'Male Mystique' Puts Name to Conflict

News Updates

Men in the United States—especially those in two-income families who are fathers and working 50 or more hours a week—are experiencing the kind of work/family conflict that women long have felt, according to a study, The New Male Mystique.

Researchers Ellen Galinsky, Kerstin Aumann and Kenneth Matos of the Families and Work Institute (FWI) discussed their findings during a Sept. 8, 2011, webinar. The report, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the IBM Corp., was released June 2011.

Data is from FWI’s most recent National Study of the Changing Workforce that in 2008 surveyed 1,298 men in wage and salaried jobs who lived with at least one family member.

“Men really want to be with their families,” said Galinsky, FWI’s president.

Men are working more hours but also spending more time with their children, she noted. That’s especially true for young fathers.

In 2008, fathers reported spending an average of three hours per work day with their children; that’s up from 1.8 hours per workday in 1977. Additionally, more than three-fourths of respondents said they do not have enough time with their children.

What they are experiencing is similar to the “female mystique feminist Betty Friedan identified in her 1963 book by the same name. In it, she defined the unhappiness of many American women as “the problem that has no name” and blamed that unhappiness in large part on an idealized image of femininity that confined women to the roles of housewife and mother.

Menespecially fathers in dual-income families, are experiencing the same kind of conflict about their role and image as husband, father and breadwinner, according to the report’s findings.

Much like the large number of women entering the workforce in the 1970s, “men seem to be feeling they have to do it all to have it all,” Galinsky said.

In two-income families, men’s work/family conflict increased from 35 percent in 1977 to 60 percent in 2008; women’s work/family conflict barely changed, rising from 41 percent to 47 percent in that same time frame, they found.

Men who work 50 or more hours per week and those with high job demands are experiencing more conflict than those who work fewer hours. However, fathers are more likely to be family-centric but work longer hours per week than men without children because they need the money to provide for their family, regardless of their spouse’s earnings.

Drew Pawlak, director of IT Client Services at Merck, is 37 years old and the father of four children ages 7 and younger. His wife is a stay-at-home mother.

During the webcast he talked about his struggle to provide for his family while “trying to be a husband, trying to be a father.” Putting a name to that conflict, he said, “made me realize I’m not the only one going through this.”

Naming the Issue

“There’s some real power for men to be able to name this issue and come up with their own solutions,” Galinsky said. “There probably are unique solutions that would work better for men, and we need to have men thinking about what they need … and actively have them be part of the solution.”

Dan Mulhern, who teaches business and law at the University of California, Berkeley and is senior advisor to FWI, emphasized HR’s role in making the business case for work flexibility options for all employees, including men.

“HR has to make the point there are genuine business costs to helping working people. We have to change the conversation and change the culture,” Mulhern said during the webcast. “It’s going to be a tough, tight economy, and HR needs to be able to substantiate bottom-line reasons why we should take these issues seriously.”

At the very least, HR professionals need to be thinking about how to open the door to this conversation, said Mulhern.

Men are reluctant to raise the issue for fear of seeming weak, especially in the current shaky job environment, said webcast participant Scott Britton, director of sales at Merck. He and Pawlak are members of the Men’s Global Constituency Group at Merck. The group is part of the company’s diversity effort; similar groups cover sexual orientation, faith, ethnicity, gender and race.

Britton is a father to two children and cares for a niece. He works more than 50 hours per week and is expected to work 80 percent of his time from home. When his son got sick recently he let his team know he was shutting down work for the afternoon.

Modeling that type of action sends “a signal to people that report to me that family and personal needs should come first,” he said. However, he acknowledged that he was concerned that colleagues might interpret his actions as being less committed to his work.

But now that he’s experienced how flexibility gives him more time with his family, there’s no turning back.

“Because I’ve had a taste of it,” Britton said, “I want more of it.”

Recommendations for Change

High access to specific types of flexibility is especially important for men who are most likely to experience work/family conflict, according to Galinsky. Flexibility can take a variety of forms, such as being able to take time off during the workday to attend to personal or family issues and receiving at least five paid days off per year to care for a sick child. 

Employers sending a message that workplace flexibility is for men, too, need to consider how that message is presented. She noted that employer brochures typically portray pictures of female employees when touting this benefit.

In addition, she emphasized the importance of clarity about an organization’s expectations around work/life integration. HR’s role is not necessarily to advocate for flex options but to clarify the organization’s expectations and consequences for using flex options, Galinsky said.

Three FWI strategies for addressing men’s work/family conflict:

  1. Start at the top; employees take their cues from the CEOThis includes developing data for the CEO to assess the reality of flex options in the organization; encouraging the CEO to promote work arrangement innovations and encouraging the CEO to identify a high-level executive to champion work flex options for men as well as women. “You can’t offer flexibility if there isn’t co-worker [and] supervisor support and at the top,” Galinsky said.
  2. Get a high-level champion and support him or her with data.
  3. Lead and foster manager/supervisor-level conversations.

Among recommendations to employers from the report:

  • Reduce the need to work long hours to be considered a good employee.
  • Reduce men’s perceptions of career jeopardy for not working overtime or for using flex work options.
  • Address the issue of demanding jobs and find ways to help employees work more effectively.
  • Evaluate flexibility policies to assess the extent to which they meet the specific needs of different groups of men, and make changes.
  • Develop more flexible career paths without jeopardizing opportunities for career advancement.
  • Offer reduced schedules with prorated pay, benefits and opportunities for advancement.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.