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Gender and COVID-19: the impact of the pandemic on working fathers – an opportunity to encourage a more equal workplace culture?

  • Market Insight 27 May 2021 27 May 2021
  • UK & Europe

  • Employment, Pensions & Immigration

Many working parents have swapped the morning commute for breakfast with the family and seen a blurring of lines between work and family life whilst working from home.

Gender and COVID-19: the impact of the pandemic on working fathers – an opportunity to encourage a more equal workplace culture?

Many men have seen their childcare and domestic responsibilities increase and may have experienced for the first time the challenges of juggling work and childcare. In October 2020 we reported on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women (COVID-19: how employers can manage the disproportionate impact on women) and whilst evidence suggests women are more likely than men to have been working whilst looking after children, lost their jobs and seen a decrease in earnings, working fathers have been affected too.

In this article we consider the impact of COVID-19 on working fathers and what this could mean for the future of the workplace, as well as embracing the opportunity to improve diversity and workplace culture.  

The modern workforce and the changing expectations of working fathers

Modern day fathers are more involved in day to day parenting than ever before and have an expectation of a better balance between work and home life. Before the pandemic, fathers were increasingly asking for more flexible working arrangements, albeit that a 2019 survey by “Working Mums” found that two in five working fathers who applied for flexible working had their requests turned down – while HR Magazine reported that according to the TUC, one in three flexible working requests were rejected overall.  

It seems likely that as more people return to the workplace, employers will see more flexible working requests from men as increasingly they look for more family-oriented policies, flexible working patterns and more favourable paternity and/or Shared Parental Leave (SPL) policies. Indeed, a 2020 survey by “Working Dads” found that four in five fathers say they are now more likely to request flexible working and three quarters believe their employer will agree to this.

As employers consider the future of the workplace as restrictions ease, this is an opportunity to assess how they might encourage a more equal workplace culture by supporting working fathers who want to continue sharing in this increased level of childcare responsibilities. A campaign by PowWowNow in 2019, to mark four years since SPL came into effect, found that eight out of ten fathers believed there was a cultural stigma around men taking time off to look after their children and that when returning to work after SPL, one out of two men felt pressured to come back to the workplace quickly.

Other research by PowWowNow, referred to in an article by “Working Dads”, found that fathers who took SPL improved their physical and mental well-being, with a staggering 96% reporting that SPL had had a positive long-term impact on their lives.

We all know by now why diversity and inclusion is a good thing: morally, reputationally, and from a strong business case backed up by research - that good diversity, including a gender-diverse workforce, enhances profits, productivity and innovation. Employers that fail to offer good work/life balance for parents risk losing top talent to competitors.

In addition, employers that encourage and support flexible working for fathers may also impact wider issues of gender equality. The potential effect of more fathers working flexibly, sharing childcare responsibilities and taking SPL is likely to have a positive impact on gender equality in the workplace through less stigma and disadvantage felt mainly by women who take time out for family caring and in turn helping to reduce the gender pay gap.

Encouraging an equal workplace culture

There are a number of steps employers can consider taking to encourage a more equal and inclusive workplace culture which includes support for working fathers:

Providing financial incentives

The impact of financial support on SPL uptake can be seen from the experience of Scandinavian countries which appear to be ahead of the curve on fathers taking parental leave and gender equality. In Sweden for example, where close to 90% of fathers take parental leave, both parents are entitled to 240 of the 480 days’ paid parental leave and 90 days’ leave is reserved exclusively for each of them - so there is a significant period of non-transferable paid parental leave for fathers.

Whereas in Canada parents can share 50 weeks’ paid parental leave, the province of Quebec sought to improve gender equality and, modelling the Scandinavian system, introduced five weeks’ paid paternity leave which was not transferable to the mother. The effect was that take-up rates among eligible fathers jumped by 250%, with over 80% of Quebec fathers taking paternity leave.

Having clear and visible policies on SPL and flexible working

Do your employees know what SPL is, what their parental leave rights are, and whether they can apply for flexible working? Research commissioned by PowWowNow in 2020 showed that only 25% of companies provided information about SPL without it being requested first.

Given the complexity of the SPL statutory rules, employers need to ensure that HR, managers and employees understand how SPL works and what the pay and leave entitlements are. A lack of transparency around the existence of parental leave and flexible working initiatives is likely to hinder uptake. Employees should be referred to the SPL and flexible working policies during interview and induction and these policies should be easy to access on the business' intranet.

Supporting the careers and wellbeing of working fathers

If senior leadership supports and models fathers taking SPL and working flexibly, this will make it feel more 'normal' and acceptable for men across the business to do the same. Employers who wish to boost working father well-being could share and promote examples of senior managers who have taken SPL or who work flexibly, in conjunction with a mentor scheme to encourage and support working fathers.

While HR and managers are used to supporting maternity returners, they need to ensure that the same support is in place for returning fathers. Encouraging working fathers to take time off and offering career support on their return will give fathers the confidence that they will be supported and that this won’t be detrimental to their career.

It is also important to remember that lack of sleep, increased responsibilities, additional financial pressure, a change in marital relationships as a result of a new baby affect new fathers as well as new mothers and can have an impact on their work. It is also easy to conceive that working fathers who have to leave on time to pick up their children could be afforded less support or understanding from colleagues than working mothers. If in practice it is more difficult for fathers to get the support they need to accommodate caring commitments, this could also discourage men from working flexibly.

How we can help your organisation

COVID-19 has accelerated changes in the workplace which would not have been foreseen in early 2020. Diversity and equality issues, including flexibility, well-being and workplace behaviour have been thrown into the spotlight and employers need to adapt to this.

Do your flexible working, family friendly and diversity policies and surrounding documentation need modernising so that they become “living documents”? At Clyde & Co, we can advise on how to adapt your policies and how best to bring them to everyone’s attention.

We can also carry out a workplace culture audit to help you identify whether there are any workplace culture and equality issues in the business and if so, how to champion positive change to improve culture, gender equality and other diversity issues.

For more information contact Heidi Watson or your usual contact.

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Additional authors:

Velma Eyre, Corinna Harris

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