Through in-depth interviews, this study examines how working fathers in Spain overcome barriers to work-family balance. The researchers found that working fathers use three different strategies for dealing with these barriers: no strategy, invisible strategies (e.g., making hidden or informal flexible work arrangements), and visible strategies (e.g., openly asking for formal flexible work arrangements). The men’s strategies depended on whether they conformed to traditional gender hierarchies and norms of masculinity or deviate from them. This research suggests that flexible work arrangements in organizations can be reframed as legitimate for all workers so that working fathers can balance care work and paid work without having to hide their needs or face career penalties for asking for flexibility.
Organizations often reproduce men’s power by perpetuating the notion of the “ideal worker” as someone who devotes their life to paid work without care or family obligations. However, recent research suggests that most employees—regardless of their gender—want to spend more time with their families. Men are also facing rising social expectations to be more involved as fathers while at the same time continue to be pressured to conform to traditional notions of masculinity. As such, many organizations are aiming to institutionalize flexible work policies to allow for work-family balance.
In this study, researchers investigated the barriers to work-family balance for working fathers in Spain and the strategies they used to overcome them. Spain is an interesting context as it is rapidly changing from a male-dominated culture towards gender egalitarianism; however, organizations in Spain are still often inflexible and lack generous family policies. The researchers interviewed 29 Spanish men who have children under 10, work full time, and live with their children and partner. The average age of interviewees was 40.2 and they worked in different positions across various sectors. After conducting interviews, the researchers transcribed them and compared them using thematic analysis.
From their interviews, the researchers created a new typology of working men. They use the term “hegemonic gender order” to characterize the system of gender relations that keeps men who adhere to idealized masculine roles in dominant positions in society. In their study, they found three types of men: hegemonic gender order (HGO) conformers, HGO borderers and HGO deviants. According to the typology:
- Conformers centre paid work in their lives and adopt traditional codes of fatherhood in which mothers do the majority of caring.
- Borderers perceive barriers to work-family balance and may express the desire to be more involved fathers. However, they pass as HGO conformers by replicating gender norms, such as by not participating in caregiving as much as they would like.
- Deviants value care and hold family centrally in their lives. They openly challenge norms of the ideal worker and are highly engaged in fatherhood.
The researchers also found that barriers to work-family balance that the men face can be divided into contextual barriers, organizational barriers, and internalized barriers.
- Contextual barriers are 1) poor political support, where public policies do not support father involvement, and 2) “our common past”, where Spain’s history of traditional gender roles and the behaviour of their own fathers has imposed on men a traditional view of family.
- Organizational barriers are 1) poor organizational support, where work-family balance policies exist in their organizations but are aimed at women, 2) poor peer support, in which men do not want to use flexible arrangements because their colleagues do not, and 3) anticipation of negative career consequences, in which men expect career penalties for not meeting the ideal worker norm.
- Internalized barriers are 1) internalization of the ideal worker image, where men feel they must meet expectations to work constantly, and 2) internalization of traditional gender norms, where the men perceive that caregiving is not a man’s job or that women do it better.
Finally, the researchers identified the strategies men use to overcome the above barriers.
- No strategy: HGO conformers do not use any strategy to increase work-family balance because they have no interest in doing so. Notably, HGO conformers are the only group to perceive both of the internalized barriers mentioned above.
- Invisible strategies: HGO borderers hold the notion of the ideal worker, but not that of traditional gender norms. However, they do not ask for flexible arrangements because they fear career penalties. Instead, they engage in invisible strategies. For instance, they make informal flexibility arrangements by working from home occasionally, or hide their caregiving needs by saying they are taking time off for personal reasons. These strategies do not challenge the status quo, nor do they create the peer support for other men who might be considering asking for flexible arrangements.
- Visible strategies: HGO deviants do not perceive either internalized barrier. They centre care work and challenge traditional gender roles by openly and confidently asking for flexibility for family needs. However, these attitudes can lead men to quit their jobs or to have to find work in different sectors. For instance, one interviewee quit his job because his working partner did not understand his commitment to his family, leading to tension and arguments.
Working men deploy different strategies to overcome barriers to work-family balance, with varied consequences – Some of the men in this study who were unsatisfied with traditional gender roles undertook invisible strategies to overcome barriers to work-family balance, such as by hiding their reasons for flexible work arrangements. Some undertook visible strategies, openly requesting flexibility. These strategies can have different consequences for working men. Invisible strategies continue to reinforce gender norms while visible strategies challenge them. However, men undertaking visible strategies may face career penalties.
Organizations should emphasize that it is legitimate for working men to be caregivers by creating work-family balance opportunities for everyone – The organizational barriers that interviewees brought up in this study can be changed. For instance, organizations can ensure that workplace flexibility policies apply to everyone and that they are universally appealing in order to destigmatize men’s use of these policies. They can also train supervisors on the importance of work-family balance and commit to changing work culture to de-emphasize the traditional ideal worker norm.
Research brief prepared by: