Ode to dads during the pandemic

Laetitia@Work #18

Hi everyone,

I tend to usually write more about women than men, quite logically because I am a woman. Also because in general women are not enough in the spotlight (I wrote about this in a previous newsletter).

But when it comes to parenthood, it’s men who are not enough in the spotlight. Feminists get angry when great dads are praised because, they say, dads are called “great” when they do things that are deemed “normal” when done by mothers. That may be true, but great or not, dads are not as visible in the ordinariness of being a parent. There’s some excellent fiction, of course, but that’s about all. In particular, being a parent is not as big a subject for men at work as it is for women at work. 

man carrying baby boy and kissing on cheek

What if the current crisis was a great opportunity to put fatherhood in the spotlight, make fathers more visible, and make it more of a subject at work? What if this pandemic was for fathers at home what the second world war was for women in the workforce? A cultural turning point. Indeed the same way millions of women had to work in factories during WWII and were thus given the opportunity to prove they could be productive members of the (paid) workforce, millions of men today are stuck at home with children. Many of them are now unemployed. Many have a partner who has to work (yes, nurses are overwhelmingly female, and many of those who have children rely on a male partner at home to look after the children).

I know there is an increase of domestic violence during this pandemic. I know domestic chores are unevenly distributed and women bear the brunt of the cost of confinement. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t also positive opportunities. For the first time, millions of dads are seen as primary caregivers (or just as caregivers, primary or not). It doesn’t matter whether they are in heterosexual couples, same-sex couples or solo. They are seen. Our culture has already changed: being caring is not only for women anymore. Now is the time to go even further and make fatherhood as visible and important a thing as motherhood.

The pandemic is a unique opportunity for dads to be seen

Remember Robert Kelly? Of course you do. He’s the BBC dad, the one we keep mentioning now to illustrate how times have changed. Three years ago the fact that his live TV interview was gatecrashed by his children made millions of people laugh to tears. The guy is a professor, an expert on South Korea (or whatever), but the reason he’s now world-famous is his being a dad! Yes, like all famous women whose family relations are always mentioned on Wikipedia, his family relations can’t be ignored by anyone. He’s even a dad first, an expert second. That’s why he resented the sudden fame in 2017 (I believe he’s come to terms with it now).

Well, every dad at home is a Robert Kelly now. And there are millions of them. At least as many dads are stuck at home with children as mothers are. In fact there’s even a large number of them who have suddenly become primary caregivers while their partner is busy saving lives in hospitals (or doing the cleaning in those hospitals). Those who work from home have Zoom meetings that look like the BBC dad’s TV interview. And nobody will raise an eyebrow anymore. We still smile or laugh sometimes, but it’s not surprising or hilarious anymore. It’s a new normal.

There are serious studies suggesting this could actually mark a turning point. “That moment in history”. Four economists published a research paper in March titled “The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality” in which they argue that

The pandemic could increase men’s participation in household labour, including childcare, even after the pandemic…During the current crisis, many millions of men are on a form of forced paternity leave for a much longer period, and a sizeable fraction will be the main providers of childcare during this time. Hence, even while women carry a higher burden during the crisis, it is still highly likely that we will observe a sizeable impact of this forced experiment on social norms, and ultimately on gender equality, in the near future.

Indeed, there’s reason to believe that this could be a game changer for women. If fatherhood becomes as much of a thing as motherhood, then there’s no reason to discriminate against women at work on the ground that they’re mothers. Is there?

In short, my “ode” doesn’t consist in finding fathers “great” just because they change nappies. Indeed my parents did find my partner “great” because he changed nappies and was concerned about the physical well-being of his children. I remember being annoyed by that. “What’s so great about him doing something that I do a lot of?”.

And so my “ode” is about the acknowledgement of “normal”. Dads changing nappies and being caring are “normal”. And that’s what great. It’s a liberation for them as much as it is one for women.

Focus on fathers to give gender diversity a boost

Fatherhood is not only the next frontier of feminism, it’s also a new frontier for management and human resources. Many companies sincerely want to improve the gender diversity of their teams. One of their starting points could be the implementation of policies to promote paternity leaves, so as to put mothers and fathers on a more equal footing. One of the pandemic’s lasting legacies could be a better work-family balance for men...and therefore for women too.

[The following text is an extract from my next book, Welcome to the Jungle. 100 idées innovantes pour recruter des talents et faire grandir, written with Jérémy Clédat, which will finally be released and available post-confinement on May 27.]

Although the past decades have brought some convergence in the labour market outcomes of men and women, women’s career progression, by and large, is still stalled by their many responsibilities as mothers. It can even be said that most of the remaining gender inequalities can be imputed to children. In the years just after the birth of a child, the earnings of the average woman falls by 30 percent in Denmark, one of the world’s most egalitarian countries.

