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Why employers need to embrace flexible working for dads

Father using laptop and working at home while being distracted by his small children.
In today's world, where both parents work and grandparents are often far away, flexible working is a necessity not a perk. (Drazen Zigic via Getty Images)

We often talk about flexible work as a perk to improve work-life balance, or a bonus for parents so they can fit their job around their kids. But in reality, flexible working isn’t a benefit, it’s a necessity. Whether you’re delayed on the nursery run or have to look after a sick child, the ability to work flexible hours, from home or in a job share allows parents to stay in work and enjoy time with their children.

Despite this, half of new dads don’t get the flexibility they ask for. Although the time after childbirth is a crucial bonding period between parents and infants, 53% of men are denied the flexibility they ask for and those on lower incomes are even less likely to have their flexi-working requests accepted. A third of fathers don’t know their right to adapt their work to fit their family life, and many employers are unclear too.

The wider picture for dads in the UK is bleak too. Britain has the least generous paternity leave rights in Europe, with the statutory entitlement for new fathers just two weeks. A recent survey of 3,000 new parents found that two in five fathers didn’t access paid parental leave – and one in five took no time off work when their child was born.

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Read more: Why employers benefit from offering enhanced maternity pay

And not only is this lack of flexibility and parental leave distancing fathers from their families, it is crippling women’s careers too. Denying fathers flexibility means women are left to shoulder the lion’s share of childcare – and reinforces the stereotype that women should be at home, not at work.

Gender stereotypes and cultural barriers

Like working mums, dads face multiple systemic barriers when trying to balance work and childcare. “There can be biases and gender stereotypes that women are uniquely equipped for caregiving roles. Often, men are seen as less competent or not playing the role of a main caregiver,” says Julie Nugent, senior vice president of the Learning & Advisory Services at Catalyst, a non-profit organisation that helps build workplaces that work for women.

Gender stereotypes are damaging in a multitude of ways. When women are inherently seen as caregivers, workplaces are seen as a male domain and women pay with their careers.

Read more: Why the stigma around part-time work damages women's careers

About a quarter of a million mothers with young children have left their jobs because of difficulties with balancing work and childcare, and many more are stuck in roles far below their capabilities. When men don’t have access to the same flexible working hours as women, then flexible work becomes another glass ceiling that makes it impossible for women to ever compete on a level playing field professionally.

And when men are seen as the breadwinners, they miss out on the opportunity to care for their children. However, when dads do take paternity leave, the majority of them are glad that they did. Furthermore, research suggests fathers who take leave are more engaged with their kids throughout the first years of their lives. They may also have better relationships with their partners, as they’ve had time to establish a more equal co-parenting arrangement.

However, many fathers fear that taking time off will negatively affect their careers and their salaries, adds Nugent. “Additionally, some partners can’t afford to take paternity leave or have to consider the balance of leave for multiple working parents,” she says.

father and his daughter walking trough park. From back.
Research suggests fathers who take parental leave are more engaged with their kids throughout the first years of their lives. (Mladen Zivkovic via Getty Images)

Benefits of flexible working for all parents

By normalising flexible working and parental time off, everyone – across genders – wins. “Sharing childcare priorities can help ease women’s reentry back to work from leave and help narrow gender gaps. So, it’s important that organisations have parental leave policies which are open to all parents, not only women,” says Nugent.

“Also, having flexible working options and parental leave can foster many positive organisational outcomes, including greater gender equity within an organisation, increasing retention and greater productivity and loyalty among parents.”

Read more: What to do if you can't answer a job interview question – and how to recover

There are a few things employers can do to support fathers’ access to flexible work. First, having open, honest conversations about why it’s important can help to break down fears over discrimination or retaliation and promote views of masculinity that focus on caregiving.

It’s also important to provide paid parental leave and have written policies that support flexible working and caregiving for fathers in practice. Managers need proper training about how to handle flexible working requests. And when they are made, they should be approved – unless there are clear, obvious reasons why it won’t work. Even then, a fair compromise should be made between employee and employer.

“Share examples of men role models who access flexible work – especially at more senior levels — with employees,” says Nugent. “Offer parental leave for all caregivers. This way we normalise caregiving across genders and start to undo stereotypes that caregiving is gendered.”

Watch: Parents encouraged to apply for free childcare

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