Men, Fathers, and Work-Family Balance

While most the current research focuses on women and mother’s experiences balancing family life and paid employment, addressing the issues facing men and fathers is equally important to promoting greater equity at home and at work.

The European Union Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality hosts a meeting in Brussels to support paternity leave legislation at the European Parliament. (AP/Thierry Charlier)
The European Union Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality hosts a meeting in Brussels to support paternity leave legislation at the European Parliament. (AP/Thierry Charlier)

University of Oregon Sociologist Scott Coltrane and colleagues correctly stated that there is a “mismatch between the workplace and workforce” in the United States today. While about half of American families in the 1970s had a breadwinning father and a homemaking mother, only about one-third of families today fit that description. Dual-earner couples have become the norm in American society, thanks to women’s expanded workforce participation; both partners work in 59.1 percent of married couples with children, and 68.2 percent of single mothers are also employed outside the home. The continued workforce participation of mothers with preschool-aged children has dramatically affected work and family life; in 2013, 63.9 percent of mothers with children younger than age 6 were in the labor force.

The gender composition of the labor force is not the only significant shift of the past 40 years. A sharp decline in manufacturing jobs since the 1970s—jobs that were traditionally held by males—and a simultaneous rise of the often female-dominated service economy radically changed employment opportunities for the least educated American workers. Well-paid, stable employment opportunities with good benefits have largely been replaced with less stable jobs with highly variable work hours and few benefits. Women’s increased educational attainment has contributed to their earning potential, with more women holding bachelor’s degrees than men. But the collapse of American manufacturing also set the stage for a shift in primary breadwinning. A Pew Research Center study found that 37 percent of married heterosexual mothers out-earn their husbands. At the same time, according to the Center for American Progress, 40.9 percent of mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners for their family and another 22.4 percent are co-breadwinners, meaning they bring home between 25 percent and 49 percent of their family’s earnings. The number of stay-at-home fathers—while still quite small—has increased at a remarkable rate, from 1.6 percent to 3.4 percent of all stay-at-home parents in the first decade of the new millennium. Combine these shifts with an aging population and the corresponding increasing amount of unpaid elder care work in which many Americans, mainly women, are engaged, and the U.S. workforce today is vastly different than it was just 50 years ago.

Despite these dramatic shifts, workplaces are still largely organized for the so-called ideal worker—an individual who is unencumbered by family responsibilities. Across the wage spectrum, employers expect and reward workers who demonstrate full commitment to work. Much research on overwork has documented the ways technology and increased expectations have expanded work hours for white-collar workers. While these workers often work well in excess of 40 hours a week, workers at the opposite end of the work spectrum struggle with underwork—meaning too few hours due to an increased emphasis on last-minute scheduling to minimize labor costs. For low-skilled, often hourly workers, an expectation of full availability at all business hours often accompanies variable schedules that are often erratic and do not offer enough hours. In fact, employers rank availability as important as work experience and rank it “more important than references or skill training,” according to an Urban Institute report. Workers of all types struggle with unrealistically demanding workplaces, many of which offer few resources to balance work and family responsibilities.

Significant research exists on how the state of work in the United States disadvantages women. Some examples of the penalties and challenges women face in the workforce include the motherhood wage penalty, which is when mothers earn less than their male counterparts and women without children, potentially based on assumptions associated with motherhood and work. Sociologist Shelley Correll, who has chronicled the motherhood penalty, has identified the potential negative impact that work interruptions after having a child can have on women’s earnings, the career penalties stemming from pursuing flexible work arrangements, and a more general bias against caregivers. For example, workers in jobs related to caregiving generally receive hourly pay lower than would be predicted based on the requirements and qualifications for those jobs.

Whether it is the so-called mommy track, leaning in, or confidence gaps, this wealth of research is often presented in the public sphere in such a way that work-family fit has largely been framed as a women’s issue; most often, it is framed as a mother’s issue specifically. In turn, important concerns such as flexible work options, paid family leave and paid sick days, and pay inequality are overlooked as policy challenges that require urgent attention.

However, these issues are not specifically women’s issues. Rather, they affect the work and family lives of all Americans. While it is important to address the specific needs of women and mothers as workers, the aim of this issue brief is to outline how work-life issues such as workplace flexibility, paid leave, and pay equity should very much be seen as issues affecting men directly, not just in their roles as partners, fathers, colleagues, and friends of women.

