Fatherhood And Professional Men – The Forgotten Part Of The Equation

“My two life values are my drive and desire to be the best and develop my potential, but also family relationships, to be the best son, husband, and father, and how do you marry the two” (Partner of City Law Firm)[1].

With the gender pay gap figures for 2019 showing no significant improvement in the difference in remuneration between the sexes between 2017 and 2018 (the gap shrunk slightly from 9.7% to 9.6%), it is clear we still have a long way to go before women are able to match men in terms of average earnings over a lifetime.  However, while enormous focus is put on women and the balancing of motherhood and a successful career, little, if any attention is paid to fathers, who, unlike generations before them, are expected to reach the pinnacles of success in their career, and be hands-on parents, carrying an equal share of the load.

The conflict between parenthood and the type of careers such as banking, law, medicine, and STEM professions is particularly difficult for both genders to manage.  As Ann-Marie Slaughter stated in her widely read piece Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, the balancing act becomes almost impossible when you are “working long hours on somebody else’s schedule”.  Those who choose self-employment have an advantage; although the hours are long, you get to choose when and where you work them.  This makes it a lot easier to make the school nativity play.

The work/life balance dilemma

In an incredibly in-depth article Fatherhood, Gender and the making of professional identity in large law firms: bringing men into the frame, Richard Collier examines the challenges men who work in large law firms face when trying to balance family and professional life.  In a study involving 20 male lawyers and three (female HR directors), once message prevailed: There was a growing social expectation that men are expected to “be there” for their children in ways that their own fathers had not been.  However, the drive, competitiveness, and sacrifice needed to achieve “success”, as we define it nowadays in terms of material items and social status, has not waned.

“It’s a competitive, tough environment, at associate level, they know it is tough to make Partnership, a lot of people just wouldn’t dream of asking to work flexibly, because they would be terrified for the implications it would have on their career.’ (Partner)

In his conclusion, Richard Collier stated that for cultures to change, fatherhood had to be engaged and woven into the structure of large law firms (this can be equally applied to any corporate organisation where total commitment and long-hours are a key component of the profession’s culture).

He quotes an earlier study by K Cunningham:

“… there is a pressing need for change agendas to address workplace structures, law-firm cultures and recruitment/retention economics – and, importantly, for male law-firm partners and gatekeepers of change to “set the example for associates, thereby resetting firm-wide perceptions”[2].

Share parental leave not taken up by men

The ability for men to take on an equal role in parenting exists in law, but few men take advantage of the opportunity. In partnerships where the woman earns the same or more than the man, more men take their share of parental leave. However, around half of the general public are still unaware the option exists, nearly three years after it was introduced.

Shared parental leave allows parents to share 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay after they have a baby.  Parents can either take time off together or split the 50 weeks between them.

The most common reason for men not taking up the scheme is that they could not afford to.  But given the conclusion of the research on professional men and parenthood, could the reason go deeper than that?  Could it be that men have seen the price women have paid for stepping-off the career track to look after their family?  And if so, is it not time society evaluated the definition of success? After all, it is so easy to spend years climbing the corporate ladder, only to find it is leaning against the wrong wall.

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BDBF is a leading employment law firm in the City of London.

[1]Collier, R, Fatherhood, Gender and the making of professional identity in large law firms: bringing men into the frame, Int. J.L.C. 2019, 15(1), 68-87

[2]Cunningham K (2001)Father time: flexible work arrangements and the law firm’s failure of the family. Stanford Law Review 53, 967-1008