The Fatherhood Penalty

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For a very long time, there’s been discussion and debate about keeping skilled women in the workforce after they become parents. Some new research, however, has shone the light on us fathers and the so-called Fatherhood Penalty.

In a nut shell, the research suggests the UK workforce may experience an even bigger skills gap as men, struggling to balance work and family life, downgrade careers so they can spend more time at home. I have to say, it comes as no surprise to me whatsoever.

Fatherhood Penalty, The Fatherhood Penalty, fathers, working fathers, Working families
The Fatherhood Penalty: at long last getting some recognition, but will it make any difference? Pic credit: Jordan Whitfield

Before I go on, you’re probably wondering where this is all coming from. It’s based on the fifth annual Modern Families Index. It’s put together every year by the charity Working Families in partnership with childcare provider Bright Horizons.

For this year’s Index, Working Families questioned 2,750 working parents with children aged 13 years and younger. I’ll come on to the Fatherhood Penalty in just a moment, but here are some key findings:

  • One in five say they have the balance right between the money they earn and time spent with family while a third say they have the balance wrong
  • 72% of parents admit to working in the evenings or weekends with 41% saying this happens “often” or “all the time”
  • 48% admitted working hours regularly get in the way of spending time with children
  • A third said it had a negative effect on their relationship with their partner.

The Fatherhood Penalty

BBC, BBC Breakfast, the Fatheroodd Penalty.
On the BBC Breakfast sofa talking about the Fatherhood Penalty with chief executive of Working Families Sarah Jackson. I was also interviewed for BBC Radio 4 Today’s programme, but now I’m just showing off.

This brings us on to the Fatherhood Penalty. The Modern Families Index states that:

“Fathers increasingly want to take an active part in childcare but are having to consider the same compromises women have had to for decades.”

That one sentence makes me incredibly happy. At long last, an established research organisation has recognised that men are trying to “have it all” and balance involved fatherhood with a career.

Working Families doesn’t stop there. On the back of this year’s Index, it’s issued a stark warning.

It believes there is a real risk that men will move into lower paid, lower quality work to achieve better work life balance. Building on the fact many talented women leave the workforce or take lower quality jobs when they become mothers, Working Families says men may make similar decisions leading to a skills shortage.

Here are the stats Working Families is basing this on. According to those questioned for this year’s Working Families Index:

  • Almost half of fathers, 47%, would like to downshift into a less stressful job because of the difficulties they face in reconciling work and home
  • In total, eight out of ten mothers and seven out of ten fathers would assess their childcare needs before taking a new job or promotion, indicating that both genders now feel they may need to downgrade their careers in order to care for their families.
  • The feelings among millennial fathers was stronger still with 46% saying they would willingly take a pay cut in return for better work life balance (the figure was 38% for fathers overall).

My own experiences

I can relate to a lot of what Working families is saying. It essentially reflects my own experiences and goes a long way to explaining why I left the world of paid employment.

When I was a salary man, my employers did a great deal to informally meet my needs. With one employer, for instance, it was agreed I could come in early and leave early (or come in late and leave late) to accommodate the nursery drop-off and pick-up.

After a little while, however, I was taken to one side and informed it had been noticed I wasn’t attending meetings at the beginning or end of the day. When encouraged to apply for a different role, I was informed, albeit in a round-about way, that there’d be an expectation I would log-on and work from home for an hour or two each evening.

Feeling work and life were not balanced, I did exactly what Working Families predicts many fathers will do. I moved into a part time, less skilled role.

Even this presented issues. To give one example, I once had to look after an ill child. My boss made no secret of her feminist leanings and had children of her own. You might imagine she would have been sympathetic but I returned to the office to find an email informing me such events should be avoided if at all possible.

When my eldest child started school, it was game over. After a short while of trying to combine part time work and family life, I gave up.

Fair’s fair

I know Working Families is keen to point out there are good employers. I don’t doubt it and as I’ve said, informally, I received a lot of good will.

Unfortunately, there is still an expectation that men must be the breadwinner and this has an impact in the workplace. Added to this, many women either choose to work or have to out of financial necessity. In this case, employers must accept that childcare has to be shared within most relationships (and please, someone tell me how single mums and dads cope because it leaves me agog).

