Fathers face a flexibility stigma: Time for policy and cultural change to support fathers using flexibility

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The government has a strong focus on supporting women back into paid employment following the arrival of children. However, current initiatives don’t go far enough to remove barriers for many mothers to engage in career-oriented employment. In today’s analysis, Ashlee Borgkvist (@ashb_6) of the University of Adelaide (@UniofAdelaide) examines the barriers men face in accessing paid parental leave and explains how increasing uptake will result in better outcomes for mothers, fathers and children.

When Jacinda Arden announced that she was pregnant, the questions of how she would perform her role as Prime Minister as well as her role as mother began. These questions were not unexpected, and are asked often of women, implicitly if not explicitly.

When Scott Morrison became Prime Minister, no one – other than the brilliant Annabel Crabb – asked these questions although he is parent to two young children. This was also not unexpected and presents an interesting paradox in the expectations we have for who does the caring for children in families.

In Australia, and in other countries around the world, social and cultural expectations still place the responsibility of caring for children squarely on women. Women taking on this burden of care often means that they are more likely to work part-time upon return to paid work or remain out of the workforce for longer periods of time, whereas men tend to remain in full-time work. This of course contributes to the gender wage gap, but it also maintains and reproduces ideas about the normality of women caring and men financially providing for families, and discourages fathers from taking more active caregiving roles. Without adequate financial and cultural support for fathers to take periods of leave throughout children’s lives, falling back on to a traditional gendered pattern of work and care is often how families work out work.

'“But how will they ever govern?” Concerns regarding how Jacinda Arden would manage her leadership responsibilities as a parent were very different to those expressed for Scott Morrison. Photo credits:  left - the Evening Standard ;  right - Business Insider .

'“But how will they ever govern?” Concerns regarding how Jacinda Arden would manage her leadership responsibilities as a parent were very different to those expressed for Scott Morrison. Photo credits: left - the Evening Standard; right - Business Insider.

The benefits of flexible working arrangements

Many organisations in Australia offer flexible working arrangements, which generally means any non-standard arrangements where the employee has choice and/or control over their working patterns, such as part-time work or a compressed work week. The use of flexibility by men, including parental leave, presents one way in which care taking can be shared more equitably between mothers and fathers. More than that, reduced work hours through the use of flexibility can provide fathers the opportunity to develop a father-child bond through spending more time with their children. Many fathers in Australia work very long hours, and this has been associated with stress and experiencing work-family conflict.   

Long working hours have also been linked to unhealthy eating, reduced physical activity, increased tobacco and alcohol use, and increased stress and burnout. So, the ability to use flexible working arrangements may lead to health benefits for those who use them, in part because their reduction in work hours will mean they have more time to focus on their own health and wellbeing, and in part because it will mean less stress and work-family conflict.

Another benefit to father’s use of flexibility is that it may enhance women’s ability to participate in the workforce more fully should they chose to while their children are growing up, while also lessening women’s work-family conflict. In previous decades, governmental and organisational policy has had a strong focus on using flexibility to facilitate getting women back into the paid work force after having a child. This focus on increasing women’s use of flexibility to enable a return to paid work resulted in flexibility labelled a ‘woman’s issue;’ men’s need for flexibility was not considered.  


With flexibility primarily linked to women, the use of flexibility and an understanding that it may be needed by women has become normalised within organisations. This conceptualisation has led to altering women’s and not men’s ways of working following the arrival of children.

Current policy in Australia

The male breadwinner model and the focus on altering women’s ways of working but not men’s is reflected in the Government-funded parental leave policies currently available to mothers and fathers in Australia. An Australian Government-funded Paid Parental Leave scheme was introduced in 2011 offering 18 weeks leave to the primary carer, paid at minimum wage. In 2013, Dad and Partner Pay was introduced for secondary carers, again paid at the minimum wage. Employers can also offer their own paid parental leave should they choose.

However, these parental leave policies can be seen to focus on facilitating women taking time off from work to care while not providing adequate support for fathers to do the same. In its current form, the Paid Parental Leave policy supported by the Australian Government is accessible to both mothers and fathers. But the primary carer for the first 18 weeks of a child’s life is much more likely to be a woman, in part because women need to physically recover after giving birth and also may choose to breastfeed, and in part because women are likely to earn less than their male partners. This means that women are much more likely to take the whole 18 weeks of paid leave. The Dad and Partner Pay policy provides two weeks of paid leave at the minimum wage to be taken at the same time as the primary carer is taking Paid Parental Leave, and it is usually men who take the secondary carers leave. Further, if a father’s employer does not offer paid secondary carers leave, they are put in the position of taking unpaid time off or using annual leave if they want to take more than 2 weeks when their child is born.

Taking unpaid leave or even leave paid at minimum wage is often not enough to support families financially. Compare this with Sweden where men receive 3 months paid parental leave under a ‘use it or lose it’ policy, and Australia seems quite lax.