Corporate policies that help women balance their professional and maternal duties are always welcome, but they are “realistic” policies that do little to fight the imbalance of juggling work and family life. To truly level the playing field between men and women, and profoundly impact women’s careers, companies should encourage fathers to take up a bigger share of their parental responsibilities. As an employer, you can start by actively championing paternal leaves, thus giving all parents more choice about their caring arrangements, and more leverage and flexibility to plan their respective futures.

Parental leave policies vary greatly across the globe. Nordic countries generally have a generous policy of 12 months’ paid parental leave to be shared between parents. Canada has 50 week’s paid parental leave to be shared among parents. But overwhelmingly this time off is used by mothers. So the province of Quebec made a modification: it added five weeks’ paternity leave that only the father could use. Quebec found that fathers who had been more involved in the early stages of child care reported a better connection with their child, more happiness, and more family involvement later in life.

Whatever the prevailing leave policy, companies can offer their employees a bit more, and focus more of their efforts on fathers. Doing so will create a more inclusive and engaging environment, improve retention and employer branding, and attract a larger pool of talent. Parents who are supported by their companies will not only be more likely to succeed as parents, they will also become more productive and committed employees, developing leadership qualities that will benefit the entire organization.

Comprehensive parental leave programs should also seek to change the perception of a “career break” into a “career development opportunity,” as future parents can seize the opportunity of a leave to consider their career trajectory, identify opportunities for upskilling and training. This will much improve gender diversity at all levels, which is something that more and more companies are beginning to understand. Overall the average amount of paternity leave offered by top companies has gone up. Fifteen percent of US employers offer some paid paternity leave (19 percent of large companies and 14 percent of small companies).

In the US, the “Best Places to Work for New Dads” report assessed the leave policies of for-profit companies with more than 1,000 employees and established a ranking based on the number of paid weeks off, the percentage of salary covered, and other family-friendly workplace policies in place. Netflix tops the ranking: The company offers 52 weeks of paid paternity leave. Etsy is second, with 26 weeks off. American Express comes in third, at 20 weeks.

Paternity leaves are just one example of HR policies likely to have a positive impact on fathers and mothers. There are others: flexibility by default, asynchronous work, not encouraging women to work part-time… I’m hopeful that some of the profound cultural changes revealed by the pandemic may be long-lasting.

🌳 I’m in Normandy all week this week 😏

🎥 For the new media (in French) that I launched with Nicolas Colin, Nouveau départ, I’ve already recorded 3 interviews with very interesting people, and several other videos. Subscribe if you haven’t yet! All of our videos and interviews will also be turned into podcasts soon.

🎧 I recorded a new podcast with Julie Artis (in French): “Le futur du travail, décryptage”.

✉️ I’ve been invited to write fiction (!) for a newsletter by MAIF Start up Club focused on possible post-pandemic futures. There are 4 different writers, each writing one newsletter). Each Monday there’s a piece of fiction and an essay (in French). Subscribe here if you’re interested! Thank you, Noémie, for the invite! (And if you like the format, subscribe to La Mutante).

📚 I was supposed to have my new book released on March 24. Because of the pandemic (and the lockdown), everything was disrupted and the date was changed. Now we have a new date! Welcome to the Jungle. 100 idées innovantes pour recruter des talents et les faire grandir (Vuibert), written with Jérémy Clédat, will be available on the 27th of May 🎉


  • 👄 “Loose Lips: The Psychology of Rumor During Crisis”, Cathy Faye, Behavioral Scientist, April 2020: “When the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American public entered a psychological situation similar to our current one. They were uncertain what the war would mean for them, when it would end, or how devastating it might be (…) Soon after, rumors began to circulate. There were rumors of an imminent defeat or victory, government officials taking pleasure drives in a time of gasoline rationing, and the value of future war bonds.”

  • ☕ “The War on Coffee”, Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, April 2020: “Coffee was perhaps the first naïve emissary of internationalism. In the seventeenth century, Iceland got the beans and became addicted, on the whole quite happily. You can’t open a book about coffee, no matter what tone it takes, without reading a global story.”

  • 😷 “Sexism on the Covid-19 frontline: 'PPE is made for a 6ft 3in rugby player'”, Alexandra Topping, Guardian, April 2020: “Women’s lives are absolutely being put at risk because of ill-fitting PPE. (…) masks are designed for a male template, with the irony being that 75% of workers in the NHS are female.” “Caroline Criado-Perez, whose book Invisible Women addresses the issue of ill-fitting PPE for women in one of its chapters, said she has been inundated with messages from healthcare workers who could not find protective equipment to fit them.”

There will be no newsletter next week. You will receive the next one on the 14th of May!

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