The day my twin sons were born was the happiest of my life. There is one thing I regret, though: the conference call I was wrapping up with my executive team as I raced through the hospital doors.
I wish I could take that call back. But in that whirlwind moment, coupled with my happiness was the immense weight of expectation. As a CEO, I felt an external responsibility to be available. No matter what.
My always-on work ethos didn’t stop there. Instead of taking all of the paid paternity leave that my company, IAC, generously offered, I took one week … stretched out over the course of a few weeks. But even during my time at home – thrown into the elation, novelty, and sleeplessness (did I mention they were twins?) of new parenthood – I kept working. I took phone calls and answered emails. I looked at spreadsheets and made decisions. Business doesn’t stop, so neither can I, I told myself. Hundreds of people at work are depending on me. I can’t let them down. I wouldn’t allow myself to fully disconnect, not even for one week!
This is a common problem among working dads, especially senior leaders and managers. Even while employers are increasingly offering paid paternity leave benefits (the Society for Human Resource Management found that 30% of companies offered these benefits in 2019, up from 21% in 2016), most new dads take significantly less time than their benefit allows. Of the fathers who do take paid leave (if it’s offered), 70% return to work in 10 days or less, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. A key reason why? Unsupportive leadership. In a 2019 study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family, 55% of men said they didn’t feel extremely supported by senior management in their decision to take paternity leave.
My boys are 5 now, and my partner and I are more worried about them starting kindergarten than sleepless nights. And it’s taken introspection and experience as both a father and a leader to admit a hard truth: By not taking all my paternity leave — and working while I should have been “off” — I was letting my sons down as their dad and my partner down as a co-parent. And, through my example as a leader, I was letting down the other parents at my company.
Again, the problem wasn’t my paternity benefits — my company had the right policies in place. The problem was the disconnect between written policy and actual culture. I was contributing to a norm that company comes first and being a dad comes second. When I took that call on the day of my sons’ birth, I was unwittingly sending a message to other dads at my office that they’d be stigmatized if they didn’t do the same. I was communicating that they’d be marginalized in their career advancement and perceived as being less committed to their job if they show commitment as a parent.
Dad-unfriendly work cultures fester in other insidious ways. Male leaders and managers will often hide their parenting responsibilities from their teams or not take advantage of flexible work arrangements available to them to project the “ideal worker” image. Other working dads are pressured to follow that behavior. Care.com conducted a survey during the summer of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic that found that 51% of working dads sometimes hide their child care concerns because they worry their employer or colleagues won’t understand.
These behaviors perpetuate unhealthy and, frankly, unrealistic expectations for working dads — and breed a culture that’s shrouded in lies and built on burnout.
What happens when company culture supports working dads?
A dad-friendly culture has a halo effect that benefits working mothers, too — and the positive effects reverberate throughout the organization.
Furthering gender equality
Historically, the false assumption has been that men don’t need to worry about child care — that’s what moms are for. So, when men enter senior leadership positions, they often fail to make caregiving a priority inside their organization because balancing parenting and work hasn’t been an issue for their careers.
It’s certainly been a huge issue for women’s careers, though. This has been confirmed by numerous studies, including the 2020 Women in the Workplace Report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company, which surveyed more than 300 companies and more than 40,000 employees from the entry level to the C-suite. Not only are mothers doing more work at home than fathers, but they are also more than twice as likely as fathers to worry that they’re being judged more harshly at work because of their caregiving obligations at home. They’re also far less comfortable than fathers at sharing their work-life challenges with colleagues or even the fact that they are parents at all.
The Covid-19 pandemic amplified this reality and made things worse. With child care centers closed and schools going virtual or hybrid, women have taken on even more child care work at home. And they’re dropping out of the workforce as a result, particularly those in senior leadership and Black women. This is erasing decades of progress towards gender equality. As of September 2020, the percentage of women participating in the U.S. workforce dropped to 55.6%, down from a peak of 60.3% in April 2000.
The only way to achieve gender equality at work is to embolden male employees and give them the support they need at work so they can be more involved at home — while allowing their partners to work, too.
Attracting and retaining talented working parents
Business leaders who don’t support working fathers risk losing them to companies that do. Nearly 70% of working dads say they would change jobs to spend more time with their kids, according to a 2018 study by Promundo and Dove Men + Care.
Retaining talented parents starts by understanding, talking, and listening to them. Get their feedback through surveys to uncover their struggles. Use employee resource groups to have open, honest communication. Consider joining one yourself and participate on equal footing.
Working parents also need to feel encouraged to face their fears and have honest conversations with management, however uncomfortable, about what they need. In these conversations, you may discover that one-size-fits-all parental benefits aren’t always helpful and that parents need more tailored options.
Research has shown that successful leaders adopt a growth and learning mindset, both for themselves and for the business. Adopt this same thinking about your working parent workforce. Care about them as much as you do your next product launch or your quarterly earnings.
Committing to the culture
Before I accepted my role as CEO of Care.com, I committed to a new work-life philosophy: I was a dad first, and to be a great leader, I needed to bring my authentic self to work. I made it clear to my new leadership team and employees that I expected them to adopt the same philosophy. The mission of Care.com is to help families balance their lives and work while caring for all they love. We couldn’t as a company deliver on that mission if we didn’t embody it ourselves.
As CEO, it started with me, but it takes leaders and managers throughout any organization to set the right example for our employees. We must be cognizant of the attitudes and behaviors that compound to create a stressful culture for working parents. During my week of leave, I’d often get asked by colleagues to have a quick call …“just 5 minutes.” I felt the obligation to say yes — and, of course, that call turned into several “quick” 5-minute calls. If leaders and managers don’t draw boundaries, then nobody else in the company will, either.
So, as a leader, be vulnerable, honest, and empathetic about your life as a parent. Encourage other dads in the company to do the same. Ensure that all the parents at your organization have access to great benefits like paid leave, backup care, and flexible work schedules. And, make sure you use them so that they do, too.
A few weeks ago, I was on a Zoom call with my team and was surprised to see a senior manager who I knew was supposed to be on his family vacation. Instinctively, I told him, “I really appreciate your commitment, but you’re not supposed to be working right now. I’ll catch up with you when you’re back from spending time with your family.” With his kids visible in the background, he got the message and quickly hung up.
I wasn’t just talking to him. I was talking to everyone on that call, including myself.
Tim Allen, CEO of Care.com, oversees the company’s strategic direction, leadership and growth, all centered on one mission: to transform how families care for all they love. A 15-year veteran of media and technology company IAC, Tim has played pivotal roles shaping IAC brands like Vimeo and Ask.com and he founded and ran IAC’s Mosaic Group. A father to young twin boys, Tim relates to the challenges faced by working parents everywhere. He and his family reside in Austin, TX.