(This post originally appeared in FastCompany.com)
A couple of months ago, Selena Rezvani, author of The Next Generation Women Leaders, wrote an article in The Washington Post entitled “Where are the Men in the Work/Life Conversation?” I’ve grappled with this question for more than 15 years as I helped companies rethink inflexible ways of working so that everyone (not just women) could optimize his or her work+life fit.
But, I decided it would be more interesting to ask a man to share his insights.
Immediately, I thought of Dan Mulhern, whose moving and powerful letter to his 13 year old, Jack, “How to Be a Real Man” was published in last week’s Newsweek. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s raising the next generation of men.
Professionally, Mulhern writes, speaks, coaches and consults to help people” lead with their best self.” He’s authored two books on leadership and writes a weekly e-column called “Reading for Leading.” (sign up at www.danmulhern.com). Personally, Dan shifted from a 50-50 sharing arrangement to the lead parent role in 1998 when his wife Jennifer Granholm was elected Michigan’s first female attorney general and subsequently served two terms as governor. Their daughters were 8 and 7 years old, and son Jack was not quite a year old at the time of Jennifer’s first election.
Drawing upon his professional and personal experience, here’s what Dan Mulhern had to say about men and the work+life conversation.
Cali Yost: Welcome Dan. So how do you answer the question, “Where are the men in the work/life conversation?
Dan Mulhern: I think they are increasingly in the conversation. We are at a tipping point with a rash of articles about men, work and their lives. I think there’s a multi-level conversation about what is happening to men more broadly.
For a strong contingent of these men this is a really great opportunity especially for young fathers like Tom Matlack and The Good Men Project. I feel part of that group and it’s a huge celebration. For another group of people, it’s more of a reaction to a world that’s changed. When my wife burst into her new role (Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan), in a sense I had to change for her welfare, our family’s welfare.
Men have not been socialized to have these conversations about our work and other parts of our lives. These men who have chosen it are saying “Let’s talk about it. It’s cool.” But the other men are being swept along, less by choice.
Cali Yost: You’ve recently participated in a study of new fathers with the Boston College Center for Work and Family. What does that research tell us? What are the implications for men?
The Boston College Center for Work and Family New Dad Study confirmed two old findings and unearthed one new finding:
- There is a lingering pro-male bias, in the sense that people treated men as more mature and seasoned when they had children versus women who felt professionally penalized. Men felt propelled into adulthood, whereas, for women this new phase brought a lot of anxiety about their role and work commitment, and
- The new fathers really didn’t think about being the main caretaker. Out of the 32 study participants, only two new fathers gave serious thought to taking on primary role.
So Gen Y fathers are not that different from those two perspectives. But what was really clear and new with this generation is that men really want to be involved and part of the conversation.
Cali Yost: The National Study of the Changing Workforce reported that men had higher levels of work+life stress than women. I have found that to hold true in my work with companies. Yet, work+life is still entrenched as a “women’s issue.” What do you think will finally change this?
Dan Mulhern: There’s a triangle of influence that’s important if we want to make that change and involve men in companies. First, a male senior leader needs to speak openly and encourage the conversation. Second, a man has to be brave enough to say something about what he needs. And then, third, the managerial conversation with that employee is critical. Emphasis on the conversation including men up and down all levels of the organization is key.
I also think men need to be willing to talk about the issue honestly and openly. I have a friend who used to ask me to play golf and I had to say “no” because of taking care of kids. He would respond, “Your priorities are all right.”
His interest in my choices made a difference, because it’s not the same when women would tell me “You’re so great for taking care of your kids.” That seemed somewhat matronizing (like patronizing). I equate it to what it must feel like if you are a beautiful woman who completes an engineering project and a bunch of guys say, ‘You’re so smart.” Well, what did you think of me before?
Those conversations for me are important. Jennifer and I talked for years that this time would be “my time” after her term as governor ended. But instead I’ve found that I’ve really exalted in my family. I appreciate reading about other men who are also excited about their families on the Good Men Project. You don’t feel like the only one. What’s going to change the reality is men talking.
Cali Yost: What are the key changes related to men and work+life you’re trying to drive with your work?
- Help to make talk about what’s going on in work and life amongst men normal and safe. There’s never been a legal prohibition that’s kept men from being a primary parent. It was all internal. You didn’t show feelings, emotions unless they were manly feelings. Talk is the most liberating thing.
- In terms of who does what in parenting, we need to move away from gender and biology as the determinant toward competency and passion. In other words, each partner does what they like and are good at regardless of gender or biology.
The first two points are inter-related because if it’s not okay amongst men to talk about how you like to be with your kids then we won’t be able to accomplish the second goal.
I think that so many artificial barriers have already come down or will come down. We created a divide between life and work over the last 100 years. Farmers didn’t have a divide. There should be a real questioning in the work life movement of work life boundaries.
Sons and daughters benefit from seeing both parents working. The conversations with our son, Jack, are very different and that will create the change.
Cali Yost: Thank you, Dan. I knew you’d have wise insights into the question “where are men in the work/life conversation? The answer I hear is that they’re starting to arrive. And that’s good for all of us!