Men wanting more time for parenting must demand flexible workplaces

Here are a couple of questions that are likely to elicit completely different answers depending on your gender. Have you ever worked part-time so you could look after the children? Would you ask your boss for more flexible work arrangements so you can do so?

If you have answered “yes” to both those questions, I’m betting you are a woman.

Even in modern, progressive Australia, it is overwhelmingly women who are the stay-at-home child rearers, and it is mainly women who work part-time to accommodate that need. According to figures from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women account for 75 per cent of part-timers and 57 per cent of casual workers in Australia.

Despite decades of gender equality battles, it is still taken for granted in too many homes and workplaces that it will be the women who will stay home, at least for some of the time, to parent particularly infants and young children. The professional careers of those women – their promotions, their income levels and their aspirations – stay on hold while those of their male contemporaries soar.

There are many men – most of us know some – who would love the opportunity to do more stay-at-home parenting. But there are some systemic reasons why many feel that they can’t.

First, the gender pay gap – yes, it’s still there – means that in most cases men earn more than their female partners, and it makes sense that for the duration of early child rearing the one who earns the most should continue to do so uninterrupted.

The other main reason there are more stay-at-home mums than dads is that, sadly, too few workplaces in Australia offer flexible work arrangements and too few men are shouting about it.

So here’s my message to the men of Australia: if you want things to change, you are going to have to speak up and demand it.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency has a campaign running called The Equilibrium Man Challenge. It may be an awkward title, but the aim is important. With several big corporates already on board – including Telstra, Mirvac and Corrs Chambers Westgarth – the program is trying to encourage more companies to introduce flexible work arrangements, particularly for male employees. It makes the firm a more attractive place to work and more likely to keep and attract talented employees looking for better work conditions.

A series of video interviews on the agency’s website sums up the situation and underscores the need for change. Energy consultant and mother Nives, for example, says of her own experience: “We pretty much started out as equals in terms of career, but with children coming along his career has taken off, my career not so much.”

And this from Laura, who works in international development: “My husband’s job takes priority. I find that really difficult because my job is really important to me. I guess it comes down to the fact that my partner earns more than I do.”

It’s not all downbeat. Some of the videos showcase examples of workplaces where flexible arrangements are operating well for men, who grasp the opportunity and proudly speak about it. They’re keen to make it work long term, and put in great effort to show the boss that it can. Their motto might be summed up as, Workplace happy, family happy.

But the good examples are too few. Construction foreman Adrian, 31, says in another of the videos: “I hardly saw my father growing up.” His dad, Gary, was a construction worker from 6.30am to 8.30pm. Gary knows the cost. “I never saw Adrian play football,” he says. “I never saw my daughter play netball, never saw one game.” Adrian works for Mirvac, which has adopted a flexi plan. He’s now working three days a week and is determined he won’t miss out on seeing those precious life moments with his young daughter.

What we need now are more companies, more businesses, more bosses and even more government agencies to get with the times and provide more flexible work options for the growing number of men who want to spend more time parenting their young children. Picking up the kids from school, being home to cook dinner, attending their child’s sports day or school play, or helping with the homework or bath time.

And men, if you want more of this then it’s up to you to start the conversation with your boss, with your workmates and with your peers. The more men who speak up and ask for flexible workplaces, the sooner it will become the norm.

What are you waiting for, boys?

Josephine Cafagna is a writer and communications consultant.

This article was published in The Sunday Age on 5 July 2015

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