Two years ago, 10:30pm. On my way back from City airport, London, after a work trip. My cabby was John. His story changed my view of fatherhood. He’s a proper East Ender, late 40’s. He would have made pro for West Ham until if an injury hadn’t ruined it. We talked about our kids and what it means to be a dad (something of a preoccupation with me). His kids were 21 and 12, boy and girl respectively. Mine are 5 and 8, both boys.
The weekend before was his son’s 21st. He told me about a moment early in the evening when he was sitting with his dad. His son came up, gave him a hug and kiss, told him he loved him then bounded off to the bar.
John turned to his dad and said “Do you remember what you said to me when I was 8?”
Without a pause, the old man said “Yes, you went to hug me and I said ‘no son, men don’t hug, we shake hands’. Biggest mistake of my life.”
John’s dad wasn’t doing what he thought was right, he was doing what he thought was expected of him. What he thought it meant to be a man, because men don’t show affection, men are strong. Men don’t hug. Following an ideal he thought was important cost him and his son a price no one should have to pay. But many do because the ‘traditional’ dad stereotype is very strong.
At home, the trap John’s dad fell into is starting to be sidestepped by many dads. A government survey found that over half of men (57%) thought that being more involved in the baby’s life would be a good thing for their whole family. Of course this doesn’t mean that they do it, but if what I see on the streets every day is anything to go by, dads are stepping up.
The trap is everywhere
But in the workplace, it’s a different story. Far from avoiding the trap, men are falling into it in droves. According to Working Families, Only 4% of eligible couples took Shared Parental Leave in the first quarter of 2016. 39% of fathers felt resentful towards their employer about their work-life balance, and 47% want to downshift into a less stressful job to get a better balance.
As part of my fatherhood side project, Being Dads, I’ve been running workshops for new dads in City firms. Without fail, 25% of a room of 12- 15 dads are thinking about leaving the City because work just doesn’t work for them as a dad. When I ask the dads why the sentiment falls heavily towards the expectations men believe they have to live up to. Just like John’s dad.
So where do the expectations come from? The mainstay of my work is helping organisations to work better. Over many years of this work, I’ve learnt that expectations of behaviour come from the people at the top. And many of those people are men, playing the odds, many of those men will be dads.
What we do is a far more powerful message than what we say. While many firms talk about being supportive of parents, how many actively live by these words, and what can you do about it?
It’s about leadership
If the ‘leaders’ at your company believe that, because they had to sacrifice their family at the altar of their career, so do you, I suggest you get out, quickly.
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If the people at the top are leaders who recognise the world has changed and want things to be different, then there’s hope. But the stats hint that these good intentions aren’t delivering change. If this is the case, then these enlightened old men at the top need to know that their intentions aren’t working, and they’ll need help changing. An opportunity.
Then, of course, there’s what us dads can do about it. Dads of newborns, pre-schoolers, juniors, secondary schoolers and kids who have flown the nest. We’re the men who have the chance to be real leaders because real leadership is about working for what you believe in, especially when it’s hard. We’ve got to back each other on this one, support men who are trying to make work work for the firm and the family, and do it ourselves.
In case you’re worried about how wise this is, a bit of business case can help calm the nerves. A big chunk of working dads are unhappy and many are thinking of leaving. Throw the tech-fuelled talent drain, and the still challenging situation returning mums face, and you’ve got storms of triplet proportions. And having seen friends with twins, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to deal with triplets. Analysts Oxford Economics put the cost of hiring and getting a new recruit up to speed at up to £30k per employee. Put that into your firm’s context and the numbers should be enough to make any senior exec sit up and take notice.
Thankfully we live in a world where this is not an impossible situation. With the tech at our fingertips, it’s possible to work from anywhere. Yet as one dad I spoke to said “You can change the tech, and they have, I’m always on, but I’m still judged on what I’m seen to be doing, rather than what I actually deliver. Changing the culture is a different matter entirely.” If there was ever a cause to stand up and be counted for, having a great career and being the best dad you can be won’t be far off number 1. It’s on us dads.