Equality for All? Changing Roles of Men and Women at Work

As a husband and dad who works part-time I'm very interested in the roles of men and women at work, especially as my wife also works part-time.  We have two young boys, so I think about how things will look for them when they grow up.  What is my life, and our family life, teaching them about what to expect from, and how to engage with, the changing roles of men and women?

It's definitely a complex picture and one that has been affected further by the COVID-19 pandemic, as recent research by Cityworks shows.  Whilst most employers are offering flexible working patterns, women reported bearing the majority of responsibility for childcare and homeschooling alongside their work.  The majority of respondents felt that there had not been much change in attitude away from "traditional" gender roles and expectations, with concerns that senior people did not understand the intense juggle of work and children in lockdown because they had "traditional" home arrangements where their wives didn't work.  More male respondents felt that their employer was supportive of home commitments than female respondents.  This situation is perhaps reflected in the composition of the legal profession, where well over half of all new solicitors are women but they tend to make up less than a quarter of partners in private practice.

Is the picture as bleak as our dashed hopes of a summer holiday abroad this year?  Not necessarily.  Cityworks' survey also showed a significant proportion who felt that attitudes towards gender roles were changing positively as a result of the pandemic.  And this is perhaps part of a wider and longer-term trend.

Since the 1960s, the contribution of men to childcare has increased in both absolute and proportionate terms (although it remains substantially less than that of women overall).  These days, there is also more resistance from men to "traditional" working arrangements.  Many young fathers have indicated a willingness to take less pay in return for more time with their families, or have considered leaving a role if they can't work flexibly.

For men who are running with these changes, it can cause tension at work.  Despite the indications from young fathers above, the same research found that over half did not feel confident enough to speak to their employer, and many felt resentful towards their employer as a consequence.  Indeed, Cityworks' recent work found that men reported less flexibility than women in the current pandemic.  There can still be a "fatherhood penalty" for men who wish to work differently from their peers.

But again, these tensions are nothing new.  If anything, men are now grappling with the tensions and compromises around work and family life with which women have been wrestling for decades.  We are seeing for ourselves how challenging it can be to manage responsibilities at home and responsibilities in the office, and the compromises that are required in both arenas as a result.

Perhaps because this phenomenon is newer for men, it can be especially difficult.  As Cityworks' research shows, men might find less sympathy at work when they try to adjust their working arrangements around their family life.  "Traditional" gender expectations can work against them as well as working against women.  Men can also battle with their identity and value, if that has been closely tied up with their achievements at work and contributing to family life in that way.

It is therefore important for workplaces to recognise these challenges and support men who wish to work more flexibility, as well as women who do.  It is also important to identify and challenge biases in workplace culture towards how men are expected to operate, as well as women.  Flexible working can be a great help to both genders in being effective at work and at home, so whilst other challenges remain it is good that seems to be increasingly accepted as a result of lockdown.

It is worth fighting for because the benefits of greater equality in the workplace are enormous, and widespread.  For businesses, they can attract and retain talent, and see a happier workforce drive better performance.  For couples, sharing the childcare more equally can make them happier.

And positive father involvement also helps children, who show diminished psychological and behavioural problems and a greater sense of self-worth.  More than that, when they grow up the girls are encouraged to take their careers further if they wish, and the boys become more hands-on at home.  Which will hopefully make it a little easier for the next generation to make our homes and workplaces more equal.

Jonathan Hyde, Director, DWF Law LLP

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