Workplace culture prevents men from taking paternity leave

December 10, 2023

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Workplace culture prevents men from taking paternity leave

In many countries, even those with paternity leave enshrined in law, workplace culture and gendered roles in childcare remain stubbornly regressive.

In a new study of paternity leave experiences in accounting firms, researchers found male professionals would prefer to spend more time with their partners and newborn babies. However, many men are pressured to delay or forego paternity leave because of workplace obligations.

According to the article published in the journal Accounting Horizons, a range of experiences is associated with fatherhood and paternity leave.

These experiences include frustration over low levels of moral and material support provided by their employers and difficulty reconciling fatherhood and their professional demands. The researchers also found a tendency by the new fathers to consider parental leave an extended vacation rather than a time to support and bond with their newborn child.

What the researchers say: “Most men are reluctant to take their allotted leave simply because they understand how their professional world works,” said the paper’s co-author “Parental leave is accepted for women. But men who take it are seen as violating the norm that they should focus on their profession. While we know women pay a professional price for focusing on raising children, men are very worried that they will pay an even higher one. The standards are different for men.”

The sample surveyed for this study included partners, senior managers, managers and a senior, and all but one had children. All worked at mid-tier firms or at one of three Big Four (KPMG, PwC, Ernst & Young, Deloitte) firms.

The researchers identified five themes in their interviews:

• Fathers are reluctant to take paternity leave. Those who did were likely to schedule their leave around peaks and troughs of the work year, often in August.      

• Paternity leave is incompatible with professional work. Many fathers delayed or forewent their leave due to work constraints.

• Firms accommodate mothers more than fathers. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that firms were eager to plan for and advertise maternity leave in ways they did not for paternity leave.

• Paternity leave is considered a vacation. Both fathers and their colleagues often viewed time away from work as an opportunity to relax with their families and cut down on work, not to provide intense care for their newborns.

• Fathers’ emotional experiences vary. Some disliked care work or discussing personal affairs at work, while others were frustrated or stressed about requesting leave and having work intrude on it. Still others expressed regret at missing paternity leave or family life due to work.

“We wanted the study to provide a range of experiences because we did not know whether men were actually happy with the status quo. It turns out that many of them are not,” the lead researcher told us. “Men are worried about the pervasive culture of overwork in the workforce — and not only in professional service firms.”

The researchers added that organizations should be reassessing their efforts in fostering equitable workplaces. Companies must rethink strategies around gender inequality if they are serious about their publicly stated goals.

“Firms need to take a long hard look at the unarticulated assumptions around work and hierarchy,” they said.

“One assumption is that a senior leader is a man who does not engage with his children,” they concluded. “Senior leaders are role models, so this has an effect across the company. Entry-level accountants who have children will understand the implicit message being sent by those at the top.”

So, what? Our whole attitude to work is unaligned with our human design specs. We are designed to find satisfaction and enjoyment from what we do, to play, to have fun. In hunter-gatherer societies (which ion terms of our DNA we still inhabit), childcare while parents hunted or gathered was split between grandparents—or grandparent figures—and children between the ages of 8 and 10 (who were also, effectively, younger children’s teachers). Work was always communal. It was a relationship exercise, an enjoyable process and always voluntary.

The average work week of a H-G was about 10 hours (including hunting, gathering, and erecting shelter). Studies have shown that beyond this—unless the “work” is communal and fun—human productivity falls off.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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