To all you women you think you don't have a choice, it is really us men who don't have a choice. I have to go out and make sure I earn a living and provide the security for my family. There is no flexibility!!
This outburst of sorts came from a middle-aged executive attending my talk on work-life integration and gender roles. His comment was followed by silence – the women exchanged puzzled looks and the men nodded in appreciation. For me, the pause represented a moment of hard truth. The truth of the disadvantage faced by males in the work-life fit discussion. Yes, I did just use the words "male" and "disadvantage" in the same sentence. Let me clarify.
The 21st century workforce continues to be managed often with an 18th century mindset. For instance, face time is still considered an indicator of work commitment; and breaks in careers (for whatever reason) are seen as a form of career suicide. Many managers continue to treat workers as a pair of hands, rather than a whole human being who faces demands from life outside work too (thank you, Peter Drucker: father of modern management, for that idea!). Also, the lines between work and home are increasingly blurring, as the smartphone vibrates at any hour and demands an almost unhealthy level of responsiveness to work. Under the circumstances, men and women both face tremendous pressures in managing work and life outside it. However, when it comes to men, there is a dark secret that most organizations may not confess to.
The unfortunate secret is that: when it comes to the work-life balance and career flexibility discussions, there is an "unwritten hierarchy" of rights in most firms. And men, I’m afraid, are just not on the priority list. Chances at career flexibility are much higher if you are a woman with kids. The assumption remains that "real" men (single or married) don’t need/want work-life integration. They work long, hard hours and miss meals with family, skip social events, so they can rise to the top of the corporate ladder, if need be at the expense of all else.
Breakdown of the traditional male worker prototype
This uni-dimensional prototype of the working male mentioned above worked perfectly well in the pre-industrial society where men worked and women were at home. However, as more women enter the workforce and invest in higher education (see infographic) dual career couples are fast becoming the norm. Therefore, women demand a more active role from men in at home as they pursue their career aspirations.
Their gender and associated role definitions, prevents men from being a part of the work life integration agenda at the individual, organizational, and societal levels. This is male disadvantage. The fall out of this disadvantage is not just for the men themselves (in the form of burnout and in the extreme case death due to "overwork" i.e. Karoshi in Japan), but also for the lives of those around them. It is in the form of the physical and emotional absenteeism from the lives of the children, which in turn impacts the social and academic skills of the children. It is also in the form of lower fertility rates in countries like Singapore where having kids is being seen as a career cost by women who don’t have any support from their spouses or work environment
Who will rescue the men ?
Not the women, as they are still covering their own ground. Not men, for real men don’t discuss such touchy-feely issues. One of my clients noted that “trying to talk work-life issues with other males was like showing up in the soccer try outs wearing a tutu! You just don’t do that. Work-life discussion is for women.” Men's networks often don’t allow space for exploring anything beyond the "professional" persona that they have to adopt as their primary identity. This situation can be worse in Asian cultures where the primary identity is often closely tied to status at work.
In organizations, while it is acceptable for women to demand flexible work or plan their maternity leave, men seeking similar arrangements or paternity leave is still rare. When it comes to gender neutral programs, such as job sharing, men experience a higher level stigma in the use of such arrangements. Research shows that 48% of men felt that using the arrangements was not a real option. So creation of policy does not equal its utilization.
News items and popular media "understandably" lament the brutal choices women have to make between family roles and careers. However, someone must also highlight the reality and struggles of men who lead 20% of single parent households in the US. Nobody can or should dispute the physical, emotional, and career related burdens of a new mother. However, simultaneously we must also acknowledge the exhaustion and strain felt by a working father who has a child with special needs. Moreover, there is the growing burden of elder care arising from an ageing population that men and women will have to share. And the discussion will have to move beyond "mommy track" to the "I-have-a-parent" track.
The attitude of the firms, women, and men themselves has to change for us to break out of a system that dishes out work place flexibility as a gender based perk. Championing the cause of men does not lessen, or take away from the challenges faced by women in any way. However, it can help create a new generation of men who openly value and support a workplace more inclusive of the needs all of its employees.
Finding the place for a few good men
The tide is starting to shift slowly but surely. Blogs such as this one, are a vital step in starting a conversation that has largely been one sided. Studies of first time fathers and those men who want to take career breaks, make us realize that men want and value work-life balance as much as women. Online communities and support groupsin the real world are starting new trends. Books such as “The good men project” are providing vital voices for the male experiences of work and home.
If the mark of a civilized society is how they treat their women. Then the mark of a civilized workplace is the extent to which men and women both get a seat at work-life discussion table.
Will the "real" men (and women) please speak up and join this conversation?