Fatherhood isn’t just Brad Harrington’s work; it’s his life. As the lead author of fatherhood research at the Boston College Center for Work and Family, Harrington also has three children of his own.
When a baby gets fussy or starts to cry, “It’s just so easy for fathers to stand there and think, I don’t know exactly what to do here. It’s natural to look to your wife even if she’s a first-time mother, if she’s been home with the child for a couple of months. You think instinctively she knows what to do better than I do,” said Harrington. That projection continues to solidify gender roles for both, he added.
Gender roles of opposite-sex couples have shifted over time, but that doesn’t mean people automatically mesh into new roles. More dads are involved in their children’s lives than in previous generations — since 1965, fathers have more than doubled their family involvement, cited NPR — but they’re not necessarily more confident in their parenting abilities.
Employers can play a part in making dads more comfortable in their fatherhood role. Most conspicuously, paid parental leave evens the parenthood playing field, according to Harrington. What’s key here is that parental leave is available to both men and women.
Several organizations have made massive leaps in paid leave in the past two years, he said. At some companies, “Suddenly it’s eight weeks, 10 weeks, 12 weeks, 16 weeks. It’s been a big surprise that this amount of paid leave has been extended to women, and the fact that they’ve mirrored that for their male employees has been terrific as well,” he said.
Some companies that have expanded paid parental leave include Intel, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Ikea and Hilton, he said.
“The more I’ve researched fatherhood, the more I’ve come to appreciate the importance of paid leave,” said Harrington. “Having a father take leave and spend time with their child on their own, one-on-one, and providing care directly is huge in terms of whether or not we achieve gender equality.” It’s a chance for dads to develop confidence in their role as a caregiver.
Meanwhile other resources like affinity groups and public forums, although less conspicuous than paid leave, are also important, he noted.
MetLife Inc. is one company that seeks equality in its employee leave policies and other workplace resources for parents. What’s important in the communication of these resources is that a company make it very clear that by parents, they mean moms and dads, said Michelle Birnbaum, the former head of work-life and director of global diversity and inclusion at MetLife.
One of the insurance company’s diversity business resource networks — similar to an employee resource group — is Families at MetLife. It’s one of the newer resource networks but already has close to 400 members, and on a national level it has male and female co-chairs. They hold events such as a live-streamed career panel headed by working dads across all levels of the company and an adoption panel where both mothers and fathers share their stories.
It helps to share stories and to have the messaging come from different people, said Birnbaum. “When you’re thinking about positioning any kind of support or program, work-life or wellness or benefits, considering your different audiences is important,” said Birnbaum. “When you try to take this more gender-neutral approach, there are so many pieces to look at, but it’s worth it.”
Eddie Hollowell, communications and multimedia lead at MetLife, has taken advantage of many of these perks. He took parental leave and worked reduced hours following the birth of his son.
He’s used a back-up care benefit when other child-care options fell through. And he’s attended panel discussions and webinars to get advice.
“This support from MetLife and from my co-workers and management is why I have continued to be a committed employee and it’s why I have remained with this company for 10-plus years,” said Hollowell in an email interview.
Another area in which employers tend to communicate to women more than men is workplace planning, said Jackie Reinberg, national practice leader, absence, disability and life at Willis Towers Watson. Most men go back to work full time after the birth of a baby because that’s the expected rationale, she added, and oftentimes they’re sleep-deprived or otherwise unprepared for their new reality.
“Part of what men need is having the management structure that helps them with workforce planning, when they’re going to take paternity or parental leave, and when they’ll come back to work,” said Reinberg.
Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.