Study shows that male managers are a barrier to new fathers’ improved work-life balance

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Many working fathers want to play a more active role in their young children’s lives, but often face obstacles at work. These can take the form of negative gender stereotyping, career threats and gatekeeping, most often, and somewhat ironically, from male managers.

In fact, a recent study carried out by academics from Audencia, together with colleagues from the University of Plymouth and Excelia Business School, reveals that male supervisors are an important obstacle to new fathers who wish to access flexible working arrangements.

Flexible work arrangements: still a question of gender

As many fathers want to participate more actively in the early stages of their child’s life, policies enabling a better work-life balance for new fathers have become more widespread. For instance, in the UK, new dads are allowed two weeks of paid paternity leave. It’s worth noting however that in France, they are entitled to 21 days.

Many companies also offer more extended leave, though not always paid.

But despite the increased availability of these policies, not all employers and employees are aware of them and the actual uptake of flexible work arrangements remains relatively low. 

In the UK, research shows that around a third of new fathers are unaware that flexible working arrangements are available to them, compared to one-tenth of mothers.

In France, only 5 percent of fathers use the paid paternity leave of 21 days, while the three mandatory days of paid leave have a take-up rate of around 70 percent. 

Research unveils new fathers’ struggle to access flexible work arrangements

The study by Audencia Professor Sophie Hennekam and colleagues Jasmine Kelland at the University of Plymouth and Jean-Pierre Dumazert at Excelia Business School, explores the role that male supervisors play in the low uptake of flexible work arrangements for new fathers.

The research drew on 28 interviews with fathers working in French companies who had requested access to flexible work arrangements, and reported on the reaction of their supervisors. These supervisors were all fathers themselves who had previously benefited from similar flexible arrangements, but unexpectedly, they did not seem to want to grant the same access to other fathers.

To better understand these findings, an additional 16 interviews were conducted with supervisors in organisations who were fathers themselves and who had previously enjoyed flexible work arrangements themselves. The findings show that supervising fathers can act as barriers for other fathers within organisations that are trying to push for more gender equality. 

The study identified four ways in which male supervisors tend to dissuade new fathers from accessing the arrangements to which they are entitled: by sticking to outdated perceptions of gender-roles, issuing career threats, citing practical reasons, and giving little or no support within the workplace.

Gender-role confirming discourses included subtle messages that the uptake of flexible work arrangements would signal a lack of commitment and would not be appreciated. Career threats involved indicating to employees that the uptake of flexible work policies would lower their future earning potential.

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Similarly, practical reasons, such as the need to be present as work or the difficulties related to part-time work were put forward to dissuade the fathers-to-be to take advantage of the existing policies.

Finally, the lack of paternal workplace support consisted of challenging the wishes of their subordinates. Thus, the findings highlight the role of supervisor fathers in hampering gender equality at work. By showing that supervisor fathers can act as ‘paternal supervisor gatekeepers’ for other fathers in their organisations, the study opens new ways to explore gender equality within organisations.

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