While fathers are increasingly recognizing the value of caring for, educating, and raising their kids, there are still imbalances that make working parenthood more difficult for mothers. In particular, new research shows that fathers, on average, still do only around half of the unpaid work that mothers do. The good news is that men want to step up, and they can do so by acknowledging the problem, aiming for equity in household tasks, collaborating with their partners on decision making, and speaking up at work about their family’s needs. Organizations can help, too, by rethinking assumptions about fathering, by role-modeling, by championing flexible work arrangements and time off, and by supporting access to childcare for their workers.
In Salt Lake City, Richard, a food distribution representative, started keeping a journal on his phone to remember the little moments he has spent with his kids since he began working from home while his wife, Melissa, works as a nurse in a Covid-19 unit.
Lloyed, a software developer and startup founder whose wife is an emergency room physician and professor, says that one of his key takeaways from the current crisis is the importance of family. “Bonding with the kids — not just taking them to school — and providing emotional support for my superhero partner after [her] long shifts is definitely something I’ve come to appreciate.”
So much has changed for families across the United States over the past six months. Some parents now work from home, while others brave their way to essential workplaces. Childcare providers are closing, schools fluctuate between remote, hybrid, and in-person options, and emergency benefits like paid leave are expiring. Unlike their peers in other wealthy countries, U.S. parents face the pandemic with a tattered social safety net, no federal childcare infrastructure, and no mandatory paid leave or sick days to help them ride out the pandemic. A recent index ranked the U.S. second to last in terms of being supportive of raising a family. The often “invisible,” difficult, and important work of caring for kids and households has become more visible than ever, including in our own homes.
The coronavirus pandemic reignites a trend that started decades ago: Fathers in the United States are increasingly recognizing the value of participating in everyday work caring for, educating, and raising their children. But changing long-standing social dynamics doesn’t happen overnight or without conscious effort. So far, women, and specifically working mothers, have been hit hardest by the economic downturn, both because they tend to work in the most affected industries, like retail and hospitality, and because they often have to choose between keeping their jobs and caring for their kids. It is critical that men engage as fully as possible in sharing the work at home. This should start with an honest assessment of where progress is happening, and where it has stalled.
Where Dads Are — and Aren’t — Contributing
A pre-pandemic study from the Better Life Lab at New America found that fathers were already valuing their familial role like never before. The study, which included a nationally representative survey of men and women from across the United States and five online focus groups, set out to determine what aspects of fathering participants deem “very important” — and the answers are surprising. Though the notion of dads as financial providers has traditionally prevailed as their main contribution to their kids, this priority fell toward the bottom of the list. At the top were “showing love and affection” and “teaching the child about life.” And the vast majority of fathers reported engaging in a variety of parenting tasks on a daily basis, from cooking meals and handling certain household chores to providing transportation and soothing and nurturing them. Other research has shown that since the 1970s, fathers have tripled the amount of time they spend in the unpaid work of tending to their kids and home.
While this is certainly progress, fathers, on average, still do only around half of the unpaid work that mothers do. While parents of both genders in the Better Life Lab study said they played with their kids on a daily basis at about the same rates, moms were more likely to take on all the other tasks every day.
Without dads doing a more equitable share of this work — especially during the pandemic — moms will continue to struggle with that “double shift” of paid and unpaid labor, which both maintains gender inequities and creates psychological distress and burnout.
So where do fathers need to step up? The biggest gaps between what moms and dads say they do for their kids is in helping with education and managing schedules and other activities. This finding reflects something researchers have long noted: Some parenting tasks are less visible and come with a higher “mental load” than others — and mothers are more likely to be responsible for them. One recent study found that women reported doing more “cognitive labor” for the family — such as anticipating needs (The kids are due for annual physicals), monitoring progress (Are they up to date on all of their boosters?), identifying options (What day are they free for appointments?), and making decisions (We’ll make the appointment for the Friday after next). This work is time-consuming and often exhausting. Worse, fathers report little awareness of it, which can have deleterious effects on marital relationships and mothers’ paid work. As 2020 comes to a close — with many families still lacking full-time, in-person childcare and schooling due to the pandemic — this problem has intensified.
