It's time to listen to men

Dame Helena Morrissey, DBE Head of Personal Investing at Legal & General Investment Management, on what the changing roles for women mean for men

The many efforts and campaigns to create gender equality have, understandably, tended to focus on women’s progression, but of course that’s quite literally just one half of the equation. We won’t achieve true equality unless we also consider what the changing roles for women mean for men. Hopefully it’s good news all round: my husband Richard – a stay-at-home dad for the past two decades – has always maintained that the logical extension of efforts to help women fulfil their career potential is for men to have more choices too. After all, there are still quite straitjacketed expectations about what it is to be a successful man. We are a long way from the point where we – both men and women  –  feel we can just do what we’re best at, without censure, comment or criticism. At the same time, many of us want to work as true partners, living, loving, working and bringing up families together as equals. The next generation is making it clear that they really do expect ‘work life balance’, for men as well as women to play a meaningful role in their future family lives, alongside fulfilling careers. The question is, how do we bridge the gap between today’s reality and where we want to be?  

Redressing the balance 
I’ve been chair of Business in the Community’s Gender Equality Campaign (formerly Opportunity Now) for six years and conscious that our previous landmark survey, Project 28-40, primarily considered women’s experiences in the workplace. Our latest study, Equal Lives redresses the balance, being specifically aimed at exploring the experiences of fathers and male carers with careers. We wanted to explore men’s perspectives and to give their views much greater exposure, as part of our work to move from ‘women’s progression’ to true gender equality.   

The research, conducted earlier this year, comprised two elements: over 10,000 survey responses and a series of interviews and focus groups to investigate themes. There are many interesting findings; the standout for me is the confirmation that men want to play a bigger role in caring while often struggling to do so. The reasons are varied: work expectations (even when organisations offer family-friendly policies, there is a reluctance to take them up for fear of damaging career prospects or job security), societal pressures (what does it mean to ‘be a man’ today?) or couples’ own behaviours (there’s still a tendency to fall into traditional roles once they have caring responsibilities).  

Consequently, while the survey reveals that men and women have very similar desires in relation to balancing work and caring responsibilities, women are eight times more likely to play the primary role in caring for children. The gap narrows when it comes to caring for adults (whether elderly, disabled or ill); but still, women are one and half times more likely to be the lead carer. 

Employers to take the lead 
As we find in other efforts to create modern workplaces, there is a gap between policy (at both public and organisational level) and reality. The feedback from men who participated in our research is that they themselves are looking for change. Men say they would be encouraged to use policies to support them with balancing work and care if they were confident that this would not be held against them in their careers – and if there were more visible examples from senior leaders in their organisation. Often, they hide the extent of their caring responsibilities – especially when caring for adults – leading to stress and a higher propensity to leave their employer. Organisations that can create environments where both men and women feel genuinely able to combine careers with caring will unlock greater employee engagement, loyalty, productivity and results.  

The recommendations in the Equal Lives report are centred around moving working practices from being barriers to enablers, to create equality by design and ultimately, to shift behaviours as people see that this is the way of the future.

Thinking about the practicalities 
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the qualitative research was the input from fathers in same sex relationships; these men felt they had naturally settled into a shared set of responsibilities when it came to caring for their children alongside their careers. One partner tended to take the ‘lead’ role as carer, the other was more focused on his career, but they each felt they could realise their personal preference. Compared with heterosexual couples – having already broken traditional norms - the same sex couples’ decision process was less influenced by external factors, including societal pressures and the perceived expectations of their employers or managers and more by what each partner actually wanted to do. One father in a same sex relationship put it simply, ‘It’s nothing really based around gender and tradition of roles...it’s just practicalities.’ It seems so obvious – and there’s nothing stopping the rest of us from doing the same, but we need the courage to focus more on what works for us and our families rather than what others might think, as well as the confidence that employers will stand by their policies. 

When Richard and I were both working full time we certainly struggled to do just that. We would argue over who would – or could – leave work to pick up our son from nursery when he was unwell, or who would stay at home if our childcare fell through. Eventually we gave up trying to make it work with two careers, and luckily Richard was keen to become a full-time parent. While technology has now made it easier to resolve the practical issues so that in theory both partners can share family responsibilities and careers, attitudes are still hard to change. The recommendations in the Equal Lives report are centred around moving working practices from being barriers to enablers, to create equality by design and ultimately, to shift behaviours as people see that this is the way of the future. 

I’d like to throw down a challenge; if men and women say they want equal lives, organisations should move faster to modernise their workplaces, to shift the onus from workers to managers and leaders to create the right environment so we can lead happy, sustainable working and family lives. I hope that Equal Lives will prompt a rethink of work, and a reset of the gender equality agenda so that it’s less narrowly focused on women and more about us all.