Can he really have it all? Why modern men are facing their own equality battles

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Stylist Team
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From paternity leave to job satisfaction, modern men are facing their own equality battles. Stylist investigates why we need to help men in order to help ourselves

Words: Rhiannon Cosslett

Picture this: you and your team have just put the finishing touches to an epic pitch you’ve all been working on for weeks. Everyone is heading to the pub to celebrate – except for your boss, who’s rushing home for the nursery pick-up and to make a Peppa Pig birthday cake, a clutch of documents in hand to read on the train. ‘‘I don’t know how he does it,” you mutter to yourself. He? Why, yes. You didn’t assume it was a woman did you?

Tuesday 5 April marked the first anniversary of shared parental leave, the legislation that allowed working parents to split up to 50 weeks of leave to care for a new baby (37 of these weeks would garner a weekly £139.58 parental payment from the government for either sex). Intended to radically transform the way we all view and arrange childcare, the uptake within the first 12 months has been shockingly low. Less than 2% of eligible men have done so, according to the charity Working Families.

But should we really be surprised? In recent years, a huge amount of time and attention has been spent – quite rightly – fighting for women’s rights to work flexibly. Yet the argument from a man’s point of view is rarely heard. Who exactly is championing their right to work a four-day week, whether that’s to look after their child or to finally finish that novel? It feels almost blasphemous to say it, but are today’s men victims of the same institutional sexism that women have been fighting for decades?

Before you choke on your flat white in indignation, we are in no way suggesting that men are more oppressed than women. But there’s a growing awareness that sexist stereotypes are holding men back too. And in turn that influences gender equality for women. There are, of course, in today’s progressive society, far more than 2% of men wanting to take up parental leave, but they’re not because of a mixture of fear and financial pressure. The fact a company such as Twitter is celebrated as enlightened and progressive when, earlier this month, it announced the introduction of 20 weeks fully paid “gender neutral” time off for every new parent, is testament to how rare it is for employers to openly support new dads. In fact, only 43% of companies polled by consultants My Family Care said they would offer enhanced benefits. What does this mean for our friends, brothers, the fathers of our future generations, and – let’s be honest – for us? Because here’s the real kicker. The more men flex their flexi-working muscles, the less women will be seen as a ‘risk’ for maternity costs or ‘unreliable’ due to parental duties. Frankly, it should be win-win.

Getting involved

So why hasn’t the last year seen us entering a harmonious, progressive world where everyone ‘has it all’? The lack of take-up on parental leave is not for a lack of interest from the men themselves, according to multiple sources. “My research shows that fathers are increasingly seeking flexible working not because they need to, but because they want to be closer to their children,” says Caroline Gatrell, professor of management studies at Lancaster University Management School, who has extensively analysed how parents negotiate boundaries between employment and family life.

The most recent Modern Families index backs up Gatrell’s research. The study found nearly half of millennial dads (up to age 35) would be willing to take a pay cut to spend more time with their children. Yet deeply embedded cultural stereotypes about men’s worth have proved harder to overcome.

Perhaps the clues were there all along. Employment lawyers Slater Gordon found, while nine out of 10 fathers liked the idea of taking parental leave, a third felt managers would be unsympathetic to the idea, while a fifth worried colleagues would make fun of them. Fears that are not unfounded. Joel is a 32-year-old IT professional whose request for shared leave was mocked in the office. “I knew it was just banter,” he says. “But I still felt they saw me as less of a man. I know it will change when my colleagues have children too and realise they don’t want to miss out on seeing their baby because of old-fashioned ideas of what a dad should be.”

Traditional ideas are evidently deep-rooted in the mentality of male-dominated work sectors such as finance, law and tech. Last month, there was an outcry when a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission revealed female executives were being held back by male dominant boards frequently using their contacts instead of open recruitment to fill board vacancies. Yet, what such studies rarely explore is the effect of these ‘old boys’ on younger, more progressive men. In a survey by law firm Linklaters in 2014, 50% of men said they’d be inclined not to take leave if no other men in the company were doing it. As Richard, 27, an executive search consultant, says, “My generation want to be more than just worker drones, but older generations question your commitment to your job. There is still an old-world view among some men that a child should be brought up by mum, and dad should be at work.” Oliver, 35, who works in banking had a similar experience. He told Stylist his boss had advised, upon seeing his request for leave, not to take it as it “wouldn’t look good for his career”.

Of course not all companies are so unsympathetic. Christopher, 33, works in marketing and is soon to be a father. “I spent a long time drafting an email to my boss requesting extended paternity leave,” he says, “but he was great about it. Men worry their job won’t be there for them afterwards or that their boss won’t understand why a man would want to take time off. I was lucky, but the patriarchal reinforcement that men should work is constantly present and a man who isn’t working is often seen as a disgrace.”

Greg, 29, from Manchester, agrees. A manager for a chemicals company, he’s currently on shared parental leave with his baby daughter. “I was initially nervous to ask to take three months leave when my wife was pregnant with our second daughter,” he admits, “I was the first guy in the company to ask to do it and thought I’d be laughed out the building but – after they had clarified what the rules were – they were great.”

The housewife/breadwinner stereotype is all the more depressing when you consider how inaccurate it is. If women become mothers, over two-thirds of us continue to work. In other words, in society’s eyes at least, you’re responsible for captaining the domestic ship and your career: two full-time jobs, just the one pay packet. And if you’re a father doing the same – don’t expect any recognition for those domestic duties. It’s said admiringly about women all the time, but how often have you heard someone mutter “I don’t know how he does it” about a working dad?

