Nick Thorpe: Home truths about fathers’ rights at work

Men at work often find that line managers make no allowance whatsoever for their family commitments, a familiar story for many new mothers too. Picture: Contributed
Men at work often find that line managers make no allowance whatsoever for their family commitments, a familiar story for many new mothers too. Picture: Contributed
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TOO many employers could not give a fig about male employees right to a family life, but it is time that changed, writes Nick Thorpe

‘Why are you still here?” barked my boss at 6:45pm one memorable evening, early in my journalistic career. It was a blunt question, and a good one. In truth, I had finished my story for the following day’s Scotsman, and was busying myself with a few non-essential loose ends, hoping – like several other lurking colleagues – that my long hours would mark me out as ambitious and committed to the newspaper.

My news editor, a family man, was having none of it. “Go home,” he told us all, logging off his terminal. “Haven’t you got lives outside this place?” Nearly 20 years on, I remain grateful to that man – now a senior editor – for his stark and frankly unusual challenge to presenteeism, that disease of modern working culture. As a father myself, and one of the organisers of Scotland’s Year of the Dad, I know the immense pressure there is on men in particular to prioritise work over family.

If you doubt this, ask yourself: how easy would you find it to ask your employer for a significant stretch of shared parental leave – now possible under legislation introduced last year – or even just permission to leave early one afternoon to attend your child’s sports day? Our research shows while mums are traditionally waved through under the sexist assumption they will be primary carer, modern Scottish dads still fear any request for child-related flexible working or leave will affect their career.

Men questioned for the Modern Families Index in Scotland [http://familyfriendlyworkingscotland.org.uk/research/] even reported inventing medical appointments rather than admitting they were leaving work to pick up their children! This absurd and entrenched attitude means that when emergencies crop up – as they do in any family – men can find themselves talking to a brick wall. “Not my problem,” was one reported response from a line-manager who forbade a dad from leaving a planning meeting to pick up his sick daughter from school.

That, in a nutshell, is why Year of the Dad needs everyone on board – dads, mums, employers and services – to help Scottish society catch up with a profound shift in culture over the last few decades and promote true gender equality for all. Organised by Fathers Network Scotland with the Scottish Government, Family Friendly Working Scotland and a raft of other collaborating organisations, 2016’s year of awareness-raising and campaigning is all about celebrating the difference a great dad can make – and bringing workplace practice into the 21st century.

While research overwhelmingly shows that children, women and families all benefit from the positive involvement of fathers right from the start, forward-thinking organisations are also discovering that valuing and supporting dads has marked business benefits too. Like many parents, my working efficiency increased hugely when I became a dad, fitting more jobs into less time in order to fit in after the school run or before football practice.

Wise employers know parents who are facilitated in family-friendly work-life balance bring increased engagement and efficiency to the job. It’s also a cost-effective way of retaining talent.

A survey by Netmums [http://www.netmums.com/activities/summer/father-s-day/is-is-time-for-our-dads-to-man-down] found many fathers would take a pay cut in return for more family-friendly working – a finding backed up by our research with Fathers Network Scotland [http://www.fathersnetwork.org.uk/fathers_in_the_early_years].

West Dunbartonshire Council, blazing a trail as best employer for all stages of fatherhood in last year’s Scottish Top Employers for Working Families Awards [http://www.topemployersforworkingfamilies.org.uk/], did so with a raft of dad-friendly policies including enhanced paternity leave, flexitime, paid time off for antenatal appointments and the appointment of a Father’s Champion at executive director level to look out for the interests of fellow dads. “To work full-time and still see my children regularly is great,” said one WDC employee who has a flexible working arrangement. “I’m able to spend Fridays with them. I take them to soft play and really enjoy my daddy time. It also means I am more engaged and productive at work.” Research backs this up.

A recent paper by John Pencavel of Stanford University [ http://ftp.iza.org/dp8129.pdf] shows how reducing our hours of work can be good for productivity.

Yet unlike many of our colleagues on the continent, who see punctual endings to the work day as markers of efficiency rather than reticence, we in Scotland, the UK and particularly the US, persist in measuring virility in hours spent on the job, when the truth is that we’re squandering money as well as family time.

Changing this culture will benefit everyone. Equality for women in the workplace will only come when men are respected as equally capable and nurturing parents in the home. But for that to happen, line managers need to stop asking “where are you going?” and start asking, like my enlightened boss all those years ago: “why are you still here?”

• www.yearofthedad.org

• Nick Thorpe is head of communications for the charity Fathers Network Scotland (www.fathersnetwork.org.uk)