Gender Equality for Working Parents Starts at Home

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This article was originally published on Medium.

Regardless of your gender, it’s not easy to be a working parent. Yet the “How do you balance it all?” question is more frequently posed to women than men.

Some of that is based on stereotype, but often, the onus is on women to juggle a career and personal responsibilities. After all, they’re the “nurturers,” right? It’s their job to make everything run smoothly while the men, the “providers,” make ends meet. That’s what society tells us, at least.

The Rise of the Stay-at-Home Dad

Men are increasingly taking on more domestic responsibilities in dual-income households. In some cases, they stay home to care for children while mothers go to work.

With more moms working outside the home, dads are taking on more domestic responsibilities. Dads have ramped up their average household chore time to 10 hours per week, compared to only four hours in 1965. We are unquestionably moving toward a more equal distribution of labor and closing the gap in compensation and seniority. Yet women still tend to bear the brunt of maintaining work-family balance, especially when unforeseen circumstances occur.

An Ingrained Double Standard?

Both parents work full-time in about 46 percent of two-parent households with children under the age of 18. But among those dual-income parents, mothers devote double the amount of time to childcare (14 hours versus seven, according to time-use data).

The number of hours spent providing childcare at home isn’t the only double standard. Business travel presents a dual disadvantage to moms because employers often assume they won’t want to travel for work — an attitude that deprives women of important assignments and professional growth opportunities. And when working moms do travel, their spouses often expect them to be on-call 24/7.

The Taboo of the Sick Kid

On a recent overnight company retreat, a new mother, freshly returned from maternity leave, had to take a call not even two hours into the trip: Her husband didn’t know what to do with the crying baby. This was the first trip she’d been on since the birth, but her husband had already been on multiple — and I doubt she was calling him during business dinners with childcare concerns. As the mother, she was expected to figure it out.

Of course, it’s still considered taboo in many workplaces for dads to talk about family obligations, such as a sick child, or use them as reasons to leave early or miss work. In 55 percent of households where both parents work, mothers do more to take care of sick children; only 6 percent of these households indicate that fathers do more, while the remainder feel the work is split evenly.

For Better or Worse

Stepping up for your working spouse isn’t easy. It means adopting a humble attitude, appreciating your partner for the hours of childcare she’s putting in, and even risking losing face at work if you have to leave early to pick up a sick kid from school.

I’m not judging how you choose to divide and conquer work-home responsibilities; that’s your prerogative. That said, when working partners have similar professional responsibilities, dads need to share the burden of childcare.

Here’s my advice to better support your working spouse.

1. Manage expectations

You’re used to setting expectations for others at work, but you also need to go through this exercise for yourself at home. You’re not the babysitter; you’re the parent. Know your pediatrician, important allergy information, and contacts for backup coverage. Parenting well involves preparing for the unexpected, not just making a panicky phone call during the middle of your wife’s business dinner or conference.

2. Follow the Golden Rule of parenting

Even in frustrating situations, don’t forget to turn the tables and consider how you’d want to be treated. I’ve heard this on countless phone calls from men on business trips: “I’m right in the middle of a meeting — what do you want me to do about it?” But if the situation were reversed, I know they’d make the same call at the first sign of trouble.

If you’re the one who is responsible for your kids for any period of time, try to avoid calling your partner unless it’s urgent. If you need to vent or discuss less urgent items, figure it out later. Call a family member or friend if you need to, but handle it on your own.

3. Don’t perpetuate the stereotype

To be completely honest, I’ve been guilty of telling clients or colleagues, “I have the kids today because my wife had something she could not move.” Ishould have said, “I’m taking care of my kids today.” By implying that I’m only with them because my wife couldn’t be, I reinforce the misconception that childcare is her responsibility, first and foremost, rather than a shared one.

4. Be vocal about family time (rather than cover it up)

Too often, men in leadership roles make excuses that revolve around their partners’ availability or create fictitious justifications for family time. Not only is this a cop-out, but it also sets a bad precedent.

How you model this behavior impacts others in your workplace, so it’s important that you’re cognizant of how you relay family-related obligations. There are a number of working dads who do a great job playing both roles, but if they don’t make this behavior visible to their colleagues, it flies under the radar. Only with honest communication about family responsibilities can fathers change gender perceptions. I don’t shy away from telling my team or clients, for instance, that a family issue required me to move or cancel a meeting. If they have a problem with that, they’re probably not the type of people I should be working with in the first place.

The “How do you balance it all?” question is going to come up sooner or later. But, honestly, neither gender can really answer that question. Parenting isn’t easy, and women and men can share the “nurturer” and “provider” roles.

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