Joeli Brearley, whose campaign Pregnant Then Screwed highlights cases of maternity discrimination, warns, “The lack of equal parenting results in many mothers having reduced incomes, stagnant or nonexistent careers, combined with guilt and resentment. But in countries like Sweden where fathers are given compulsory paternity leave paid at a rate comparable to their income, there are more female CEOs, a reduced gender pay gap and a more equal share of the household chores.”

Currently, many modern men are swerving the debate altogether and parenting by stealth. Unlike women, who have to declare their plans with 100% transparency when returning to work after maternity leave – their honesty about hours often repaid with a pay cut and altered contract – employers rarely ask men how fatherhood will impact their working week. Nearly half of fathers under 35 admit faking illness to meet family obligations, while 58% lie to conceal family responsibilities which clash with work. Others hide their part-time hours or stay-at-home roles behind terms such as “entrepreneur” or “portfolio career”, which have a higher perceived status, especially among other men.

Being honest about family needs should be commonplace, but it’s rare. Clarke, 37, is new business director of a web company. “I was very up front about dropping my daughter at school twice a week when I accepted my new job. I was careful not to be too apologetic or pleading – I tried to remember that, while it still feels a bit awkward as a man, women ask this all the time. To be honest, if I was younger, I probably wouldn’t have asked, but I’m confident in my position, and if you can’t make a few demands once you’re experienced, what hope does anyone else have?”

Jeremy Davies of the Fatherhood Institute, a thinktank on fatherhood, agrees that it’s vital for senior men in the workplace to be open about their work/life balance: “Employers need to embrace shared parental leave and promote it to men, with people at the top of the organisation taking time off and showing that this is the new norm.” Step forward Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, who very visibly took two months’ paternity leave after the birth of his daughter, Max, last November. Sadly, such examples feel woefully thin on the ground.

Freedom to choose

But while trying to ‘have it all’ has become a perennial problem for modern women, at least we have the benefit of a few decades to understand the high expectations we’re placing on ourselves. In contrast to their fathers and grandfathers, Generation X and Millennial men are expected to vacuum the house and fix the Dyson when it blocks, talk sensitively about that new art exhibition, moisturise, change nappies, and earn enough to afford several holidays a year. And it’s a change of job description that’s happened with immediate effect. For many women, when we’re feeling overwhelmed by the juggle to have it all, we might daydream about Plan B. Pursuing a new career or turning a passion into a business is widely viewed as a legitimate option for many women. Yet thanks largely to patriarchal expectations, many men haven’t considered they might one day need – or want – to drastically alter their careers or priorities in the same way.

And they’re not just unprepared emotionally. Modern life is increasingly predicated on dual incomes, with first-time buyers typically needing a salary of £41,000 (£77,000 in London) to get a mortgage, against a median wage of £22,044, according to accountancy firm KPMG. And thanks to the pay gap – the Office for National Statistics calculates men currently earn 9.4% more than women – there is often little economic wiggle room for men to walk away from a well-paid corporate job. As Sam, a 32-year-old fund manager says, “I’ve been desperately trying to find a way to leave the City as the long hours are killing me. I’d love to set up my own deli, but when I talk to my wife about it I see panic in her eyes. It’s perfectly acceptable for her and her friends to daydream about their alternative careers, but when I dare to suggest it, the first question is, ‘How will we afford it?’”

“As women we have fought hard to be able to define ourselves however we want – I think men should have that right too,” says Jane Powell, CEO of CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), a male suicide charity. “Men and women equally become depressed and consider suicide. Indeed more women attempt suicide than men, but more men take their lives. The difference is around our expectations of men: what we expect from them as women, and men’s expectations of themselves. When things go wrong – work, health, relationships – men often feel they shouldn’t need to talk. They feel they should be able to handle it. Instead of crying, they’ll often drink instead. They find themselves unable to ask for help for fear of seeming ‘weak’.” The Office for National Statistics estimates that 80% of Britons dependent on alcohol are male.

In fact, there’s a evidence that expecting men to just ‘man up’ and manage stress is incredibly harmful. Suicide is now the leading cause of death in men under the age of 50. In 2013, 78% of suicides were male, 15% greater than 1981.

Nowhere is male mental health more of a taboo topic than the workplace. Despite plenty of signs that men are as stretched as women, the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report on work related stress and anxiety shows 61% of those signed off with work related stress in 2015 were female; only 39% were men. As one HR director working for a major bank told us, men are reluctant to ask for help: “They see it as a sign of weakness, an affront to their masculinity.” And even men with a recognised problem are hiding it; in a survey, the Men’s Health Forum found 48% of working men with mental-health concerns were embarrassed to take time off for a related appointment.

“Companies often pay lip service to workplace equality but all too often that’s assumed to be about women,” says Charlotte Butler, founder of Altogether Different, a consultancy which advises businesses on diversity and inclusion from global tech firms to city banks. “There’s still a huge amount of latent stigma holding men back too.”

However angry we still (rightly) get about equal pay and the lack of women in the House of Commons, women have made great strides in what were once traditionally male spheres. Yet, in general, men are yet to match our progress in the other direction. “Until it’s as acceptable for men to be stay-at-home dads as it is for women to be in the boardroom, nobody is equal,” says Butler. “Surely, in 2016, it’s time to call an end to the battle of the sexes and look at work, career, family and home not as gender issues but as people issues. After all, the whole point of equality is that it’s better for everyone.” Perhaps there could be a fairy-tale ending after all…