Will Obama Make it Cool for Dads to be Part of the Work+Life Conversation?

Listen to Cali on Wed 11/19 at 4:00 pm ET talk with Maggie Mistal about Work+Life Fit in a Recession on Sirius Radio’s Martha Stewart Network!  “Making a Living with Maggie” inspires, educates and entertains listeners so that they feel empowered to make a great living doing work they are passionate about that fits into the lifestyle they desire.  Join Maggie every Wednesday at 4pm eastern/1pm pacific on SIRIUS 112 and XM 103.  For a free trial of SIRIUS visit http://www.maggiemistal.com/radio.htm

Now back to the blog…

I thought it was amazing that after being elected President, we saw images of Barack Obama holding his first press conference and dropping his daughters off at school.  He didn’t open the car door and let them run out.  He got out of the car, and publicly kissed them good-bye.  The message was clear—I may be the President-elect but I am very much a dad.

Both our President and Vice President-elect are very involved in their children’s lives.  What makes Obama and Biden different from previous administrations is that they are vocal and public about their parenting commitments.  And they talk openly about how they make choices to “fit” those responsibilities into their busy, high-profile lives.

Will their example finally make it cool for men to feel comfortable stepping forward and engaging as equal partners with mothers not only in the broader work+life fit conversation but in developing new strategies for managing work and life that are relevant in today’s world?   Let’s hope the time has come.  Here are some ideas about how organizations, men/fathers, and women/mothers can leverage this historic moment and get the ball rolling:

Organizations need to expand and rebrand internal work+life strategies beyond their women’s groups:  Nine times out of time, in most organizations, when work+life is discussed it’s within the context of women. But as one of my clients discovered three years ago, helping employees strategically manage their work+life fit goes way beyond women.  When we started discussing the development of their work+life flexibility strategy, this firm’s senior management team did view flexibility primarily as a strategy to retain their female talent.  However, when they conducted a firm-wide survey, they discovered that the men and the single employees were having more trouble managing their work and life than the women and married employees!  Immediately the focus of their approach to work+life flexibility shifted to helping all employees manage their work+life fit.

This isn’t to say that work+life fit isn’t a women’s issue.  It is.  But limiting it to women and moms, let’s an organization feel good that they are “doing something,” while avoiding the tougher conversation and harder work related to fundamentally rethinking the way all of us work and manage our lives in an always on, do more with less reality.

Dads need to support and encourage each other:  Feeling comfortable publicly acknowledging their parental role without fear of being seen as “less serious” is new territory for this generation of fathers.  They’ve had few visible role models.  But if Barack Obama and Joe Biden can publicly talk about their roles as fathers while holding two of the most powerful positions in the country, hopefully more men will see that it isn’t a sign of weakness but strength.

Fathers are beginning to step forward to share information and ask to be included as part of the work+life dialogue.  For example, a couple of years ago, a male partner at one of the Big Four accounting firms asked that his region’s Mothers Network change its name to the Parents Network, so that fathers in the firm could participate.

Here’s another opportunity for fathers to share information and support each other:  I’ve written before about ThirdPath Institute and their concept of Shared Care between moms and dads.  For over a decade, ThirdPath and its founder Jessica DeGroot has studied how men and women can work together to create innovative ways to “share” the care of their children.  On November 21st from 1 to 2 pm ET, ThirdPath will hold its first ThirdPath Community call focused on Shared Care dads—dads who have redesigned their work so they can play an active role in the everyday care of their children.  Five Shared Care dads will talk about their experiences and ThirdPath will end the call with a chance to answer questions from call participants.  Attendance is limited, so please email Jessica DeGroot at jdegroot@thirdpath.org and put Shared Care Dads in the subject line.

Women need to create venues that encourage dads to participate:  Maybe we are so used to leading the fight related to these issues for so long that we don’t know how to bring men into a partnership, but my experience is that many men are just waiting to be invited.  Moms and women need to look at our groups and activities related to managing work and life and see where we might be able to engage men and fathers in our efforts.

Here’s a successful approach I’ve taken for the past couple of years.  Every time I am asked to speak to a corporate women’s group, I ask if the work+life subject is being discussed in other venues in the organization so men can get the information if they are interested.  Often, the answer is no.  In those cases, I accept the opportunity only if the women’s group can find another line-related group to co-sponsor the event, and if they publicly open the event up to men.  One recent group got their internal Innovation Team to co-sponsor the talk.  And another got the senior line leadership of their division to be the co-sponsors.  In both cases, men composed at least 50% of the attendees much to the surprise of some of the female organizers and HR.  Interestingly, the men were the least surprised by their turnout.  They were invited.  It wasn’t just a “women’s” event, so they came.  And in my opinion, the women were helped more by positioning work+life in their organization as an “everyone” issue.

We all win by encouraging fathers to work with women and mothers to develop new, joint strategies for managing work and the care of children.  Men have better relationships with their children, children really know their fathers, and more opportunities open up for women.  Maybe seeing President-elect Obama happily dropping his kids off at school, or Vice President-elect Biden talk candidly about his years as a single father, will make men more comfortable taking their place at the work+life table.  And women will see that we need to create the space for them at the table that we have historically had occupy alone.

What do you think?  Is working and managing the care of children a “women’s’ issue or can we do more to bring dads into the process?

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