Shifting the narrative on flexible working dads

How can we normalise working flexibly for all workers, meaning dads and mums have greater choice over sharing the care of their children.

dads, housework


Should paternity become a protected characteristic under the Equality Act? Does the new flexible legislation go far enough? Dr Jasmine Kelland from the University of Plymouth thinks much more needs to be done to enable parents to have more choice over how they manage work and family life. 

She says that patterns of caring begin from birth or even before it in terms of the different expectations on mums and dads and that those expectations are what need to shift to give parents greater choice over caring for their children. That requires both policy and legislative change, but there is more that employers could do to embed greater choice.

Policies such as equal parental leave matter, but she thinks pay rates have been overstressed as a barrier to taking up shared or equal parental leave. She cites employers who have equal parental leave policies, but where dads don’t take up that leave or don’t take many weeks off.

Kelland adds that take-up is more likely if employers communicate information about the leave and normalise taking it. Parental coaching for dads, mentorship and buddying and dads forums should be part of the package, she states. She thinks parent forums tend to default to mums and that dads need to have a space for themselves because they face a different set of challenges to mums in terms of attitudes and expectations. “We need to promote the message that taking leave is expected and that it is strange not to take it,” she says.

The fatherhood forfeit

Kelland has spent years researching dads.  Her recent Caregiving Fathers in the Workplace – Organisational Experiences and the Fatherhood Forfeit book encapsulates her work. She spoke recently about her research at a meeting of the new All Party Parliamentary Group on Flexible Working about her follow-up research, in particular about the negative peer pressure many dads face when they want to work flexibly. Kelland says employers should adopt a hard line when it comes to derogatory comments and ‘banter’ about men who want flexible working. They should operate like male allies, calling out the comments.

On the positive side, she says there is evidence of changing attitudes among some dads. Her survey work last summer shows that the flexible working backlash hasn’t really changed dads’ attitudes to work. At the time dads were talking instead of voting with their feet and pushing back on employers’ attempts to get them to return to the office more days a week. The cost of living crisis didn’t come up as an issue at that point in terms of dads looking for longer hours and potentially having less time for spending with their children. This is an issue Kelland will follow as things have been shifting rapidly in the last few years.

As of last year, however, the Covid working from home boost meant dads were still more likely to be hands on, although research shows that generally women were the ones taking on most of the homeschooling and childcare during the pandemic. “It was quite heartening to see the resistance on flexible working,” says Kelland, “and the fact that dads talked about voting with their feet shows flexible working is a business issue rather than a nice to have.” 

However, although some employers have retained Covid-related changes, Kelland says most of these changes solely relate to office-based jobs. And she adds that it is important to remember, too, that even in office-based roles a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work – some like to work from home and others don’t. “There’s a real need for managers to talk to their employees. If employers are struggling financially it makes sense to give their employees the tools to do the best they can,” she adds.

Day one right to request flexible working

Kelland says the new day one right to request flexible working is “a good start”, but she would like to see flexible working proactively normalised in a similar way to equal parental leave. That means making it the default with employers having to make the case why an employee shouldn’t get it rather than the other way around. She says employers need to do much more to promote flexible working for all and overturn assumptions that it is just for women. While it might be right for some families for women to be the primary carer, that should not be assumed and each family needs to decide what is right for them, she says.

Not promoting flexible working to everyone means the onus will still be on women when it comes to care and often, even when they are the main earner, women are still taking on the lion’s share of the home tasks. Kelland wants to see more employers promoting senior male role models who work flexibly and encouraging employees to have conversations about flexible working. 

“When someone announces that their partner is expecting, managers could ask them what their intentions are in terms of working. They shouldn’t assume that after the baby is born they will go back to their normal way of working,” she states.

When it come to social attitudes, she adds that nurseries and schools seem to have got better at not always deferring to mums, but they have had to do that consciously. She says there is still a way to go, however, on ensuring the changes that come with becoming a dad are fully acknowledged. That might include mental health challenges of witnessing traumatic births or just adjusting to the sometimes radical shift of relationship dynamics post-baby.

Kelland is continuing to follow up on her research on dads and mentions the potentially negative impact of dads being disproportionately praised for things mums do as a matter of course. “It makes dads feel uncomfortable and enforces the message that they are marginalised,” she says. “Dads don’t need cult status. It doesn’t help to normalise more equal parenting.”

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