On Friday 19 June 2020, just before Father’s Day, we held our first ever “Men in IP” event: Men can be parents too. Intended in part as a way for our Women in IP community to reach out to their male allies, we also wanted this discussion to shine some light on how we can stop parenting being sidelined as a “women’s issue” in the future. Our Lead Executive Officer Andrea Brewster OBE, who chaired the event, reports on some of the key outcomes.
Children tucked safely out of sight, a group of Men in IP gathered early on 19 June to talk about “work-life balance and the 21st Century father”. I was lucky enough to be chairing their discussions. It turned out to be a relaxed, candid and supportive opportunity to share experiences and ideas.
As with our recent Women in IP coffee mornings, conversation inevitably centred around the impact of lockdown. We’d decided to tackle three broad questions:
- What have you learned about fatherhood and family during the Covid-19 lockdown?
- How will that affect the way you live and work in the future?
- Will it have helped to make parenting a more gender-neutral issue?
What have you learned about fatherhood and family during lockdown?
Unsurprisingly, the fathers on our call had found both good and bad aspects to lockdown.
On the plus side:
- More time with the children: the chance to enjoy developmental milestones and get to know their personalities, to have fun together, to pursue joint interests or take up new challenges
- The (often rare) chance to enjoy parenting alongside your partner, rather than splitting the childcare to maximise one another’s working hours and ending up with the “ships in the night” problem
- Freedom from the daily commute
- More time for exercise, for example in lieu of the journey to office, nursery or school
- Virtual meetings had proved easier, and more productive, than some might have feared, and people were rapidly acquiring the new communication techniques they needed
On the minus side:
- Parenting is hard work, especially if it has to be juggled with professional work; the days can be long and tiring
- It can be difficult to draw a clear line between “work” and “home” time; children don’t always understand the distinction when you’re still on the premises
- The challenge of shutting out distractions (some said they worked in the garage; others listened to white noise or relaxing background tracks)
- For some, the daily commute provided valuable down-time, a buffer to clear the head between work and home: not everyone was glad to have lost it
It didn’t go unnoticed, of course, that stay/work-at-home parents had been facing many of these problems for years!
- Whereas it used to be possible – and appropriate – to take a back seat in some contexts, the expectation with online meetings seems to be that everyone has to join everything by video, perhaps increasing the risk of “presenteeism” and the associated stress and loss of productivity
- Lockdown has brought additional challenges, different for everyone: the loss of outside support for disabled children, for example, and the stress of looking after them full time at home whilst also trying to work; or battles over home schooling; or trying to support older children whose education or career plans – not to mention social lives – had been thrown in the air at critical points and were struggling with the impact. At times the office might have seemed like an attractive – if unavailable – escape option!
Also seen as a double-edged sword was the increased opportunity (or risk) that had accompanied the virtual interactions of lockdown: bringing your personal life to work and vice versa. Not everyone had felt comfortable about that, for instance being reluctant to show their home environment in background videos. On the plus side, others had had to be forthcoming about the domestic challenges they were facing, and had had great support from their colleagues – sometimes from the CEO down – which had proved a very positive experience and would doubtless have benefits for the organisation’s culture.
How will this affect the way you live and work in the future?
When asked about how the last few weeks would affect their attitudes to working patterns from now on, most of the men on the call said they would go “back” to work (whatever that means) with a different perspective. Many said they would try to seek a better balance, maybe working part-time if they didn’t already, or at least increasing the proportion of time worked at home. The overriding feeling was that the chance to focus more on being a parent had been a positive experience, so long as an appropriate balance could be achieved and clear boundaries established.
People in managerial roles said they would try to be more flexible in response to their team members’ requests, now that we’ve proved people can be just as productive working remotely. Some even felt that “virtual” meetings could be more efficient than face-to-face, particularly in large organisations where travel within or between sites can cost valuable time and energy.
Flexibility, of course, means different things to different people. Trainees might need more time in the office, for example, whilst some people’s personalities or personal circumstances might make them more keen to work outside of their homes. But generally people felt that in future, managers would need to take more account of individual needs, working styles and strengths, hopefully resulting in a more inclusive approach to flexible working options.
I was particularly struck by one person’s suggestion that businesses need to move to a position where instead of having to be in the office, people want to be there, because they’re allowed a different balance between work and home time and can look forward to the good aspects of both.
Will any of this help to make parenting a more gender-neutral issue?
Some of the men on the call talked of understanding employers who had been happy to accommodate their childcare responsibilities. It was clear, though, that on the whole parenting – and the accompanying need for flexible working – were still largely seen as women’s issues. For example:
- Long hours, and full-time commitment, often seem to be equated with masculinity and professional respect
- Men who announce an intention to take more time for parenting may be met with raised eyebrows; comments along the lines of “Oh, that’s very… modern of you!” or “Why on earth would you want to do that?” emphasise that this is still a novelty
- Someone suggested that perhaps men are each other’s own worst enemies in this respect
These comments strike at the heart of the issue of gender-neutral parenting and gender-neutral parental provisions at work. I was glad to hear that most if not all of the men on the call wanted to see it become more normal for men to work part-time in order to be more hands-on parents. Their experiences during lockdown had amplified that expectation.
There was definitely a feeling that leaders need to take the initiative on this, especially male leaders: discussing parenting needs openly; accommodating more flexible, and appropriately tailored, working arrangements; and role modelling a more human approach to work-life balance.
My own thoughts for the future
It was absolutely great to be able to discuss these issues so candidly with a group of fathers. Too often parenting is seen as a woman’s problem. This has to stop. People of all genders can be parents. Lockdown has opened our eyes to a world where parenting and professionalism can sit together more easily, and there’s now genuine hope that for both men and women, a more inclusive workplace awaits.
I know I only spoke to a handful of the UK’s many male IP professionals. But I learned a lot from them – as I hope they did from one another. I ended the call with the feeling that so long as these are the men we work with in the future, we’ll be OK.