Forward thinking for fathers

Ensuring flexible working conditions for fathers is crucial for social mobility, argues Lucy Powell

The old saying goes that behind every successful man was a good woman. Now though, the inverse is often true. Behind most successful working mums is a dad doing their share and an extended family helping to manage the pressure of work and care.

Yet dads face steep barriers when they want to change their working patterns or reduce their hours to play a full role at home. Indeed, when I was talking to my own husband about sharing parental leave after the birth of my son a few years ago his first reaction was to question how this would go down at work – and that was in the public sector. Too many dads are put off by cultural barriers before they even ask the question.

The expectation around the kitchen table and the board room table is that its the woman who takes time off. Whilst we continue to campaign to close the gender pay gap and for more affordable and better quality childcare in reality, we will never eliminate the gap and provide equal opportunity for women until we solve the dilemmas facing dads who want to play their part.

That’s why it is welcome that the women and equalities select committee is undertaking an investigation into the role of fathers in the workplace.

New research out just this week from Working Families underlines the challenges fathers face. Nearly half of working fathers would like a less stressful job so they can spend more time caring for their children and a third would take a pay cut to achieve a better work life balance.

Many dads fear their career will suffer if they take time out for family; worse yet, they fear discussing it will make them seem uncommitted to their job. 41 per cent of parents said they had lied to their employer about childcare and family life affecting their job and closer to half said they felt uncomfortable discussing their family life with their employer. There is an unacceptable stigma associated with dads taking time out to care.

Whilst shared parental leave reforms are welcome less than 10 per cent of new fathers exceed their statutory two weeks leave.  We haven’t developed a culture in which fathers routinely take parental leave, with only 40 per cent saying that shared parental leave was encouraged by their employer. We need to look again at extending dads protected paternity time to boost take up and challenge the myth that fathers work whilst mothers care. As Labour promised at the last election, parental leave should also be more generous so families don’t take a hit when parents share their leave.

Government needs to be much more proactive in championing the rights of fathers, and in encouraging good practice to be shared amongst employers. There also needs to be more of an onus on companies to encourage flexible working. Some employers see flexible working as a women-only right, while some men are put off by a lack of examples amongst their colleagues which leads dads to think that flexible working isn’t an option for them.

Family friendly is good for the economy and good for business. Working mums and dads are some of the hardest working, most productive employees. If we are to tackle the social mobility crisis, and extend opportunity for all Labour must meet the aspirations of working families today.

Dads are often forgotten in debates about improving family policy. We must work with them to put dad-friendly at the heart of family friendly if we are to tackle the productivity gap and build a successful economy that works for everyone.

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Lucy Powell is member of parliament for Manchester Withington. She tweets at @LucyMPowell

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