Employers should set targets for men in flexible work & help dads manage the juggle: Libby Lyons

This article was written by Libby Lyons, Director of WGEA, and was originally published in Women's Agenda

Targets for flexible work as well as other opportunities to help dads balance caring responsibilities with work could be a game changer, writes Libby Lyons. 

When we talk about men and women balancing work and caring, it can be all too easy to frame the discussion in adversarial absolutes. 

Libby Lyons WGEA Director

For instance, when we discuss the gender pay gap and inequality in the workplace and at home, some might take the easy option of saying it is mainly due to men focusing on their careers and not “pulling their weight” at home. But we will not solve this issue by finger-pointing and blaming men for what are essentially the cultural norms under which we live and work.

The issue of gender inequality is far more complex than this. It is not an issue of men versus women. If we are serious about addressing gender inequality, we also have to re-examine the conversation around men, fathers and caring responsibilities.

Over the last few decades, men’s and women’s roles at work and in the home have changed substantially. The male breadwinner model is giving way to the dual-earner model.

Women were once largely confined to household and caring duties. Today, 64% of all families have both partners employed and female workforce participation is at an all-time high.

As a result, men’s experiences of work and family have also changed, as have their attitudes about caring work.

Many men are now learning how to juggle parenting with careers – something women have grappled with for years. These men now want to take on their fair share of caring work and, in doing so, support their partners to achieve their own career goals. Men want to be present fathers and partners as well as loyal and engaged workers.

Sadly, for many men, these dreams of work/life balance are out of reach. This is due, in large part, to the difficulties men face in accessing flexible working arrangements.

Our data tells us that 70% of workplaces have a formal policy and strategy in place to support flexible working arrangements for employees, yet less than 2% have set targets for men’s engagement in flexible work.

Where workplace cultures determine that flexible work exists only for women, it makes it extraordinarily difficult for men to access flexible work. Research from Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women shows that men are twice as likely as women to have their request to work flexibly rejected.

Even if flexible working is utilised by men, many men who work flexibly, especially to accommodate caring responsibilities, are more likely to suffer discrimination, and be perceived as less dedicated to their work.

Data from the Diversity Council Australia-Suncorp Inclusion@Work Index shows that male carers are more likely to report having personally experienced discrimination at work in the past year (25%) than male non-carers (14%).

An Australian Human Rights Commission report found that 27% of fathers and male partners experience discrimination in the workplace related to parental leave and flexible working arrangements upon returning to work.

We know that when men work flexibly, they are able to increase their engagement in caregiving and in the household. This facilitates women’s employment and supports gender equality at work.

But what is not often discussed is the fact that when men have greater control over their working lives, they are healthier and happier.

Men who work flexibly experience less stress and burnout, and have a higher sense of purpose and wellbeing.

Beyond Blue found that workplace pressures were a contributing risk factor for high rates of depression among Australia men. Increased job control and access to flexible work is linked to better mental health outcomes among employees.

This is particularly important when considering how we can improve mental health outcomes in male-dominated industries such as construction, where male employees report higher levels of mental illness and work patterns tend to be more rigid and inflexible.

So what can be done to improve access to flexible work for Australian men?

Flexible work and careers need to be promoted as legitimate and available to all employees. We have to send the message to all employees in our workplaces that flexible work is not solely the domain of mothers with young children.

Employers must normalise flexible working arrangements at every level and for any reason – not just for caring work. They should also look to set targets for engaging men in flexible work, and update their policies to ensure flexible work is readily available.

It is incumbent upon managers and leaders within an organisation to foster an organisational culture that is supportive of flexible work for men. And we are all responsible for calling out discrimination and poor behaviour towards men who are working flexibly.

Let’s change the conversation around men and flexible work. Engaging more men in flexible work is not just the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do. Everyone benefits.