Solutions for Families
What will it take to get more men involved in household work, both visible and invisible, now and after the pandemic ends? First, men need to recognize what they’re not doing and add it to their to-do lists. Here are some actions that fathers can take to help themselves and their families:
Acknowledge the aspiration-execution gap.
While most fathers believe they’re sharing equitably in unpaid work at home, evidence clearly shows that they’re not. Initiate an honest conversation with your partner about who does what, and how much time things take. According to research in Fair Play, a book written by one of our coauthors, Eve Rodsky, the biggest hurdle to these types of conversations is being hesitant to initiate an invitation to sit down with your partner for fear of being “rejected,” “dismissed,” or “misunderstood.” Using a gamified invitation tool can bring levity and remove emotion from the conversation.
Aim for equity, rather than a 50/50 split.
Eve also argues that the focus should be on each partner “owning” a set of domestic responsibilities — from conception to planning through execution. Discuss and agree in advance on the value of each task. Then decide who should do what based on availability, capability, and an understanding that doing the time-intensive housework and childcare traditionally shouldered by women shouldn’t be a life sentence for one person or determined by a gender role. This will result in a fair rather than even split — and studies have shown that perceived fairness by both parties is a stronger predictor of a healthy marriage than the actual division of domestic labor.
What does this look like, in practical terms? Approaching these conversations with your partner using an ownership mindset is key to fairness. If it’s your job to handle your kids’ extracurricular sports, it’s not just showing up every Saturday to the Little League field. It’s also submitting medical forms, picking up uniforms, ordering cleats (and then returning them when they don’t fit), remembering to pack the kids’ sunscreen and water bottles, and arranging carpools for practice.
Collaborate with your partner in advance on short-term and long-term decision-making.
Making intentional choices and customizing your defaults about who does what decreases daily decision fatigue and allows you to make intentional choices together. Specifically, contracts between couples can be used to set expectations in advance. There is life-changing magic in this kind of short- and long-term thinking. Life becomes a lot easier if you know who is setting the dinner table before anyone is hangry.
Support your partner’s career unconditionally.
Research shows that in the long term, successful dual-career couples trade off in prioritizing one partner’s career over the other’s throughout their working lives together. In particular, male partners in hetero cisgender relationships, who may be used to more traditional gender roles and scripts, can initiate conversations about how to plan for these moments to show support for their partners’ career demands and responsibilities. If you find career demands are higher for your spouse, adjust your own career and support them unconditionally.
Speak up at work.
Sticking to your long-term vision for equity in your partnership may require difficult conversations at work. Despite the stigma associated with men taking advantage of parental leave, family sick leave, and flexible work arrangements, now is the time for men to initiate conversations with managers and bosses about access to these benefits.
If you don’t know if you’re ready to advocate for yourself, build a coalition of fathers within your organization to create consensus and speak with a collective voice. Talk to your work colleagues. Josh Levs, author of All In, suggests that it’s very helpful when men just strike up a conversation with women or other men in the workplace and say something like, “Hey, I’m having trouble figuring out how to get my kid to school before work. How do you do it?” And when you decide to approach your boss, know your company’s policies, have a plan, and be realistic in setting boundaries and expectations.
Solutions for Organizations
Individual actions can help a great deal, but they’re not enough. Just as important is support from organizational leaders. Companies must recognize that, for individual well-being and the health of our society, an hour holding a child’s hand at the pediatrician’s office should be valued as highly as an hour in the boardroom. Here are some ways that bosses can help working dads be all-in allies at home:
Don’t assume that fathers have a stay-at-home partner.
Many men have full-time working partners or are single parents. Managers often apply an outdated ideal-worker norm that assumes modern fathers don’t have family responsibilities. This pressures dads into prioritizing paid work and neglecting their home life. Managers who understand this will be more likely to set clear boundaries around professional responsibilities so employees aren’t forced to choose.
One example is setting blocks of time when meetings can be scheduled, so working dads have the flexibility to be involved in childcare and homeschooling. It’s also important to understand and explain when and why a task is truly urgent — if it has dire business consequences, for example — and when a more flexible deadline may be acceptable.
Role-model what parenting looks like.
