I read an article a few days ago which picked up on the recurring debate as to whether or not women can “have it all” – a career, family, friends, own interests and activities etc. As I read the article I wondered why this discussion almost never pertains to men. At the heart of this issue, in my opinion, is that men are still not perceived by society and perhaps themselves as primary or equal partner carers for their children. It is still relatively uncommon for a man with young children to be a primary carer and fathers are typically in full-time employment in their childrens' pre-school years.
Several years ago as a fledgling Dad I was bemused to have several people seem surprised that I was out alone with my baby, without his Mum. “Babysitting this morning are you?” was a question I was asked on several occasions. "Parenting", I would reply. I would also receive praise from well intentioned strangers for performing the most basic of parenting tasks - feedback which a mother would never receive as it is considered by society to be her role.
The “having it all” conversation is almost always had both by and about women. Women are making decisions and trade-offs about the best balance for them and their family with respect to caring for children and paid employment in particular, while men typically default to the norm of being in full-time paid employment.
Often this balancing act results in women with young children choosing to work part-time. Anecdotally, in many such instances, despite also being in paid employment it is the female partner who remains the primary carer - the one who gets up at night to crying children, the parent dropping off and picking up from child care and the parent who needs to take a day off work to care for an ill child.
Reduced participation in the workforce invariably contributes to aspects which disadvantage women in the labour market – the gender pay gap and under-representation at Executive and Board levels in business. Societal norms are driving systemic disadvantage for women and ultimately stifling economic growth due to an under-utilisation of female talent.
I believe there are some self imposed limits by men who believe they can't or shouldn't access flexible working arrangements and also a cultural element in some workplaces where it is not as readily accepted or encouraged that a man should work flexibly. Also, some professions and industries which have higher male representation do not provide flexible working arrangements as readily as professions and industries with a high proportion of female employees.
We will know that society has progressed when we are debating how women and men can have it all. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe it is possible to “have it all”. We all need to choose the best balance for our lives and with only a finite number of hours in any given week there are trade-offs to make.
Men are making trade-offs too. Trading off time raising children for time in paid employment. I wonder though, if this trade-off is a conscious choice or something that men default to without fully exploring other possibilities.
Families in all their different forms should always make decisions about work, family etc that work best for them. However, until men take more of a role as equal partner carers for their children women will continue to grapple the most with balancing paid employment and family responsibilities, while men may look back at that short window of time when their children were young and regret what they missed out on.
As a husband and Dad to two boys under school age I needed to step up more too. I am so glad that I made some changes ...