July 3, 2013

Q&A, Brad Harrington, executive director, Boston College Center for Work & Family

Posted by: in North America

Our recent report “The State of Men” touches on the changing definition of fatherhood as men get more engaged with child-rearing. We discussed this trend with Brad Harrington, a professor at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management and head of its Center for Work & Family, which helps employers improve the lives of working people and their families. Before his arrival at Boston College, Harrington spent two decades as a Hewlett-Packard executive in the U.S. and Europe. For the last four years, he has served as lead author on annual studies around “The New Dad.” The 2013 study, released last month, challenges both fathers and organizations to better understand and address men’s work-life challenges. He talked to us about what those challenges are and what his research shows about fathers’ evolving attitudes and behaviors.

The role of the dad has evolved quite a bit since the 20th century. Can you summarize what that evolution has been?

This is all a direct result of women’s changing role in the workplace. That is what has catalyzed the greater engagement and involvement of men on the home front. What you’ve seen is basically a doubling of the amount of time they spend with their children over the last few decades, a tripling of the amount of time they spend on domestic tasks.

Since the turn of this century, you’ve seen a major increase in the number of stay-at-home dads. Although the number is very low, it’s doubled over the past 10 years. And certainly the number of fathers that are reported to be primary caregivers in the family has increased dramatically, although that number is not easy to track.

We had done a study two years ago, and we asked fathers about their attitudes. One question was, “If your wife made enough money for you to be a stay-at-home parent, would you consider doing that?” And we were very surprised that 53 percent of the fathers said yes. That suggests less a behavioral change and more an attitudinal shift in terms of how men see caregiving and the importance and the centrality of that role in men’s lives. It might have been seen as not only an unusual thing to do but even an unusual thing to say you would consider doing, say, 20 years ago.

Do you see significant differences between men from different socioeconomic levels?

One of my colleagues sort of summarized it by saying that over the years white-collar men have learned to talk the talk, but blue-collar men have always walked the walk when it came to actually being a hands-on parent. In other words, there’s a lot of blue-collar fathers who split shifts with their wives, where one would work in the day and one would work in the evening in order to cover caregiving for their children. They have always split more responsibilities for the operational, hands-on kinds of things children need, because they haven’t always been able to afford the kind of support systems that white-collar people have.

Although that may not be something that has been widely talked about, the belief is that socioeconomically there really isn’t a big difference between white-collar and blue-collar dads these days, even though white-collar dads may have the rhetoric.

What about differences you see in other areas of the world?

There are certain parts of Europe, specifically in the Nordic countries, where fathers are heavily encouraged, through incentives from the government, to take paternity leave. What’s happened in countries like Norway and Sweden is they’ve implemented a “use it or lose it” policy on paternity leave. The result—and they’ve been doing this for well over 20 years—has been that the number of fathers who spend somewhere between a few weeks and three months at home with their children has increased dramatically, to somewhere in the range of about 85 percent to 90 percent of fathers who actually take that leave.

The belief is that [taking paternity leave] has a long-term impact on the way fathers care for their children, not only in that intensive period of caregiving but subsequent to that. That’s one of the things that obviously we lack in the U.S. One of the things that was disappointing when we looked at our study was that 76 percent of the fathers we surveyed took a week off or less from their job following the birth of their most recent child, 96 percent took two weeks or less off, and 16 percent took no time off.

Some new fathers argue they’re not really needed full-time in those first few weeks.

The fact that men [who don’t take leave] never have that sort of emergent experience of parenting, and often don’t have an opportunity to fly solo when it comes to hands-on caregiving, may always cause men to be supporting actors as far as caregiving is concerned. Not having, or not taking, the opportunity to spend full time with their children for some period, oftentimes it immediately puts the woman on the track of being the primary caregiver and keeps the man in that secondary role.

Do you think there’s a cultural bias against men taking paternity leave, and perhaps employers don’t exactly encourage it either?

