Is balancing family and work really a gender neutral issue?

Is parenting really gender neutral or does it affect women more?

Last week I wrote about how important it is that businesses keep working mothers at work and some steps they can take to make that happen. Many commenters asked, “What about women who are not mothers?” and “What about men?” Great questions and I had mentioned in the comments that today I would write about how we can support the growing number of workers who are also caregivers to the sick and elderly, whether they are parents or not. But I’ll save that for next time because I want to address the gender issue first. Is it really a gender neutral issue?

Read: Dad, Daughters & Dishes: How To Close the Gender Gap

Gender or parental issue?

Working mums gender neutral

Much of what I write, including in my book “Mogul, Mom & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman,” advocates for framing issues such as parental leave and paid sick time as parent issues not just mother issues, and to advocate for flexibility as a workplace issue, not just a parent issue.

While we have more women than ever in the work force, we also have more men than ever staying home. And researchers at the Boston College Center for Work and Family report men at work are seeking “roles that are much more integral to the lives of their families and require greater presence and engagement,” and therefore, like women, are struggling with work-family conflict. And, of course, parents aren’t the only ones who need flex benefits.

But gender still matters in this discussion. Why? Because most organizations’ cultures are not gender-neutral, nor is our society.

Read: Gender balance is a relationship issue first

Becoming a parent at work

For starters, men and women are often perceived differently at work when they become parents. Ninety-six percent of the fathers surveyed by the Boston College Center for Work and Family said their managers’ expectations of them at work remained the same after they became a parent. Three percent even said expectations at work had risen. This is not what many new mothers experience. Research has shown that employers often believe mothers are less committed to their careers than other workers. And many mothers have experienced managers and coworkers questioning whether they will continue to work at all after giving birth. In contrast, none of the men in the study felt fatherhood resulted in negative perceptions by their employer and some felt a career boost because they were seen as “more credible, mature, responsible and career-minded.”

Accessing flex benefits isn’t the same for women and men, either. Culturally, it is generally accepted that a woman may change her schedule or reduce her hours to accommodate her family. That’s not always the case for men. Men who take advantage of flex for family obligations are still considered trailblazers in many organizations, even though some studies show men are granted flex options at a higher rate than women.

Read: 4 good reasons women shouldn’t talk about their kids in work

Why not stay at home to take care of the kids? 

And outside the office, perceptions differ too. A woman may still be questioned about why she works instead of staying home to take care of the kids. And a man considering a full time caregiver role may worry about the social stigma from friends and family who wonder why he doesn’t have a “real” job.

Read: 6 ways hard working dads can support gender balance at home

It’s important we acknowledge these gender-based differences in our pursuit of creating more flexible workplaces that benefit all… not as a road block, but as a way to overcome challenges. Work life balance may be a gender neutral desire, and should be a gender neutral goal, but that doesn’t mean we can take a completely gender neutral approach to implementation.

Need help with gender balance in your organisation? Contact 3Plus now!

Liz O'Donnell

About Liz O'Donnell

I am a working daughter and working mother living in the sandwich and committed to helping other women as they balance their many roles in life. A recognized expert on balancing eldercare and career, I’ve written about the issue in The Atlantic, Time, and Next Avenue. I’ve been interviewed about the topic on WNYC, and many other radio shows and podcasts. I am also the author of the book Mogul, Mom & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman. In 2009, I started the blog HelloLadies.com which I ran until 2015. Hello Ladies was named a top 100 website for women by Forbes, a Best of the Net by Working Mother Magazine and a BlogHer Voice of the Year. For more about me visit www.liz-odonnell.com.