Recognize that what you say and do as a leader impacts others. When you celebrate people who work late nights, long hours, and weekends, you’re sending a clear message about what you expect.
In the book Good Guys (written by two of our coauthors, David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson), senior male leaders who were considered good role models at their offices consciously talked about their families and had pictures of them on display in their workspace. Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Redditt and CEO of Initialized Capital, talks openly and proudly about his role as the husband of tennis star Serena Williams and the father of their daughter, Olympia. When Olympia was born, he took 16 weeks of paid parental leave. Overhauling family-supportive policies at his companies has gone hand in hand with normalizing working fatherhood in those same companies and beyond.
These men didn’t hide their parenting priorities, responsibilities, and commitments. Rather, when taking time off for them, they made a point to announce it as a way of regularizing the behavior.
Champion flexible work arrangements, paid sick leave, and generous, paid parental and family leave.
If your company already offers these benefits and programs, find out how they’re working for fathers, mothers, and other caregivers. Encourage male leaders to take advantage of them, as they tend to be perceived as being only for women (often penalizing them in the process) and therefore stigmatizing for men.
Then, take it a step further: Track and review how often these benefits are used. You may discover that some managers don’t allow their employees to use them, despite company policy. Once you can see where the policy is being ignored or underutilized, it’s easier to see where changes need to be made. “If the company policy is to allow flexible work arrangements, but your manager says no, one approach is to suggest that you pilot the new arrangement for a few months, with a few check-ins to see how things are going and fine-tuning along the way,” says Joan Williams, coauthor of What Works for Women at Work. “Often, that’s enough to show a recalcitrant manager that what you are suggesting in fact will work well.”
Doing this can even pay off for parents outside your workplace. According to PL+US, an organization that advocates for national paid family and medical leave, one of the most effective things leaders can do is share their business’s learning about effective approaches for supporting families in the workplace. By doing so, policy makers can benefit from your expertise to inform the laws and programs they put in place to help everyone.
Support options for affordable access to childcare.
Especially in the current Covid-19 crisis, accessible and affordable childcare options are critical to businesses. Be a vocal advocate in your company’s efforts to find feasible solutions that work for dads and moms. This will become more important over time, as access to childcare will be necessary for recruiting the youngest generation of workers. Survey results from Next100 and GenForward show that affordable high-quality childcare is a top priority for Millennials and Gen Zers.
What might potential solutions look like? Since May, for example, the parenting benefits company Cleo has collaborated with Urban Sitter to work directly with employers to provide employees support in finding a qualified caregiver or co-op for their children. Additionally, companies like Apple and Microsoft are subsidizing backup childcare for some employees or even reimbursing employees for their own caregivers.
Further, if your company has influence with state or federal government policy makers, ask senior leaders to lobby for childcare programs that help more parents return to work. In June, for example, 41 local and state Chambers of Commerce wrote to Congress asking for financial relief for the nation’s childcare providers, around half of whom say they may be forced to close permanently.
These issues mark only a few of the incredible challenges families confront as 2021 fast approaches. And women should not bear the weight of the ongoing pandemic alone. In the absence of a robust public infrastructure to help them weather this storm, or to nudge men into more active roles at home, working fathers and employers in the U.S. have a unique opportunity to create change themselves. Fathers say they’re ready to engage more at home, and the pandemic has created an urgent need to have men and women alike involved. The time for action is now: Gender equality can’t wait for the pandemic to end.
Haley Swenson is an expert on work, gender, and inequality and the deputy director of the Better Life Lab, a work-life justice policy program based at the nonpartisan think tank New America. She is the author of the recent report “Engaged Dads and the Opportunities for and Barriers to Equal Parenting in the United States.”
Eve Rodsky is a lawyer and the founder of the Philanthropy Advisory Group, which advises high-net-worth families and charitable foundations on best practices for harmonious operations, governance, and disposition of funds. She is the author of Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live).
David G. Smith is a professor of sociology in the College of Leadership and Ethics at the United States Naval War College. He is the coauthor, with W. Brad Johnson, of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace and Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women.
W. Brad Johnson is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy and a faculty associate in the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. He is the coauthor of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace, Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, The Elements of Mentoring, and other books on mentorship.
Copyright 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.