From January to April 15, Steve Lerner rarely saw his spouse while working at an accounting firm. When he started his new role at consultancy Accenture nearly 10 years ago, all that changed, and he got the work-life flexibility he badly wanted.
Lerner is part of the growing wave of men who seek as much work-life balance as their female counterparts, and that comes as a surprise to the employer world, according to a survey from World-atWork and WFD Consulting.
The survey breaks through a long-held belief - that women are family-oriented and men work-oriented. Instead, nearly a quarter of men and 19% of women rated finding time to spend with family as a top work-life challenge, falling just behind financial stress. Just over one-third of both men and women rated flexible start and end times as the top solution for the problems.
Many workers from both sexes believe they would face repercussions, including receiving unfavorable job assignments or negative performance reviews, from taking flexible work time, according to the survey.
And that belief does not "always come from senior managers," says Peter Linkow, president of Waltham, Mass.-based WFD Consulting. "[It] come[s] from society as well, and that's one of the areas men are grappling with."
Lerner agrees. "When I first started thinking about" using work-life flexibility, he says, "there was that stigma ... my own internal stigma wondering if there might be repercussions."
It's all part of a deep-seated cultural norm, says Kathleen Lingle, director of WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress. There is a lot of stereotyping in the workplace, she says, such as "real men don't use flex time" and if a man were to take two weeks paternity leave, he might get a different reaction than a woman requesting it.
Men continue to experience greater work-life challenges, says Brad Harrington, executive director of Boston College's Center for Work and Family. He hypothesizes that they don't have role models for how to properly balance work and life since their fathers were often in the workplace nonstop.
"Young men come away with the observation that, oftentimes, my father gave everything to this company and the company didn't give back," adds Linkow. "The social control between employee and company ... has been changing, and that has profoundly changed the view of men."
Companies even have that view. "[Companies] see fathers as breadwinners and their caregiving role [as] very secondary to that of breadwinner," says Harrington, who is a professor of organization studies at the Waltham university.
In a study Harrington conducted with his Boston College colleagues earlier this year, "The New Dad," 65% of men surveyed said caregiving for a child should be evenly split between spouses, but in actuality, only 30% said it is.
"So, there's obviously for men a redefinition of what it means to be a better father and an aspiration that they will share in parenting equally," Harrington says. "But the reality doesn't meet those aspirations."
Those aspirations are not met in some cases because the dad does not take flexible time. While women typically take two-to-six months of maternity leave, 96% of men in the Boston College survey said they took two weeks or less.
When a father requests maternity leave, it is a shock to the system, Harrington says. "For women it may be career-limiting, but for men it can be seen as career suicide to say, 'I'm going to spend six months at home with my kid.'"
Studies show that a worker who is granted flexibility is more productive and happier at their organization. "For people to bring the best of themselves to the table, in terms of wellness, productivity [and] morale, they need to have the flexibility to manage the way work fits in their lives," says Cali Williams Yost, chief executive of Madison, N.J.-based Work+Life Fit. "If not, they are not productive, they burn out, [and] they don't feel as good being there.... The bottom line: They are just not healthy."
WFD's Linkow says that for the problem to be solved, there need to be conversations taking place in workplaces. Companies need to create a dialogue, he says, and make it OK for people to talk about how they are utilizing work-life flexibility.
Another suggestion he has is that men get together and start talking. Lerner founded the company's men discussion group in 2009 and is now its national head. In May, a dozen Accenture offices nationwide had resource groups - open to both men and women.
When the group was first founded, some company executives didn't understand its purpose, Lerner says, and saw it as a men's drinking club. But through a grassroots campaign, they made it work.
Lerner stated the group after realizing men working for the company wanted to be involved fathers. In the groups, which meet monthly, around 50 members talk about challenges they face in an open dialogue format. Sometimes, company executives sit in. They also work on giving back to the community, including donating suits to men in need.
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