The norm, obviously, has always been that the woman would be the one who would take the time off, because of the biological factors involved. It’s going to take some countervailing way to get men to proactively make the choice to take that time off. In lieu of something like what the Nordic countries are doing, it’s going to be hard for our culture to change. Part of that may be reluctance on the part of men, part of it may be the biological issue, part of it may be that corporations don’t generally expect men to take much time off for their children. Even the most progressive employers we work with, if they do have paternity leave, it’s typically a week or two in terms of paid leave.

Have businesses in general been slow to accommodate dads in the same way that many try to accommodate moms if they need to leave early or duck out in the middle of the day for child care reasons?

Their policies are, for the most part, gender-neutral, but the mindset within corporations seems to be still somewhat fixed in a slightly outdated model of the role of fathers. I do think the next generations of dads, the guys in their 20s and 30s—with wives with very responsible jobs who may very likely earn as much or more than they do—that generation probably feels that their employer may be out of sync with them in terms of what their life experience is like when they leave the workplace on any given day.

Do you see dads as full co-parents at this point, or do you think there’s a way to go before there’s full parity between parents?

There’s a way to go. If you look at the macro numbers across the United States, I think fathers work, on average, something like a 40-hour week. If you look at mothers, they work about a 22-hour week, and that would include mothers who work full-time, mothers who work part-time and mothers who make the choice not to work at all. That 18-hour difference, in terms of paid time in the office, compares very closely with the difference in terms of the greater number of hours women invest in domestic tasks and in caregiving.

Given just those simple dynamics and those numbers, you aren’t going to really see equity until that changes. I do think it is changing, but it hasn’t changed fully yet.

In what ways do you see the idea of co-parenting changing at the moment?

You see attitudinal differences. We asked, “How do you think caregiving should be divided between you and your spouse?” And we had 66 percent of the fathers say it should be divided 50/50. Then we asked, “How is caregiving divided between you and your spouse?” and only 30 percent of the fathers said it was divided 50/50. The others said, “My spouse does more than I do.” We’re seeing attitudes change, but still, the numbers don’t quite gel yet. There’s always a lag between changes in attitudes and changes in real behavior.

Do you see differences in the type of child care that men typically provide and what mothers typically take on?

In our fatherhood report, one of the questions was, “Which of these best defines the most important role you play as a father?” We laid out six things they could choose from: providing for my family financially, being a good coach/role model, listening to and supporting my children, providing love and care, being a disciplinarian, or providing hands-on support for the kids. The positive thing was that being a financial provider was No. 4 or 5, depending on whether we asked them to rate it or rank it. And so you said, “Wow, things have changed.” You look at what were the things they listed 1, 2 and 3, and it was “being present in my child’s life,” “listening and providing some emotional support” and so forth.

We said, “Well, that’s good news. They’ve really changed in terms of their thinking about what equates to being a good dad.” Then we asked, “What came out dead last?” and it was providing hands-on child care. We didn’t define what that meant, but you would assume things like feeding the kids, putting them to bed, changing the diapers, bathing, those kinds of things, especially for dads with young children.

I think there certainly is a different attitude about “father doesn’t equal just somebody who provides”—puts food on the table, from a financial perspective, and then is hands-off—it obviously involves a lot of psychological and emotional support for the children. But at the same time, of the things they looked at, the thing that came out last was the more hands-on aspects of fatherhood.

When it comes to hands-on, it seems like fathers veer toward the more fun tasks?

That’s been the stereotype, and there’s some research to back this up, that the father is the fun parent, the one who gets to take the kids to the movies and coaches them in sports, who does recreational activities with them. And then the mother is more involved in the mundane, day-to-day care and feeding kinds of things.

With this freedom we have today to depart from traditional roles, do you think that’s freeing for men or stress-provoking?

