Why more dads don't work part-time

Hanging with dad ...
Hanging with dad ... Photo: Getty Images

Finding the right balance of work and home time is a common dilemma for couples with young children. For many families the answer is keeping up with the office and kids through part-time work. But how this plays out is typically one-sided, with research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies revealing that while 36 per cent of mums work part-time, only 9.5 per cent of men work reduced hours.

Many dads would like to swap a day or two in the office each week for childcare responsibilities but feel pressured to remain in full-time work, says Scott L Hall, coordinator of the men and family relationships program at Relationships Australia.

"There's probably lots of dads out there who would like to work less and spend more time with their kids," he says. "However, it's more socially acceptable for women to work part-time. For men there's still a residual pressure that if you're not working full-time you're not performing your provider role."

Robin* works full-time for a government agency but would like to spend more time at home with his two children, aged six and three. "I'd like to work part-time to spend more time with my children and to allow my wife to work more hours without the pressure of having to be the sole carer of our children," he says.

But because he works in a male-dominated department where no-one else works part-time, Robin believes he would need to step down from his current position into one of lesser importance if he were to work reduced hours – and be seen as less committed to the job than the full-timers.

Robin cites "money, loss of status within the workplace and being passed over for promotion" as the main reasons why far fewer men work part-time than women. "I also suspect that there is an element of peer pressure to not stick your neck out, and maybe some men would think that they wouldn't be 'real men' if they went part-time to look after their children," he says.

Hall says research shows that when baby comes along even the most liberal, forward-thinking couples revert back to traditional roles – for a least a short time – where mum looks after the baby and dad becomes the provider. And in many cases this arrangement simply continues because couples are locked into financial commitments thanks to a persistent gender pay gap, with some women never returning to full-time work.

"Financial and economic pressures are really underestimated in terms of setting the framework for the choices that are made by mums and dads," says Hall. "However much the father wants to spend time at home, the reality is often that they have to start paying those bills. Quite often men are in this mindset where they want to spend more time at home but they need to keep making money."

Dr Jennifer Baxter, a senior researcher at the Australian Institute of Family Studies and author of the 2013 report Parents Working out Work, says one of the major barriers to dads going part-time is in fact mums.

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"A lot of mothers in Australia really like the option of having part-time work so that they can get the best of both worlds in a way – still stay connected to work but still spend time caring for children while their children are young," she says. "I don't know that mothers in Australia want to give that up at any time soon."

Plus, Dr Baxter says many couples don't discuss how they're going to care for children and bring in an income, instead simply adopting set gender roles where mum goes part-time and dad remains in full-time employment.

"There has to be quite a big change within families for families to consider some alternative ways of working – not necessarily mothers going full-time but perhaps working out an arrangement where they each work reduced hours to share the childcare more equally," says Dr Baxter.

"It's not something that's going to happen quickly. These sorts of changes are likely to be long-term in society, especially for Australia where we've got a widely accepted model where mothers take up part-time work when they have children."

If more dads in part-time work seems like a pipe dream, perhaps the growing body of research that shows high levels of father involvement are associated with better outcomes for children and families will help to convince mums and dads of the benefits. Fathers who are connected with their kids are more likely to feel satisfied with their lives, enjoy greater relationship stability and have a strong sense of how important they are to their kids.

And even though the numbers are small, more dads are working reduced hours than in previous generations – and reaping the rewards. Marcus Holloway is a lawyer working in the health sector and dad to a three-year-old son. He works three days a week and his wife works four days a week, including one day from home.

"We both work part-time in order to manage the load of caring for our son before he begins three-year-old kindergarten next year," says Marcus. "We tried childcare and he hated it! He was distressed and anxious so we put his welfare first and changed our work arrangements."

Marcus says working part-time has allowed him to be a parent in the way that traditional stereotypes don't allow for, such as regularly changing nappies, feeding and bathing his son. He says his colleagues are extremely supportive of his reduced hours: "when I have needed to swap days or be away, they have not judged me but been understanding."

And Marcus' advice to other dads? "You cannot underestimate the power of the patriarchy. There are men who still firmly believe that they work 8am-6pm, come home and kiss the kids on the head and read them a book before mum puts them to bed.  

"I think that if these men knew the benefits to their relationship with their children and within the family dynamic generally, they would definitely look to take up the role."

*Last name has been withheld

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