Friday, July 29, 2011

Redefining "Men's Work": Equality in the Playroom and the Boardroom

Today's columnist is Julian Egelstaff from Freeform Solutions. He writes:

I learned a lot of things during the early years of Freeform Solutions. But not just about business and entrepreneurship. I also learned:

  • Two-year-olds will eventually go to sleep by themselves for an afternoon nap, if you're on the phone with a client long enough.

  • Not all child-proof medicine bottles are created equal.

  • And never, ever, ever leave a permanent marker on the kitchen counter when you're in another room answering e-mail.

I had the good fortune to learn these and many other lessons courtesy of my twin daughters, who were born a few months before Freeform Solutions was officially incorporated. For me personally, and for my family, a big reason to start Freeform was to have a flexible job that I could do at home, so I could look after the girls. My wife continued with her 9-to-5 job out of the house.

So, at the same time as I became a social entrepreneur, I also became a man in the woman's world of child rearing. I think it gives me a unique perspective on some of the challenges facing women entrepreneurs.

Make no mistake, the world of child rearing is a woman's world.

If you don't believe me, just check out a random selection of books on how to take care of babies and young children. It won't be long before you find helpful chapters with titles like “What Dad can do to help.” Just imagine picking up a general business book and finding a chapter entitled “What your wife can do to support your career.” Equality of the sexes is closer to reality in the boardroom than the playroom.

As a society, we seem to pay a lot of attention to equality issues, at least in the workplace. They are routinely in the news, many organizations have anti-discrimination policies, and a lot of hiring practices are specifically designed to create an equal playing field. A lot of the articles in this month's OSBR issue on Women Entrepreneurs talk about the importance of various policies and programs in supporting women entrepreneurs in the workplace.

But when it comes to family life and personal decisions, our society seems to have a different set of expectations in place. These expectations are not just in the “parenting industry” – the book publishers, the toy makers, the companies marketing goods and services for looking after infants and young children – those companies can almost justify the focus on moms by the fact that women make up about 90% of the people providing child care at home. But in my experience, many individuals also implicitly hold this idea that looking after kids is “women's work.”

When I was out and about with my pre-school aged girls, people would often make conversation. Twins are a real show-stopper. If you enter a grocery store with a matched set of babies in a double stroller, total strangers will stop and talk to you, several times, whether you like it or not.

A common theme of conversation would be how nice it was that I was giving mom a break. These people were trying their best to be complimentary. It was just their instinctive assumptions kicking in, we're all prone to that. When you hear hoof beats, you think horses not zebras. And when you see a man pushing a stroller, many people think dad-home-from-work, not stay-at-home-dad.

My anecdotal experience is not the end of the story here. Many researchers have spent a lot of time examining these biases, as Tess Jewell explains in her article in this month's OSBR.

But it's not just the everyday world outside of work that needs to welcome and support men who provide child care. The workplace needs to stop viewing this as a women's issue, and start treating it as a family issue that affects men equally.

This is touchy stuff. You won't necessarily find people talking about it openly around the water cooler, but in how many workplaces would it raise eyebrows if a man took six or nine months of paternity leave? He's entitled under the law. But wouldn't it hurt his career?

Breathless profiles of women executives in magazines will not hesitate to comment on how she balances work and kids. But for how many men is that even a question in the interview?

Nonetheless, perceptions and behaviours are gradually changing. Since 2001, fathers in Canada have been able to take up to 35 weeks of parental leave, and a steadily growing percentage of eligible fathers have been taking at least part of that time – 10% in 2001, increasing to 20% in 2006. In Quebec, nearly half of eligible fathers take at least some parental leave time. That's probably because in Quebec there are more generous subsidies, replacing up to 75% of your income.

This is real progress, but men are still a distinct minority when it comes to providing child care. Support for fathers in the workplace needs to keep improving. Fathers need to be encouraged to provide primary care for their children, and as a society we need to welcome them into this role. Maternity leave is not some kind of special trump card women get to play. Being involved in raising your kids is a right that all parents have.

It's not just a right, it's a joy. Your kids are only young once. So come on guys, step up and take on this wonderful role. Until we find a way to make it happen, women will continue to be the only ones stuck with the challenge of balancing work and kids. As long as there's no equality in the playroom, it will be impossible to achieve equality in the boardroom.

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