the other areas of life that people invariable have, whether their employers like it or not.

Research has shown this is what a lot of people want, and that it is especially true for Millennials. Flexibility and individual solutions are the future, people. So come on, what are we waiting for?