Why Men Matter in the Work/Life Debate

Stock PhotoBy Melissa De Witte (New York City)

According to author and UC Hastings College of Law professor Joan Williams, the strongest form of discrimination in the workplace is against mothers. However, Williams goes on to assert that to shift this problem, national dialogue needs to move away from a maternal focus and address paternal responsibilities as well.

At a recent event organized by A Better Balance at Columbia Law School, Williams discussed material from her latest book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. Williams argues that the conflict needs to be addressed not just from a mother’s perspective but from a father’s point of view as well. While the evidence against mothers in the workplace is overwhelming (according to Williams, moms are 79% less likely to get hired and when they are employed they earn $11,000 less than average), fathers face a unique set of problems and issues that must be taken into account if the work-life debate is going to be addressed.

Framing the Debate

Williams claims there are three primary parts to the problem:

1. The Absence of Dialogue

Firstly, the work-family conflict has never come into its own in American discourse. On a national level, the debate has remained stagnant: the last change in federal policy was in 1993 when women were legally mandated maternity leave.

According to one panelist at Columbia’s event, Eric Berger – a consultant at Deloitte & Touche and father himself – he is shocked about American policy concerning parental leave. Hailing from Canada, Berger was surprised to find that stateside that are no stipulations about paternity leave. Williams points out that America is one of the four countries in the world that lack concrete policies for paid parental leave (the others include Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland).

According to Berger, work patterns need to change. The problem in America is that the workforce is mismatched to the type of workplace organization. He argues that companies need to bring parents into the workplace culture by optimizing these types of employees. He pointed out how things like flexible working time, the virtual office, and even balanced travel time has saved Deloitte $14 million annually by retaining workers in this way. Their personal pursuits program is designed to keep employees in the network by promoting a healthy working schedule for fathers and mothers alike. As Deloitte’s figure shows, a personalized working schedule benefits not just the bottom line, but also creates happier and healthier workers, and ultimately, families.

2. (Un)Flexible Work Time

While companies like Deloitte are promoting a healthy work and life balance, Williams contends that the second aspect of the debate is the issue that most flexible work still remains stigmatized. Additionally, most of the flexible work available is rotating shift work, making it not very flexible at all. Set only one week in advance, scheduling children’s doctor appointments or time for PTA meetings can be difficult. Williams claims that ultimately quitting becomes the only choice, which problematically results in a work cycle that keeps many women in the bottom income bracket. Williams point poses an interesting question: are women opting out or are being pushed out?

Panelist Gary Phelan from Cohen & Wolf PC confirms this. Phelan witnessed firsthand the cultivations between gender distinctions in the workplace. From as early as the hiring process, Phelan noticed how many law firms ask only female applicants, and never their male counterparts, about future family plans. Once employed, Phelan observed that males are expected to work more than their female colleagues. This dynamic shoes how women (as mothers) are expected to absent from the workplace, while men (as father) are assumed to be absent from the home.

For Panelist Daniel Eckman, the absence of fathers in the home is a big issues America faces. Eckman is involved in the administration of a new governemnt initiative, The National Fatherhood Clearing House, that encourages healthy co-parenting through increasing a fatherhood presence in the home. For Eckamn, the key to solving the problem of the work family debate lies in involving both parents. Even William similarly remarked “a good mother does not do it alone.” Interestingly, Berger noted that he is 1 of the only 2 people in the Deloitte’s North East office whose spouse is also employed.

Eckman argues that redefining gender begins with a redefinition of masculinity because positive fathers are needed to confirm positive femininity to their children. Similarly, Berger confirms this. As a father of girls, he said it is important for him that his wife is able to pursue her dreams and ambitions in order to be a positive role model to her daughters (although he did not mention the importance of his wife pursuing her dreams and ambitions for her own happiness).

Eckman points out that over the years, studies have shown the importance of father involvement in children’s lives. For him, the male/ female gender distinction does make a significant impact. “How a dad interacts with the child is different that than with the mom,” he asserts.

This part of the discussion was problematic. As marriage conventions change, and, for example, gay partnerships become increasingly prevalent in society, isn’t privileging father-child relationships in this way discriminatory? Isn’t “redefining” masculinity and femininity still adhering in many ways to a distinct separation between male and female gender roles?