I think it’s a little of both. Ultimately it’s more freeing, but men’s roles are not as simple as they once were in terms of saying, “Look, I know what my primary role is. I know what it is that’s expected of me in the family.” There has been quite a bit of research from the Pew group as well as the Families and Work Institute that says men feel more stressed out and more conflicted in their roles around work and family than they did in the past.

I think part of that stress has to do with less clear expectations and maybe a broader array of expectations around what men do. There’s also some evidence to say that people think men aren’t doing as good a job as their fathers did. They are certainly more hands-on than their fathers were. But the range of expectations is so much broader—and in some ways, especially for white-collar workers, the demands are greater. People are on the job 24/7, they travel more, they have jobs that involve more global work than was once the case, that kind of thing. There’s more demands that draw parents, or dads especially, too, away from home, even during times when you would think it’s not their standard work hours.

I do think that men are in a period of shifting, and on one level they are embracing the opportunity to be more actively engaged with their children, but they’re also still a bit confused about, What is really expected of me?

What are some of men’s biggest insecurities these days?

Given the economy and given the downsizing that occurred a couple of years ago and which we’ve never really been able to fully rebound from, one of the things they struggle with a lot is security around being a good provider. The other thing is, there’s a lot of books and articles about a women’s nation and “the end of men” and the decline of men in America, and that kind of thing. I do think men probably struggle a bit with that as well, in terms of their less exemplary performance both in education and the workplace, and the worry that the world is really shifting in a way that may not play to their strengths. Young men are not doing as well academically as their female counterparts, and that may lead to deterioration of opportunities.

When you think about the blue-collar world and you think about all the jobs that were historically steppingstones for men with a high school education to do well, so many of those jobs have been outsourced or automated that I think there’s also a great deal of insecurity there.

At the same time, though, does it seem like less of men’s identity is focused around their work than it used to be?

I think less, but it’s still the expectation that men will be providers. It’s still a strong expectation societally. When we did the at-home dad study in 2012, a lot of fathers expressed the fact that even though people saw that they were going to do a good job raising the child, or children, even though they saw that the support they were providing to their wife’s career was significant, and it was enabling their wives—who are oftentimes better educated and in jobs that have greater earnings potential—to do this, there was almost always an underlying feeling that “What you’re doing is temporary, and when are you going to get back to work?”

That was even true when these men were relatively low-paid social workers or teachers and were married to business executives or lawyers or doctors. The expectation was, staying home with the children and not contributing to the financial well-being of the family is not what men do.

As men’s role in the household evolves, and as you mention, a lot of women are more educated than their partners, how do you think the relationship between men and women is changing?

It seems like it’s changing toward a situation where there is greater gender equity. Obviously men are the more powerful gender when it comes to institutional power, and if you look at institutions, whether it be in higher education or health care or government or business or the legal profession, across the board, men are generally the dominant players in the power positions. The question then becomes, does that power feel like it’s translated into men being more powerful in the home, men being more powerful personally, in their life outside of work and that kind of thing? That’s always been a bit more up for debate.

Warren Farrell wrote a book a while ago called The Myth of Male Power, and what he tries to present is the case that if men are so powerful, why is it that men are very likely to die with five years less of a lifespan than women, that men have a much higher incidence of heart disease and even higher incidence of cancer than women, that men are something like seven times more likely to commit suicide, men are incarcerated at a rate 14 times more than women are, and so forth. So he tries to dispel the idea that with institutional power comes personal power and asks the question, Do men feel less powerful in their life outside of work than their female counterparts do? His notions are somewhat controversial.

At the highest institutional levels men do seem to still possess those most powerful positions, and much or most of that comes down to the issue of women’s interrupted career paths. But the more men take on roles like at-home dads, like primary caregiver, the more likely it is that we will really see equity in the home. That would then obviously have a knock-on effect for more equity in institutions.

Although I must say, if you look at the information over the last decade or so, it’s interesting how little has changed in terms of the percentage of women in top positions, certainly in corporate America. If I’m not mistaken, I think in 2002 among Fortune 100 companies, about 3.5 percent were run by women, and then I think in 2012 the number’s almost the same, it hasn’t changed dramatically.

