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Making Room for Mr. Mom

Working fathers are placing more importance on their familial obligations, and companies must react to this societal shift.

Bottom LineWorking fathers are placing more importance on their familial obligations, and companies must react to this societal shift.

In his seminal 1956 book The Organization Man (Simon & Schuster), William H. Whyte described male professionals in almost monastic terms — those “who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vow of organization life.” But a lot has changed since the Organization Man era. Women now make up more than half the workforce, the number of dual-career couples is on the rise, and long-embedded gender roles have transformed as more working fathers seek to share the responsibilities of raising their children.

That said, ample evidence suggests that traditional definitions of gender roles persist, and businesses, for the most part, still expect their employees to remain fully focused on their professional duties despite their parental obligations. However, compared with the abundance of research on the challenges facing working mothers, relatively little attention has been paid to how professional fathers juggle their twin roles as employee and dad — and whether their companies help or hinder their efforts to achieve the right mix.

According to a new study by a team of researchers in Massachusetts, workplaces still have a lot of catching up to do in supporting fathers, and most of the help they do provide comes through unofficial or ad hoc channels, such as a passing conversation in the hallway in which a manager tells an employee it’s fine to knock off early because his child is sick or a spouse has to work late. For the most part, the authors found, new dads still feel inhibited about opening up to their colleagues or supervisors about the stresses of squaring their career with their fatherhood, wary of clashing with the stereotypical view of the “company man.”

The authors conducted in-depth, open-ended interviews with 31 working fathers who answered questions about their careers and personal histories; their goals for both home and work; their spouses’ professional situations; and their experiences and views of being new fathers. They also reflected on how their companies supported or hampered their parenting efforts, and whether becoming fathers had affected their careers.

The participants were selected because they were based in the United States, described themselves as career focused, and had partners who also worked — in other words, they were men who had to balance the evolving societal view of fatherhood against the historic image of a hardworking American breadwinner.

In contrast with other studies that took a one-size-fits-all view of working fathers, this study found that the reality is complex, and that the majority of men who try to balance their identities as dads and working professionals find the challenge anything but easy. The analysis showed that the participants held several different images of themselves as fathers, the most common being financial providers, role models for their families, and partners to their spouses. About one-fourth of the participants also said they strove to nurture their children, the definition that most closely aligns with the type of modern professional dad who wants to transcend the traditional stereotype.

Only four of the 31 participants said they diffused the tensions between their home and work lives by sticking to the traditional image of being a father who brings home the bacon and remains fairly removed from child-rearing activities. Instead, most fathers found themselves dealing with situations like the one described by a man who worked in customer and client relations. “Sometimes if I need to make a deal happen, and it is going to have to be tonight, then I’m going to have to let a couple of things go, and just work on that transaction,” he said. “So I may work for, like, 12 hours that night, and not see my daughter or my wife.” Slightly more than a third of the fathers said their wives took on more of the everyday caregiving tasks for their children, and about half said they tried for an even split.

The study also showed why research on working mothers won’t necessarily provide insight on working fathers. Although much of the research surrounding new mothers finds that they typically strive to compartmentalize their professional and personal lives, this study found that fathers tended to let the two areas spill into each other, further muddying their identity as working dads in an attempt to be all things to all people (or to their company).

Research on working mothers won’t necessarily provide insight on working fathers.

As much as professional obligations play a part, wider social cues still appear to inform how male professionals view their fatherly role. Consistent with previous research in social psychology, the participants in the study emphasized how friends, siblings, and experiences during their own upbringing — such as whether Dad spent a lot of time at home or often worked overtime at the office — influenced their parental outlook.

Only one father in the study said his organization purposely designed a flexible work schedule to accommodate his new parenthood. For the most part, the fathers credited their direct supervisors with informally helping them handle their child-care responsibilities, underscoring the need for managerial training to oversee employees who aim to be both involved parents and high-performing workers. But these ad hoc arrangements aren’t as sustainable as objective guidelines, the authors note.

Perhaps most poignantly, several of the men told the authors after their conversation that this study had been the first real chance they’d had to reflect on and talk about their dual roles as father and employee. At the very least, therefore, companies should provide a formal, structured way for workers to discuss the job-related challenges that accompany fatherhood. Considering that most of the top positions in large firms are held by men — many of whom have families of their own — the impetus for cultural change could very well come from the top, the authors suggest.

Source:The ‘New’ Dad: Navigating Fathering Identity within Organizational Contexts,” by Beth Humberd (University of Massachusetts), Jamie J. Ladge (Northeastern University), and Brad Harrington (Boston College), Journal of Business and Psychology, June 2015, vol. 30, no. 2

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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