Making sense of stay-at-home men


The man is programmed to tackle jobs, override obstacles, attack problems, overcome difficulties, and always seize the offensive. He will take on any task that can be presented to him in a competitive framework. – The Globe and Mail

Sound familiar?

During the past few decades, the conversation has focused on parenthood, allowing us to move beyond the father as the breadwinner, to include “involved”, “active” and “engaged” fathers into the context of the family. Despite this movement toward greater parenting scope and work flexibility, in many countries, fathers account for less than 20% of those taking paid parental leave. Why is it that when it comes to breaking up traditional gender roles, there is still so much resistance?

Male stigmas persist

The idea that fathers can take time off to nurture their young ones, and financially support their partners, is a good sign we are becoming a more enlightened society. Yet despite organisations’ attempt to remove the stigma of paternal leave in the workplace, there is research that shows new fathers are not following suit.

One study found that men who requested family leave were at greater risk of being demoted or retrenched. This is because they were perceived to have the same negative traits that are used to stigmatize women, such as weakness and uncertainty – as opposed to more favorable male-centric traits – competitiveness and ambition.

In a 2013 survey by Korean trade unions, Korean fathers decided not to take leave out of fear of negative prejudices that they would be exposed to. In France, where men account for only 4% of parents claiming parental leave, 46% who did not take their full leave said that they were “not interested”.

There is also the stigma of being the man in the office who takes the most amount of leave. This thought troubles many fathers greatly, who dread the unspoken disapproval of their counterparts and probing questions about their masculinity.  While both men and women should have the benefits of caring for children as well as the benefits of work, the fear of being penalized at work is evidently a strong reason that men may avoid taking this step.

Toward greater equality

There is data that shows that when companies offer mandatory paid parental leave,  there are  number of benefits that follow. The first is it improves the corporate culture of women by minimising the motherhood penalty, whereby women are forced to put in extra hours in order to care for their family. The second is if more women are able to financially support their family while more men ask for family-friendly policies, it may challenge employers to start treating their staff equally, regardless of their gender. As it stands, men often receive subtle or not-so-subtle messages that leave is unacceptable, even if it’s in the employee handbook.

The above demonstrates the need to challenge the perception of what is and isn’t culturally acceptable in the workplace for men. All of us, including businesses, need to change the conversation when it comes to parental leave and acknowledge that it takes amazing strength for men to do just that. It is when we start promoting stay-at-home men as strong, confident and in control of their lives, that the evolving roles of men – and women – will truly begin to transform our workplace culture.