Flexible fathers?

Professor David Smith, Chemistry, reflects on parental roles in the modern world, particularly the role of fathers.

The Athena SWAN Gold award held by the Chemistry Department means a commitment to offsetting the disadvantages that some groups of people suffer and the advantages that others enjoy. This has led to important initiatives such as pay gap analysis, promotion of female role models, a flexible working guarantee and a part-time working assurance. Although these initiatives are primarily targeted at redressing the imbalances faced by women in the workplace, it was evident from the discussions that the Athena SWAN approach benefits fathers, as well as mothers.

Balancing childcare and work

For example, as Dr Laurence Abbott told me, “After my wife tragically passed away shortly after my daughter Jessica was born, I took some time off to adapt to my new life as a single parent. I am now fully responsible for Jessica’s care and have to stay at home when she is ill. This can involve having to drop everything immediately to go and pick her up. The department allows me to be flexible and work around any such sick days.”

“My wife is a teacher so cannot make it to events that fall within the school day. The flexible working policy made it easy for me to attend Harvest Festivals, Christmas plays and sports days. I won the dads’ sack race this year! I have also covered periods when the kids are sick. It is great that we are allowed this level of flexibility.”

Dr Andy Goddard, Research Facilitator

Indeed, from my own experience, when we adopted our son, the Department was very supportive of me working part-time, which I did for the first year, while he settled into our home. I had the assurance that I could transition back to full-time work when the time was right. As my husband’s health is now sadly declining, flexible working has been massively beneficial, and I am once again exploring patterns of part-time work that would allow me to match additional time off with school holidays.

Facts and Figures

It is interesting to reflect, however, that although there is UK legislation for shared parental leave, national evidence shows that current take-up amongst fathers remains very low (<5%). Furthermore, surveys show that on average, women do over twice as much childcare as men. Strangely, men are still often labelled as ‘exceptional dads’ even for doing just 50% of the childcare – a fair share. This is compounded by the fact that women also take on the majority of other caring roles, such as for elderly or sick relatives, as well as doing 60% more housework than men.

Strangely, men are still often labelled as ‘exceptional dads’ even for doing just 50% of the childcare – a fair share.

In terms of childcare, there seems little doubt that societal expectations influence parents’ decision-making. I think that in the absence of such expectations, men would feel empowered to become more involved in childcare. For example, I am a gay parent, and there were absolutely no expectations about who would do what. My husband and I started from the assumption that childcare should be split 50/50 and worked from there – why would we do anything else?

However, it remains clear that many people worry about the impact that childcare and part-time or flexible working may have on their careers. This view is doubtless informed by the many years in which the shameful lack of some employers’ support for women with childcare responsibilities has been one of the factors having a negative impact on their careers. This is a key reason that a visible set of departmental policies on family-friendly working, as well as highlighting female role models who have successfully balanced family and career, is so important in engendering change.

I strongly believe that real change in gender roles will actually be driven by changing the roles of both men and women. It is vital to support women in the workplace, but it is also important to start a conversation in which men’s roles in the home are questioned.

Perhaps at some point in the future, when a group of fathers discuss work and family, it will be those who don’t take significant time out of their working patterns who will be seen as exceptions.

Such parental equality would have huge impacts in workplaces everywhere.