Men, work, and family

Most of the research on work-life balance centers on women, with significantly less research focusing specifically on experiences of men. Recent survey research, however, does reveal that men experience work-family conflict at similar rates as women. Interestingly, at least one study found that men reported a higher instance of work-family conflict than women: the National Study of the Changing Workforce—a 30-year long study from the Families and Work Institute—found that between 1977 and 2008, the percentage of mothers in dual-earner couples who reported work-family conflict grew slightly from 41 percent to 47 percent, while the percentage of fathers who reported work-family conflict grew significantly more from 35 percent to 60 percent. For this study, work-family conflict was defined in a bidirectional way, where the researchers asked “employees with family responsibilities (defined as those who live with spouses or partners, children, parents or other family members—representing 85% of all employed men) how much their work and family responsibilities interfere with each other,” rather than only asking how work impeded on family responsibilities or vice versa.

This rise in work-family conflict reported by men has grown alongside a new fathering ideal that has emerged in recent years. In this new ideal, being a good father requires more than what some have termed “earning as caring.” Fathers today are expected to be involved in child care and domestic responsibilities, sharing care work with their partners rather than simply helping out when needed. Increased social pressure to be active and engaged parents means more men now face the type of competing demands that women face. Research on fathers suggests that they hold these expectations for themselves as well; a survey of largely professional fathers from Boston College’s Center for Work and Family found that most fathers did not want to be only traditional breadwinners, but they also valued their role in caring for their children. They also found that fathers who tended to value their caregiving roles more also reported spending more time caregiving on a work day and that 65 percent of fathers believed that caregiving should be split evenly between spouses, even if that belief does not necessarily play out in reality.

The persistence of the ideal worker norm–that is, a worker who is fully devoted to work without family responsibilities to infringe on work commitments–combined with changing norms around fathering and masculinity means that men are facing increasing pressure at work and at home.

Breadwinning continues to be a key aspect of how Americans understand masculinity, and being a good provider is certainly still seen as an important component of being a good father. The fatherhood wage premium—which is when fathers, especially new ones, earn higher wages based on a variety of factors—provides an example of how fatherhood continues to be an important and valued social role, which is rewarded in the workplace. According to the literature, this wage premium is largest for men who demonstrate other “markers of workplace hegemonic masculinity,” meaning those who are white, heterosexual, married with a traditional division of labor in the home—even a stay-at-home-wife—college graduates, and white-collar workers. The fatherhood wage premium is smallest for men of color and those who earn the least; further research has even suggested that there is no premium, or even a wage penalty, for the lowest-earning fathers. Even in these instances where a fatherhood penalty may exist for some men, the reduction in wages is less than for motherhood penalties. As of yet, little data exist on whether gay fathers received the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts.

Research further suggests that men want to be more involved in their families, play a larger role in child care and domestic affairs, and want to support their partners in their career pursuits. Although women still spend considerably more time in child care and housework, the amount of time women spend on housework has decreased since the 1960s—a decline that is often thought to go along with an increase in paid work participation by women. Meanwhile, time-use data, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, documents an increase in the number of hours men are spending on both child care and domestic labor. In 1965, fathers spent 4.4 hours per week on housework and 2.5 hours per week on child care. In 2008, fathers reported spending 9.5 hours per week on housework and 7.8 hours per week on child care. A March 2013 Pew study echoed these findings, and qualitative studies by sociologists and gender scholars have produced similar findings about men’s increased participation in domestic labor and child care.

Despite these shifts in men’s attitudes, desires, and behaviors, a significant gap continues to exist between men’s and women’s paid and unpaid labor: Women’s paid labor has increased at a greater rate than men’s unpaid care and housework contributions. Scholars have suggested many explanations for this persistent gap with little consensus.

Still, the explanations for this time gap generally fall into two categorical perspectives. The first perspective suggests ongoing convergence and moves toward greater equity, with women doing less housework and men doing more, even if the changes are uneven. From that view, men and women are making rational choices about how best to divide housework and where to spend their time. For example, it is more common today for mothers to work for pay outside the home, which influences decisions about housework. However, part of the reason why a gender gap in housework persists is the fact that men’s paid labor continues to be more highly remunerated than women’s.

In the second perspective, women and men continue to divide child care and housework unevenly because they are doing so-called gender work—traditionally gendered views of women’s work as caregivers and men’s work as breadwinning. These views influence what parents are willing to do, but others have been critical of this interpretation of data. Some researchers even theorize that this perspective is affected by income. For example, women who earn more than their partners are willing to do more housework because they violate the male-breadwinner expectation.