Working Families has put forward a couple of suggestions to bring about change. One is to see paternity pay enhanced so that more men can afford to take time off after a baby is born. Another is to improve paternity leave. Combined, both moves should send a signal to employers and society at large that fathers’ contribution to family life needs greater acknowledgement.

It’s great to see the Fatherhood Penalty being recognised at long last. I simply hope employers, employees and policymakers can work together to bring about real cultural change in the workplace.

15 thoughts on “The Fatherhood Penalty”

  1. John you have drawn attention to something I’ve been feeling a lot recently. My experience of SPL has been an extremely positive one but, now returning to work, I see how it’s still seen as a novelty.

    Thank you for publicising this information.

    1. I fear shared parental leave came after my time but I can well imagine it is seen as a novelty. Best of luck with the future. I hope you don’t experience too much stress on your fatherhood journey (some is inevitable and not work related!).

  2. Harriet - Coffee & Bubbles

    It’s definitely a step in the right direction but it’ll be a long road to any parents getting what they need whilst keeping employers happy.
    I’m a single mum, working full-time and I don’t quite know how I do it! I’d give my left arm for a better work/life balance and the chance to spend more time with my son whilst he’s still young. Truth is I could afford to as a day less at work is a day less at nursery and the tax/benefits help would only mean a difference of a few hundred pounds a year but I’m looking at the long term. If I go part time now I may be shooting myself in the foot later on if I need to be more ‘career driven’. Either way, changes are needed in the working world.

    1. Well Harriet, as I said in my post, I really don’t know how single parents do it. I guess it’s simply a case of you simply have to.

      Some employers are better than others but for me, the consistent issue has been employers failing to appreciate that technology enable people to work flexibly and freely. There’s a major issue with presentiesm and we need to deal with this. It would help us all out.

  3. Well written and powerful piece John about a very real problem for parents. Things have to change, hopefully this will encourage ALL employers to realise that both parents want to play a part in their kids’ lives, we need flexible working for mothers and fathers. Thanks for this and whilst some employers are brilliant, others clearly are not. Equality means just that.

    1. You’re quite right Vicki, there are some brilliant employers out there. This needs to be recognised and acknowledged.

      We all know women have issues in the workplace but it is time us men starting being more vocal about the challenges we face. At the end of the day this goes beyond gender. It is about the children and raising the next generation and a good work / life balance is essential to this.

  4. As someone who changed jobs to help with work-life balance this piece definitely resonates with me. I was lucky to have an alternative career to fall back on, but I can imagine many men and women feel locked in jobs or have to take lower paid jobs to achieve a work-life balance.

    1. This, Ryan, is fascinating. It;s further evidence to me that the Fatherhood Penalty isn’t so much a risk: it’s here and very real. I got talking to the taxi driver that picked me up yesterday. Six months ago he was the regional manager for a supermarket. A dad of two teenagers, he today drives taxis part time because he got fed up with the lack of work life balance. Fascinating isn’t it?

  5. Bringing children in to your life is one of life’s little luxuries. It isn’t always a simple life choice and further decisions need to be looked at. I remember discussing it with my wife during her pregnancy. And I guess the answer could be the same in fatherhood too. “When the children grow up I’ll go back full time!”
    It is a lovely concept spending as much time as possible with the kids as they grow up, but there will be a time when life kicks back in.
    My option at the moment is dropping the kids at school 3 days a week before my days work. I could pay the couple of pound for the breakfast club, but I choose not to. It was my wife that chose to take the step back. Lower grade job with part time hours. But that suits us and we still scrape together enough to be happy.

    1. Seems like you have a situation that works for your family Alan. Every family is different. None the less, I think a lot of men have already taken the hit and left skilled jobs to spend more time at home. It’s a very interesting debate and I am glad The Fatherhood Penalty is now getting some recognition.

  6. Nice post, John. Work life balance is something we all mull over from time to time. I am currently looking at a new role with regional management obligations. The package is great but the time away from family is greater than I would like. But living in London has its cost. For now. Love your posts John.

    1. Work / life balance can be very, very difficult to achieve. Whatever you decide with your new job, best of luck!

      The interesting thing is, I’ve met lots of men who have already downsized careers. I think it’s more common than is acknowledged.

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