Once only women got penalised for taking time out to look after children
nce it was simple. Men worked and most women stayed at home to raise the children. But as more women entered employment, balancing family and work life became a prime aspiration of modern mothers. An entire publishing industry sprang up, seemingly overnight, telling women how they could strike that balance.
The reality, though, was very different. Inflexible employers, rising living costs and a society that penalised women financially for taking time out to have children led to what experts call the “motherhood penalty”. And, as the Fawcett Society explains, it meant women were “more likely to work part-time, to be in low-skilled jobs and [make up] two-thirds of the low-paid”.
Now, a rising number of fathers are finding out what their partners knew for decades: you really can’t have it all.
Fathers’ involvement with their children has grown significantly in just a few decades. The average man’s input into childcare rose from less than 15 minutes a day in the mid-1970s to three hours each weekday by the late 1990s. At the same time, they have been cutting back on time spent at the coalface: although British men still work some of the longest hours in Europe, their average working week fell from 47 hours in 2001 to 45 in 2011.
There has also been a significant change in the proportion of fathers working 48 hours or more. In 2001, 40% of UK fathers worked at least 48 hours; this had declined to 31% by 2013.
However, last week’s 2017 Modern Families Index – the largest survey of its kind, which is published by work-life charity Working Families and nursery provider Bright Horizons – suggests that, despite these changes, there is now a real risk of a “fatherhood penalty” emerging.
The survey confirms what many already know: that while men are still paid better than women, a growing number believe chasing a career means they miss out on a decent family life.
Half of the fathers interviewed for the survey of 2,750 people said balancing work and family was increasingly a source of stress. A third said they regularly felt burned out and one in five said they were always doing extra hours in the evening or weekends so they could spend some time with their children during their waking hours.
Younger fathers seem particularly unhappy with their lot. “More than half of millennial fathers want to shift to a less stressful job because they find it difficult to balance work and family life,” said Maria Miller MP, chairwoman of the Commons women and equalities select committee, which has launched an inquiry into the issue. “We want to understand better how employers can be supporting fathers in the workplace, as well as mums.”
Sarah Jackson, chief executive of Working Families, said she had noticed the change coming for several years. “It’s become more and more evident in the surveys that we’ve done. Millennial fathers have different expectations from previous generations. They are more likely to be dropping their children off at nursery than millennial mothers. These younger fathers have aspirations of what fatherhood looks like. For them, there is equality at home, and both they and their partners work.”
But there is a price to pay for this new equality. “With more and more couples working full-time, there is a problem of burnout,” Jackson said. “They have lack of time with each other, and with their kids.”
Of those surveyed, just under half (48%) were in households where both parents worked full-time. For millennial couples, this increased to 52%. Surviving on one income, as their parents did, is just not possible for many today.
James Willshire, 37, a married father of two, works in the finance department at Royal Holloway, University of London, and counts himself lucky: his employer offers an onsite nursery. But he and his wife need their joint income to make things work. “It’s not an option for my wife not to work,” said Willshire. “For me, it would be lovely to have a part-time job but I’d be concerned about how I was going to pay the mortgage.”
Willshire has thought of cutting his hours but, living in an expensive part of the country, it’s an unrealistic prospect. “The high cost of housing round here drives most other things,” he says. “If you want to own your home and pay a mortgage, you’ve got to be in work.”
Institutionalised working patterns have to change, said Miller. “We’ve got to challenge the way the workplace is shaped, so it’s modernised and can accommodate today’s families. We shouldn’t be in a situation where family life suffers because of working practices first set out in the early part of the last century.”
Conventional practices can be detrimental to companies as well as employees. Businesses that required workers to clock in and out were rigid in their hours, promoted presenteeism (overwork) and opposed home working and part-time work, Jackson argued.
“We’re lazy about work in the UK,” she said. “We think jobs are Lego-brick shaped, nine to five, but for any business it’s much more sensible to think about the outputs they’re trying to achieve.”
Miller said she hoped her committee’s inquiry would put pressure on the government to ensure that one day every job advertised would have to state that the employer was open to flexible working. “Good employers really get this,” she said. “They realise that if they do this, they have very loyal employees, because they’re offering something people can’t find everywhere.”
The government’s solution so far has been to extend free nursery provision. At present, all three- and four-year-olds are entitled to up to 15 hours of free childcare a week for up to 38 weeks a year. From September, this will rise to 30 hours for up to 38 weeks a year.
But Miller believes there now needs to be a cultural revolution. Parental leave, introduced 18 months ago, means fathers can share the time off work after the birth of a child with their partners. “But the uptake is less than 5% of those eligible,” Miller said.
“When dads are asked why that is, they say it’s because they feel it will be frowned upon in their workplace, that people will assume that they’re not committed, and that it could blight their careers.”
The 50% of the population who have been dealing with this problem for decades may simply shrug and say, “Welcome to the club.” As Miller noted: “Many woman would listen to this and say that’s the problem women have always faced.” But the fact that millennial men are now being confronted by the issue could be an opportunity to effect real change.
“You’ve had women fighting for what they want for decades but at the same time accepting enormous compromises,” Jackson said. “If you look at the way the workplace has changed, it’s all been done by women. But if the current generation of young men takes their beliefs with them into positions of leadership, we’ll inevitably see change.”
For a large number of men, it seems, the change cannot come soon enough. Many interviewed for the survey said that their workplace did not support aspirations for a better work-life balance. Nearly a fifth said their employer was, at best, unsympathetic about their childcare issues. Almost half of them said they had lied or bent the truth to their employer about family related responsibilities.
Jackson said the best way of bringing about a change in thinking would be to go further with paternity leave. “I’d like fathers to have an independent right to a period of paid leave in the first year of their child’s life,” she said. “What we know is that the more time a father is able to spend with their child in their first year, the more engaged he’ll be as that child grows up. It would give young fathers the confidence to speak out at work about what they need for a family life. You’ve got to give them the opportunity to root themselves in that family right from the start.”