Men who care for their families, women without children – one would expect the world to be accepting of people making decisions that suit their lifestyles and aspirations. Unfortunately it seems many social groups are still unaccepting of those choosing non-traditional roles.

A series of studies from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management found women without children and men who take on caregiving roles are treated worse at work than individuals who conform to those expectations.

From teasing that male workers were “not man enough” to social exclusion, general putdowns and questioning of work competence and ability, men and women who challenged social expectations suffered at work. This was true even at female-lead organisations.

“It is disturbing because it’s discouraging workers from using leaves and flexible work policies if they’re worried their status in the workplace is going to suffer as a result,” lead author Jennifer Berdahl said. “This kind of behaviour leads to discouragement at work, stress brought into the home and sometimes mental health problems and depressions if it gets bad enough.”

Women without children suffered the most mistreatment, followed by men who take on caregiving roles and women who played non-traditional roles in the home.

“This kind of treatment shouldn’t be tolerated in the workplace,” Berdahl said. “We need to be aware that guys are getting teased and harassed when they’re active caregivers at home and social and economic realities often make it so both parents need to be actively involved in caring for their kids.”

Kerryn Fewster, co-director of Australian consultancy Change2020, echoed Berdahl’s concerns. “I do think policy and organisations are doing a good job around encouraging equity for time off to rear kids, but it needs to be as easy for the men to come back [to work] as it is for the females.”

Fewster cited the old saying that one either lives to work or works to live. “Working is what we do, a lot of people enjoy it; a lot of others just do it to pay the bills. Either way, ultimately there’s something more, and that might be around your family or caring for your parents, or whatever it might be,” she added.

What can HR do?

  1. Be aware
    Observe those around you and see where this kind of mistreatment is happening. If a man leaves an event early to relieve his spouse, or has to take a morning off to care for a sick child, is he teased? Are women without children excluded from events or dismissed with comments like “You can’t understand stress until you’ve had children.”? Know when and where the problems occur so you can address it appropriately.
  2. Model good behaviour
    First ensure none of these attitudes filter upwards to management. Is it easier for women to get family care leave than men? Are line managers more supportive of one group than the other? Is childcare considered more important than eldercare? The process should be the same for all individuals.
  3. Communicate expectations
    Make sure all employees understand their rights to leave and support, and know that management is available to discuss their needs. If specific individuals are making the bulk of comments consider talking to them one on one about their behaviour.

mums@work | 10.07.13
Image: Free Digital Images/David Castillo Dominici