I recently attended a working parent networking breakfast and panel discussion.  It was located in the centre of Sydney, in one of the city’s biggest buildings, owned by one of Australia’s most prestigious companies. There were roughly equal numbers of Mums and Dads at the event, perhaps because the topic that morning was focused on the challenges of being a working Dad.

Why working dads?

The recent Australian Gender equality scorecard released by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency this month clearly shows that there is a large gap between men and women in the workplace.  Men hold the majority of full time roles, with 69.1% of men employed full time and only 40.7% of women employed full time. There is still a gender pay gap of 23.1% between men and women which is the equivalent in total remuneration of $27,000 a year.  Only 39.3% of employers have a family or domestic violence policy and or strategy. Only 48% of organisations offer a paid primary carer’s leave.

These stats aren’t great for women, but they are also not great for men.  More specifically for families and working Dads who form part of the working family equation with 65% of families having both parents working.  This means that the lack of paid carer’s leave, and the large difference in total remuneration directly impacts families as a whole.  Sometimes in a negative way as we will see below with Dads feeling that their key responsibility is still to support their families financially, and only slightly less so to support their families emotionally and physically – in a way their fathers rarely felt.  In effect they are torn between their often competing responsibilities of work and family.

On the panel there were four working Dads willing to share their experiences and insights.  All four Dads had different experiences and different family situations, however there were startling realties shared by all.  For example, they all felt there was no time for self-care and they felt to be successful they needed a laser focus on their career to the exclusion of all else.  They missed their previous lives prior to children when they had time to themselves or to hang out with their mates.  They also felt guilty at the thought of leaving their colleagues to pick up the slack at work.  Overall all of them felt guilt created from being torn between their work and family responsibilities.  They often prioritise work over family, yet tried to fit in family life in whatever time they had left.  They rarely make time for exercise, mental health or catching up with mates.

Three working dads – three very different scenarios

We won’t identify any of the Dads by name but will call one panelist B.  B felt looking after his family was his main motivator.  If that meant working harder, then that is what he would do.  In his own words the issue this created was that he wasn’t present in the everyday lives of his wife and children. He would leave home at 7am and come home at 8pm.  His wife told him that she didn’t feel supported by him, and she was effectively raising their children by herself.  He was unable to balance his career commitments and his parenting commitments.  Meanwhile his family was growing quickly and he didn’t want to miss out.

Luckily for B he was able to make a huge change in his professional life which led to changes in his personal life.  After 5 years of growing his business he sold it and moved out of the business entirely.  Now he has swapped roles with his wife and has taken on the key responsibility of looking after the kids, the family and the household.  His wife now works 4 days a week and he stays at home.  One might argue that he hasn’t really successfully balanced both elements of his life because he has effectively swapped work for home duties. However, at the moment this is working for him, and for his wife and children.  He shared that making this change has meant that he had to change his own success metrics.  That is, he had to redefine what success looked like for him, which he stated honestly was not an easy thing to do. No longer was it about working and making money to support his family – it was now about getting the kids ready in the morning, the house managed, dinner made and the kids in bed at a reasonable hour.

Another Dad who we will call P told of his challenges of being a working Dad.  His was a different situation with his eldest child having medical issues and needing a lot of physical and emotional care.  Over the past couple of years as he and his family managed the issue with his daughter’s health needs, he has taken about 6 months off work.  He feels grateful to his boss and company for allowing him to do this and also to his colleagues who have been very supportive during this time.  His wife is a full time carer at home to their three children.  He feels like he isn’t home enough to support her and the other children, and feels constantly torn between supporting his wife, his work and his other kids.  For P work is a positive distraction and good for his mental health (as well as his pay check).  He openly wondered how his wife manages without that same distraction of work in her life.

Another Dad who we will call N shared his story too.  He and his wife both work full time. They are both busy professionals with two children at home being cared for by a Nanny.  He joked that neither of them have much time outside work, with no schools for their kids to go to later in life and no taxes paid, but both were happy with their choice.  They have agreed to share the guilt of their decisions equally, and just as equally recognise that they are both sacrificing their time together and individually. It seems like communication is one of the key points to his and his wife’s success at home and at work.  He shared that they have had many discussions about what both of them need to be successful.  At this point in time what they both need are financial resources and community support to ensure that the kids get what they need.

How can organisations support working dads?

N was asked by the moderator “What should organisations do more of, for working parents?” He replied that apart from providing forums for working parents to talk and share, they also need to seed champions of change within the organisation.  N stated that he would like to see more good examples of senior men working in a less traditional way.  Although he openly stated that he personally has traditional working habits where he spends the majority of his time in the office during core business hours, he didn’t see this as necessary for all parents.  He has noticed a trend where younger men are actively working differently and the older men in the office work in a more traditional manner.

All of the Dads on the panel agreed with N when he said that men feel it’s going to stall their career if they take significant time out of the office.  This time might be to care for their children on paternity leave, it might be to care for a sick child or relative, or it might just be to pick their kids up from school one or more days a week.  As a way to overcome this, all agreed that if senior people take up flexible work hours then others are more likely to do it.  They saw this as a smaller part of a wider organisational cultural change away from judging an employee’s success of their time actually present in the office, and more towards the outcomes they deliver.

Why dads need to speak up

Again all the Dads on the panel agreed that talking about the issues and challenges faced by working Dads was a positive action.  P thought we should be more openly talking about these issues, and felt it was beneficial to have these types of forums for working Dads too.  It was suggested that talking about these issues normalised them.  Working Dads realise the feelings they have and the experiences they have are common.  So these discussions help to decrease stress and bring about positive change.  Not to mention alleviating guilt and blame of one’s self and others.

How has life changed for working dads in the last decade?

Overall the panel didn’t think it had dramatically changed over the last 10 years. Although we are starting to talk more about the issues faced by working Dads it seems that we still rely on Dads to be successful at work to financially support the family.  They also recognised that women still do the majority of the caring work whether they work outside the house or not.  So for these Dads and many others in Australia, they are just beginning to acknowledge the same work-life squeeze that Mums have been speaking about since the 1970s.

B shared with the forum that he found being a stay at home Dad much harder than he thought it would be.  He now has some new found empathy for his wife and the years she spent doing it.  He shared that he values the role of a stay at home Mum, but his wife didn’t feel that it was valued – if not by him, but by others in the community.  He is happy to have the opportunity to be a stay at home Dad now because he didn’t have it previously.  He loves his new role and embraces it.  But also readily admits that he feels the need for balance.

The guilt factor

One of the Dads rightly commented that every working parent feels guilty.  That guilt might be about not spending enough time with their partner or their kids, or it might be about leaving their colleagues to pick up their slack at different times through the year.  However, we all belong to families who need and rely on us to be there for them.  Parents give themselves a hard time but we all have commitments to others.  Obviously for parents it’s their children, but for others it’s to parents, sporting teams, education or community groups.

If we all have commitments to other people, then why do working parents carry such a huge guilt burden?  Why do working parents feel so guilty and torn between their work and family commitments?  Why do they prioritise their self-care last on their never-ending to do lists? Why do some men seemingly opt-out of their family commitments and focus their entire attention on work, leaving their partner to take on most of the responsibility at home?

The answers to these and many other questions were not obvious or forthcoming from the discussion. There is much to expand on if we are to understand all the challenges of life as a working Dad.

Parents At Work will be starting an online webinar series for working dads in 2017. Dates yet to be announced – watch this space!

By Celeste Kirby-Brown, Parents At Work