The difference between working dads and working mums

Household chores, rowdy children: Sometimes a few hours of office overtime starts looking appealing, doesn't it?

Household chores, rowdy children: Sometimes a few hours of office overtime starts looking appealing, doesn't it?

The 2014 Westpac Women of Influence Report has found that almost seven out of ten mothers think responsibility for ensuring childcare options rests with government, whereas only half the fathers surveyed do. Fathers are more likely than mothers to think parents should be responsible for solving this problem. In other words, the majority of mothers surveyed believe in the case for socialised child care provision whereas fathers are not convinced.

Fathers are much more likely to see it as a private problem requiring a private solution, even though they have firsthand experience of child care problems. Or do they? Does the child care dilemma affect them personally? We’ll get to more of the fathers’ experience in the workplace in a moment.

But first, what makes the findings of the Westpac Report especially interesting is that this survey only looks at professional women and men with a minimum yearly income of $85, 000. In other words, these are Sheryl Sandberg’s women ‘leaning in’ and the men in the survey are those to whom they are leaning towards in the name of power and influence in the business world. Together, their attitudes are important signals about changing values in the corporate and managerial landscape when it comes to combining work and family.

Sandberg’s book was notably criticised for inadequately addressing structural issues around work and family, a key example would be barriers like insufficient child care options. Instead, Lean In argues for workplace change via a path of high achieving women sticking it out and making it up the ladder until they grasp the power in the workplace to transform them for all women.

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It’s surely part of the solution, but a plan that concentrates predominantly on addressing how women limit themselves underplays external barriers. It also risks being overly optimistic about the ability of women at the top to know what is needed for the women at the bottom as well as being motivated to do anything about it.

It’s encouraging, then, that the Westpac Report’s professional women are generally supportive of the argument for state-based responsibility over individual responsibility for child care options even though they’re at the higher end of the income scale. That is, child care being subsidised in part by government as well as regulation of quality. Child care should probably be seen as something akin to utilities, a service like electricity that any functioning economy needs in order to operate effectively and which is obviously therefore beneficial to all, not just the individual user.

There’s a bigger debate to be had here about whether care work is valued enough (it’s not), whether the needs of children are prioritised appropriately (they’re not), and whether the desire by both men and women to spend time with their children is accepted (it’s not), but let’s at least agree that eliminating child care struggles is crucial for undoing sexist gender-role divisions. Where women can’t get to work they can’t achieve personal career goals, but nor can they claim the kind of decision making power that comes with income.      

So, returning to those fathers mentioned at the beginning of this article, split in their support between individual and state responsibility for childcare, how is it that their experiences as working fathers aren’t making them more open to collective solutions?

Maybe because the survey also found that professional men are still very unlikely to be the primary carer for their children (only one in five fathers compared to four in five mothers). Fathers in the survey were also less likely to find that parenthood set back their careers, even temporarily. A whopping fifty per cent of mothers believed having children impacted their career compared to only 22 per cent of the fathers.

However, fathers were almost as likely (37%) as mothers (40%) to think that having children had made their career less of a priority to them. These are a couple of generations of men with high aspirations around fathering. But critically, they still lacked skin in the game. They’re not really at the pointy end of the work and family juggling act the way their partners are, and so probably more readily subscribe to the idea that sacrifices, negotiations, and the messy, stressful, tiring cobbling together of solutions that has to happen with child care should still all be done on an individual level.

Although overall, individualism doesn’t dominate and interestingly, these results held for non-parents too, demonstrating the socially progressive nature of Australia.

When Sandberg talked about ‘leaning in’ she argued that women need to “sit at the table”. Don’t cut yourselves out of the network -- take risks, pursue goals, seek challenges. But what about when the action you’re trying to lean into takes place on weekends? Or at sports events? Or in the evenings after work? The Westpac Report also surveyed professional men and women about networking.

While industry conferences were the most common form of networking event, making up half of events held, after work drinks, evening social events, watching or playing sport and weekend trips away were also among frequently nominated events. Of course, after-hours events hold an invisible barrier for women given their greater share of caring responsibilities.

More than a quarter of the men surveyed went networking on weekend trips, whereas less than one in five women said they go to these trips. Watching and playing sport similarly appeared to be a ‘boys club’ with 45 per cent of men attending but only 25 per cent of women joining them. If you’re one for believing change happens from within the system and not from dismantling the system then it is crucial that women be included in networking and team-building opportunities.

Progress towards gender equality is happening, but it is happening quite slowly; in part, because women do a lot of extra work to even get to work, and that’s often unseen by men or deliberately ignored. The answer includes more awareness, something that is helped along by surveys like this.