3. The Missing Middle

The third part of the issue is what Williams calls the “Missing Middle” – families that remain unnoticed by American policy makers. Neither rich nor poor, these families have both parents employed and struggle to make a combined average household income of $65,000. Childcare is done in a tag team. “Men too, are one sick child away from being fired,” says Williams. It appears that a balanced work and family life is reserved for a privileged few.

Distinguishing between fathers, men, and masculinity?

While class is an issue, Williams argues “gender trouble is the norm” and “is an issue that cannot be solved on an individual level.” For Williams, the problem of balancing work and family affirms how gender stereotypes are embedded in everyday. “Masculinity has become precarious,” Williams points out. Many men are forced into scripted roles, being “the go to guy” and for some, being “a real man” is working a 90 hour work-week. She argues that this type of unspoken infrastructure dictates the professional choices parents make.

But this too is changing. A growing number of men are opting out of the traditional career path society has scripted. Panelist Matt Schneider has been a stay at home dad for five years and has noticed a big change in the number of men who have decided to stay at home to raise their kids. What was once rare for Schneider is now a trend. But how can a trend translate into a new social norm? Two years ago, Schneider co-organized the NYC Dads Group with the mission of bringing together fathers who work full time with the dads that stay at home.

The NYC Dads Group has generated media attention, but Schneider is hesitant about the coverage. “One of the first questions journalists always ask me is whether I feel emasculated. And the answer is never.” Schneider goes onto argue masculinity must be taken out of the equation.

While the “Mommy Wars” dictated headlines over the past few decades, murmurs of a “Daddy War” appear to be strengthening. Slowly fathers are gaining a voice in the work and family debate, but as last Monday’s event discussed, more work is needed to bring men into the discussion and gender differentiation needs to be re-established.

0 Response

  1. Avatar

    This is an important topic and a well written article. While unpaid paternity leave has been a norm here in Australia for some time, we are only set to introduce our first paid paternity leave in 2012.

    We should all be looking to countries like Sweden who have a higher rate of men taking leave to care for children, parental leave options up until the child is 12 years old, and other cultural norms like the general acceptance in the workplace that important meetings are not held during school holidays.

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    The world has changed dramatically in terms of the roles being played by men and women at work and at home, with more change to come. Unfortunately many organizational leaders have no frame of reference for this shift. While their employees may be engaged deeply in these role shifts, their closest peers, clients and business associates still reflect the world they have always known, thereby insulating them from understanding the pervasiveness of the change that has occured all around them. Bridging this disconnect has the power to improve the cultures of our organizations in many profound ways. The responsibility lies with all of us to first be aware that we are biased as we go about our daily lives and that learning more about each other breaks down walls. Younger employees and emerging leaders can help by sharing and making non traditional aspects of their lives more visible and thereby more mainstream…which over the course of time eliminates some bias.

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    Melissa – With your permission, I’d like to reference and include a link to this post in NOW Leadership Carnival. It is an on-line collection of blog posts that advocate for integrating masculine and feminine in prevailing leadership models and practices. You can read the September issue at

    Deadline for submission to the October issue is Oct. 5 and it is published in the 14th. We had well over 350 readers for our premier edition.

    Anne Perschel

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    Through working with time coaching clients, I definitely see that men also have a strong interest in work/life balance so that they can be good sons, husbands, fathers, friends, etc.

    I’m really glad that you addressed that this is something that men and women can work together to overcome.

    Elizabeth Saunders

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    Hi Anne, Please feel free to republish the article with a link back and attribution to

    Melissa Anderson
    Associate Editor

  6. Avatar

    I strongly believe in co-parenting. Women who are married or unmarried struggle with getting the Dad to be more than the traditional role. Some Fathers want more control and equal parenting responsibilities, however, I think their main obstacle is mothers not willing to give up some of that. For example, as a young mother, I would not let my child stay overnight at her father’s home because she was under the age of one. So, I think there does need to be some give and take, but I do think fathers must rise up and we women should lift them up. However, too many Dads want the traditional role (See 5 Hour Energy Drink Commercial: Mother struggling to balance work and family and per her husband’s advise takes an energy drink – all the while, he is sitting on the couch relaxing going “I told you this drink is great”) That Commercial is a perfect depiction of the traditional role men covet, rather than getting off the couch and helping, he offers a non-medicinal solution for his wife’s tiredness!
    How women combat that or lift up men like that is like chasing gold at the end of a rainbow, it is just unreal. So, what do women do?, divorce these men and move on or suffer unhappiness.