Having it all: men want flexibility too

"Ninety-four per cent of dads had two weeks or less off work upon the arrival of their most recent child" ... Annabel Crabb
"Ninety-four per cent of dads had two weeks or less off work upon the arrival of their most recent child" ... Annabel Crabb 

Can women have it all? It's one of the most over-asked questions in the contemporary Western world, along with "Do you want fries with that?" and "Let's see, what's my ex doing on Facebook today?"

The Atlantic Monthly broke sales records with its July edition, featuring a cover picture of a hot young mum with a toddler in her briefcase, and a stern article inside by Anne Marie Slaughter arguing that women are kidding themselves if they think they can have a full career and a full work life without anything going seriously awry.

An international festival of lady-debate followed. And it is, of course, a perfectly reasonable debate to have, which is probably why we've been having it more or less incessantly ever since Germaine was in short socks.

But what is really odd, given the copious oversupply of theory on the question of whether women can "have it all", is how rarely anyone bothers to turn the question around.

This time of year, around Fathers' Day, seems as good a day as any to do so. So here goes.

Workplaces men can't get out of are every bit as much of a problem, equality-wise, as workplaces women can't get into

Can men have it all?

And does anybody care whether or not they can?

"The New Dad", a new study of 784 Australian fathers, found that 80 per cent of them view the welfare of their children as the most important priority in their lives. And 65 per cent think caring for children should be a matter of equal division between mothers and fathers.

But when asked whether this was what actually happened in their own homes, only 34 per cent said it was. And 94 per cent of dads had two weeks or less off work upon the arrival of their most recent child.


The reason for all this? Lack of flexibility at work.

Of the men who said they didn't work flexibly, the majority felt that their employers wouldn't support such a move; only 12 per cent, for instance, thought their boss would let them work from home to any extent.

The study confirms what most employees, male or female, would already suspect; that it's viewed as far more natural for mothers to work part-time or flexibly than it is for fathers.

And in a supposedly modern world, that's just bizarre.

Workplaces that men can't get out of are every bit as much of a problem, equality-wise, as workplaces that women can't get into.

And the notion that a real man is one who works breakneck hours right up until the point at which he either has an ulcer or elopes with June from accounts is every bit as oppressive as the old one that says a real woman's place is at home with the kids.

The truth is that the equality job here can't be considered done until the roads run both ways, and until they do, everyone's losing; women going out of their minds trying to juggle everything, men wanting to see more of their children but not knowing how to ask, and children who would politely like to see more of everyone.

Funnily enough, there's all sorts of research showing that men and women - when allowed to work flexibly - tend to be more productive at any rate.

My favourite is a large-scale study, conducted in 2010 by researchers at Brigham Young University, who figured out that 38 hours a week was the workload at which normal employees started to feel stressed by the imposition of work on to home life. But workers who were given a flexible schedule and the option of working from home found they could work up to 57 hours a week without feeling stressed.

Now, the revelation that employees can work half as hard again if allowed to perform their professional duties in their PJs may well be worrying, on a couple of levels, but the point for employers should be pretty clear: there are benefits to be had both ways, when fathers or mothers - or anyone, for that matter - feel they would be happier if they had more freedom to determine their own work patterns.

Half the problem here is the mute assumption, on the part of many men, that they will be thought less of as employees if they ask for - or insist on - better terms for themselves and their families.

This is your classic chicken/egg deal; the reason more people aren't doing it is because there aren't enough people doing it.

So how about this: go and find a bloke who's made a positive effort to change his work life to do more with his kids, and tell him, "You're excellent."

This article originally appeared in the Sun Herald.