At the same time, so many other things have changed.

There definitely has been great progress for women over the last decade, but it seems like in the last 10 years it hasn’t changed the people who make it to the top. But the people who make it to the top in organizations like that tend to be very, very work-centric and work really long hours. They’re willing to take transfers, they’re willing to travel at the drop of a hat. They’re willing to do what it takes in order to get there, and sometimes for women that’s much more difficult than it is for men, because of their family responsibilities.

As men’s roles change, do you see advertising adjusting its portrayal of men?

We did a research report for Unilever’s Dove Men+Care. Their ads, if you’ve seen them, present a very reasonable image of men. It’s not your typical man-as-Neanderthal kind of ad. It paints a very different picture, and obviously that’s partly because they’re trying to get men to think it’s OK to care about their skin care and grooming and all of those kinds of things. But when we looked at the research around how men are portrayed in the media, and especially in advertising, it’s only really very recently that men’s portrayal has started to become a softer, more well-rounded definition of what men do.

There was one study we cited that was done by two marketing professors who looked specifically at advertising during sports events. The percentage of times that the father was involved with his children in a caregiving role was less than 1 percent, but the percentage of advertisements where men were involved in perpetrating violence was like 12 percent, and the amount of times that men were drinking beer or portrayed as incompetent or inept in the household was also much, much higher than the amount of time—they said the only time fathers were shown with their families was in the context of food. They were taking their kids out to a fast food restaurant or something like that.

We’ve still got a ways to go before the general population and the media catch up with this more balanced view of men. I think media has an important role to play in terms of helping to change public perceptions, based on the data that suggests that men are valuing time with their children, that they’re being more engaged with their kids, that they aspire to be more hands-on parents and so forth. Like there is in corporate America, there is still a bit of a disconnect or a time lag on the part of the media in terms of their portrayal of men in a parenting role.

I think we’re starting to see it changing. There’s one commercial for Dove Men+Care with Dwayne Wade the basketball player, and he’s just playing with his kids. It’s a very sweet image of these athletes as fathers.

Right, and that’s just coming to the surface more now. I think a lot of people see that as very welcome news, because the past portrayals have been, Mom left Dad home with the kids; she comes back from shopping—which is also obviously such a stereotype—and the house is in complete chaos, and the diapers haven’t been changed, the man’s been staring at the television the entire time. That’s finally starting to change.

When we did the study for Unilever, at the end they said, “Do you guys have any advice for us?” And we said, “Yeah, keep doing what you’re doing.” Jay Bilas helping his son figure out how to tie a bowtie for the prom, Shaq with his mom—you start to see these more balanced and more gentle portrayals of men. I think by and large that’s been welcomed by both genders.

Looking ahead, what direction do you think we’re heading—just slowly getting toward greater equality in the household?

As the financial and professional opportunities for women continue to improve, then men need to continue to respond to that. The men who have gotten more actively engaged with their children have found that there’s tremendous rewards there that their dads might not have had as much opportunity to experience. I don’t think we’ll be at 50/50 soon. I don’t think it may ever be quite equal, but I certainly think we are moving toward a model where men and women see themselves as partners in this process and where both parents are going to want and need to play a much more active role in the raising of their children.

I think the need to do that is really obvious, given that 40 years ago the vast majority of American families were two-parent households, and one of the parents was home full time. The nature of families is changing, the percentage of single-parent households is changing. As a result of all those things, you’re going to continue to see men play a more and more active role in their kids’ lives.

We decided to do our first study in 2010, and we did a very small qualitative study with about 33 new fathers, trying to get what their experience was like. When we released that report, we thought we’d get a modest level of interest. What we found was, the hunger and the desire to learn more about this was just tremendous. That’s what prompted us to continue doing these annual reports on men and fathers, and it’s been an area that people are curious about, but it’s been very under-researched over the last 20 or 30 years.

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