Agnes Uhereczky

Agnes Uhereczky

Agnes Uhereczky is a consultant, podcaster and workplace transformer. She is the co-founder of the WorkLife HUB.

.... but the world has moved on and employees don’t want to wear masks at work. 

Authenticity has been proven to correlate strongest with employee engagement 

And in any worker’s life there comes a time, when priorities conflict between time spent at work and time spent elsewhere, and the most conflicting of all are family commitments, such as the birth of a child. Perpetuating the “primary carer” role for women is hurting women, employers and society. Caregiving shouldn’t be cemented by who is the primary caregiver immediately after birth but is a long-term issue, and may even involve other relatives and family friends. 

These conflicting expectations are not serving anyone. If employees, who previously have been asked to commit and do what is best for the organisation are denied doing what they believe is the right thing, namely being there for their families in these critical first weeks or months will feel betrayed and cynical towards the employer. After all, the employment contract is a reciprocal agreement of some sorts, however with a clear power shift towards the employer. But with skilled labour shortages gripping virtually all industries, this is going to change. 

As a recent BCG study (1) states: “Demographic shifts are likely to compound the issue. Most of the people entering the workforce today are millennials, who are soon to become the biggest population cohort and to constitute the largest share of the workforce at most organizations. Many millennials expect to be part of a dual-career household, where both spouses will need to balance work and family commitments. And they are more likely to see a company’s stance on gender diversity as a marker for the overall experience of working there.”

The parental leave glass ceiling

Germany introduced parental leave for fathers in 2007 and the take-up of this leave has risen gradually. However, still only 35,7% of fathers request this entitlement to stay at home with their child or children, and  79% of the dads who temporarily left their work to care for their child did this for 2 months, whereas the maximum could be 12. The employer cannot deny the request, which has to be submitted 7 weeks prior to the leave begins. 

Similar legislation exists in other countries, and the European Parliament is currently debating on an EU-wide legislation to foster work-life balance, with one of its most innovative features being the splitting of parental leaves between parents. This is also one aspect of the legislation that encounters the biggest resistance from diverse lobby groups, mainly the representatives of businesses and employers. 

Are you man enough to take it? 

There are many initiatives in a number of countries, both government and civil society is pushing for this right and its use, but there seems to be a glass ceiling for men and parental leave too. New dads taking up 3 months or more are the rare exception. 

In terms of solo parental leave by fathers caring for young children - meaning they are the primary carers while the mother is working, Scandinavian countries seem to form their own island, with the longest leaves and highest uptake, not least because of the generous salary replacement. But they remain the exception, and having looked at the Scandinavian welfare model for decades, other countries are stuck with much lower numbers, despite concentrated efforts by public authorities and innovative campaigns. 

Belgian campaign to encourage parental leave

The longest and most generously paid leaves are available to Japanese fathers however, with a strong government push to rebalance workplace equality between men and women, and sees this as an important lever in enabling Japanese mothers to return to the workplace after having children. 

So what stands in the way of men to take a relatively short time out from their long working careers to benefit from these precious early moments with their children? The questions should rather be formulated: who stands in the way? And the answer is: men.

What society makes men believe other men will think of them

According to a new Japanese study (2), which is very enlightening, just like in Germany and other countries, the great majority of men expressed a desire to take up parental leave once they have children (around 80%). They however also expressed worry, that they would be stigmatized, left out of promotion, receiving negative feedback from others. Previous studies looked into unfavourable workplace climats, that discourage men from taking up their leaves. The study of Takeru Miyajima and Hiroyuki Yamaguchi questioned whether this is actually true, of men ‘believe’ other men will stigmatize them, therefore won’t even try to request leave or flexible work. 

"The results demonstrated that male employees overestimated other men’s negative attitudes toward paternity leave. Moreover, those who had positive attitudes toward taking leave and attributed negative attitudes to others were less willing to take paternity leave than were those who had positive attitudes and believed others shared those attitudes, although there was no significant difference between their desires to take paternity leave."

Men are still very much expected to bring home the bacon, and rise like rocketships (=uninterrupted) to the top of the organisation. Despite the rise of “family-friendly” company certifications and “best place to work” labels, it’s far from automatic that men take their leaves they are entitled to. There are fears on both sides, and it is by confronting these fears that we will make progress:

  • Dads fear about being labelled and stigmatized, losing on the momentum in their career and responsibilities, and are also anxious about coping with child and household on their own
  • Employers are afraid of lost productivity, colleagues may feel their workload will increase due to the absence of the colleague. 

Employers that deny male workers their right to parental leave are reinforcing an outdated model, which separates work from the rest of our lives, which is impossible. Taking an integration or blend approach can ease a lot of the conflict, and rests on accepting, that during certain periods of our now almost 50 years of active years, a couple of months will be focused on other things. 

What are some of the benefits of Dads taking parental leave?

  • Mothers return to organisations quicker, and thus reduce pay-gap, pension gap and increase their chances to advance in the organisation to leadership levels
  • Men who return from leave are inspired, energized, bring new ideas back to work having taken time out to gain social and other cognitive skills. 
  • Men returners inspire other men to be more involved in family life, which benefits children and the other parent.
  • Men temporarily leaving the workplace offers other actors on the labour market to enter jobs on a temporary basis, gain experience or to shift tasks among coworkers to increase diversity of tasks and learning opportunities.

And compared to unexpected sickness absence, parental leave is the most planable event in anyone’s life as they come. Organisations have literally 9 months to plan for it. To begin with, one of the most interesting approaches is to create gender-neutral leave policies. 

Concrete measures

So what can employers do to facilitate this transition? Here are top 3, from a long list of options:

  • Role modeling by leadership about “bringing your whole self to work”, breaking the Ideal worker mould
  • Employee resource Groups - networks in which employees (Dads and/or Moms) can exchange about very practical aspects from leave (Nappy changing to playgroups) to worries about career progression and losing touch
  • Make a Plan, how to keep in touch with colleagues, how to ease the departure to leave and the return. 

There are tons of resources available, as parental leave campaigns exist in almost all countries. Don’t take the risk of your talented and engaged employees leaving your organisation because you denied them a few months of irreplaceable time! And we can help you make this happen!

(1) Five Ways Men Can Improve Gender Diversity at Work, October 10, 2017

(2) I Want to but I Won't: Pluralistic Ignorance Inhibits Intentions to Take Paternity Leave in Japan September 2017

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