Is balancing family and work really a gender neutral issue?
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?
Gender or parental issue?
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.
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.
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.
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.