Barriers to policy uptake

Research has identified numerous barriers to men’s uptake of flexibility policies. These barriers include a lack of support from managers and co-workers for men’s use of flexibility, career consequences such as missing out on promotions and pay raises, and perceptions within organisations that flexibility is for mothers and not fathers.

Our recent research focused specifically on the relationship of gender (masculinity) and the decisions that working fathers might make about using flexibility. We interviewed working fathers and asked them about how they managed their work and home lives, looking at what barriers these fathers identified and how they talked about their decisions to use or not use flexibility. We then analysed their responses with a gender lens, which is essential when thinking about how men, and families, organise work and care given the persistence of the father as breadwinner model.

Our research found that the ideal worker norm – the organisational expectation that an individual (who is usually a male worker) will be dedicated to paid work – was a significant barrier to fathers utilising flexible working arrangements. The construction of the ideal worker as dedicated to their jobs with no outside distractions and able to work long hours was reinforced by organisational culture, and internalised by employees. While some fathers we interviewed were using flexibility, such as coming in later after dropping kids off at school and a few who were working part-time, participants were aware of a need to minimise their time away from paid work. One father, for example, was doing school visits with his wife and child but for the last visit had ‘decided just to let them go to it’ because he had taken too much time off. Another father stated that he didn’t ‘want to be seen as someone who tries to get out of doing work’ and so he had decided not to approach his manager about using flexibility. Other participants noted that within the organisational environment it was not considered unusual for women to use flexibility, though it was considered unusual for men.

Another factor we identified as having an influence over men’s decisions around flexibility use is the pervasive influence of masculine identity. Participants were in fact more involved in care work than traditional masculinity would prescribe, and stated that they wanted to be involved in feeding, changing diapers, and other care related activities. However, participants emphasised the importance and seniority of their positions at work and the resolve they had in overcoming difficulties in the workplace, firmly grounding their identities in paid work. One participant told us that if he worked part-time and his wife worked full-time, they would be better off financially, but he had worked hard to get to where he was ‘so it would be absolutely silly to stop now and go part-time’. Participants also emphasised their roles as breadwinners and their female partners roles as carers, with one participant stating that ‘I can’t imagine her going back to work and letting me look after the children when they were very young’.

Lastly, and importantly, we identified that fathers talked about the use of flexibility, and particularly parental leave, as a privilege and a choice as opposed to a right. Taking time off for the birth of their children, and using flexibility later on to assist in managing work-life conflict, was discussed as an individual choice and thus their own responsibility to manage, rather than as something that should be supported by organisations and government policy. Participants’ accounts of leave-taking around the time of their children’s birth was framed as a privilege, with one participant stating ‘I was very fortunate, probably 99 per cent of the population don’t get that opportunity’. We concluded that among these participants there was a distinct lack of ‘sense of entitlement’ to time off and use of flexibility for family reasons. This was further evidenced by their discussions of the normality of women using flexibility, framed as a right.

How do we encourage men to use flexibility?

Our research identified that the majority of fathers remain reluctant to use flexibility, and the barriers are primarily cultural, specifically gendered, in nature. Encouraging men generally and fathers specifically to challenge these cultural barriers is necessary to break them down, but they also need support in order to do this effectively. One thing that the Scandinavian countries have shown us is that culture change is incredibly important. With a focus on increasing father’s use of parental leave for the past 40 years, Sweden in particular has seen a large increase in fathers using parental leave and flexibility after the birth of children, and this has come to be an accepted and expected norm. Importantly, the change in social norms and expectations was facilitated by the change in government policy which encouraged uptake of parental leave by fathers.

So, tangible and practical policy change will play a key role in encouraging more fathers to use flexibility and particularly parental leave in Australia. What can be said about the Dad and Partner Pay initiative is that, given the cultural value that continues to be placed on breadwinner status, and also the probability that a male partner will be, overall, earning more than his female partner, the initiative falls short of offering an adequate solution to the issue of paternity leave. Our research indicates that, if we want to encourage fathers to step away from paid work and engage more fully in fathering, policies need to convey the value associated with that role – to provide cultural support, but practical support also.

A wealth of evidence-based research also means that there is no denying that when fathers are provided with well-compensated and specific leave, they are very likely to take it. This is an important consideration given that research is now emerging from around the globe showing that when fathers are involved early on in an infant’s life, they are more likely to maintain that involvement as the child grows and throughout the child’s life long-term.

Policy change thus represents an important facilitator not only in encouraging fathers to take leave but also in father involvement in children’s lives in the longer term. As a country, there is a need to show fathers that their involvement is valuable and that time off from paid work for family reasons is a right not a privilege. This needs to start with more inclusive and supportive policy, and, as was the case in Sweden, it is likely that broad culture change will follow.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here and follow us on Twitter @PolicyforWomen