Still, other more recent analyses have sought to complicate how researchers look at time-use data. For example, some questioned the popular second shift analysis—that working women were doing more work at home than their male partners—because when hours in paid and unpaid labor were taken together, men and women worked similar total hours. In fact, young couples often share housework rather evenly, but patterns start to diverge once they transition to parenthood. These patterns are often gendered in line with feminine/masculine expectations: Men tend to work more in paid work, women tend to work more at home. But previous studies haven’t accounted for evolutions over time in family’s distribution of paid and unpaid work. Moreover, child care can present more of a barrier to paid work than housework—dishes can be left in the sink, a baby cannot be left home alone—so studying housework and caregiving as equal forms of unpaid labor may be misleading.

While research continues to evolve and expand in evaluating men’s progress in the home, it is essential to consider the social ideologies and organizational cultures that constrain their opportunities for greater involvement. Joan Williams—distinguished professor of law at University of California, Hastings, and director of the Center for WorkLife Law—notes that workplaces organized around the ideal worker often serve to push women out of breadwinning while simultaneously pulling men away from caretaking. Women have made tremendous strides in the workplace, but as the research above clearly demonstrates, they continue to be penalized for caretaking behavior. Men, meanwhile, have also made significant changes to their unpaid work at home, but the division of labor remains unequal and progress on both fronts of this intractable issue has slowed to a trickle.

Paid family leave and paid sick days

The debate around paid leave for American workers has gained significant momentum in the past several years. Events such as the White House Summit on Working Families have brought these issues to a larger audience, and legislators have started proposing policies to create paid family leave of various kinds.

The issue of paid family leave is often discussed in connection with new mothers having to return to work quickly after the birth of a child. Access to paid family leave for mothers is incredibly important, but the conversation should also be expanded to include men. Not only do men have much to gain from paid leave, but the broader social implications of men’s greater involvement in and responsibility for family caretaking support public policy efforts to create usable, gender neutral leave policies.

Paid family leave would provide some level of wage replacement for workers who need to take time off to care for family members. While the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave to care for new children, seriously ill family members, or personal health problems, the act itself has had a limited impact since its introduction in 1993. The qualifying criteria are limiting: for example, it is only applicable in businesses with 50 or more employees, and employees have to have been employed by the business for at least one year. This leaves millions of workers—such as unrecognized lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, families or non-immediate family members—unable to apply for FMLA leave.

Moreover, the unpaid nature of the leave makes it an unfeasible option for many workers. By one Department of Labor estimate, slightly more than 40 percent of the American workforce does not meet the FMLA’s requirements. Furthermore, research indicates that while the FMLA influenced women’s leave-taking behavior, it did not have an effect on men’s behavior.

Meanwhile three states—California, New Jersey, and most recently Rhode Island—have implemented paid family leave policies that are important stepping stones toward work and family reconciliation attempts by both male and female American workers. While men and women utilize these leave opportunities, statistics from California’s program also reveal a gendered utilization pattern: 74 percent of workers who made use of paid family leave in California were women.

This can possibly be seen as an instance in which policy has moved ahead of cultural change, even as both men and women support increasing father’s leave-taking. One recent study surveyed college students and found that although men and women were nearly equal in ranking the importance of flexibility and work-life balance opportunities in future employment, “men were significantly less likely than women to report intentions to actually seek out such flexibility.” While intentions and hypothetical surveys do not necessarily predict actual future actions, there may be some reason for the young men’s reticence: research on men who exit the workforce for family obligations found that they face wage penalties similar to, although less long-lasting, than women.

There are data indicating that norms are changing and that men want access to parental leave. A survey from Boston College’s Center for Work and Family found that around half of the human resource professionals surveyed noticed increased uptake in paternity leave. Moreover, Millennial fathers were more in favor of paid paternity leave than Generation Xers or Baby Boomers: 93 percent of Millennials said it was somewhat, very, or extremely important, compared to 88 percent of Gen Xers and 77 percent of Baby Boomer fathers. Data from this same study suggested that fathers will take advantage of the full amount of paid paternity leave that is available to them: 49 percent of those with access to one week of paid leave, 64 percent of those with two weeks, and 41 percent of those with four weeks of leave took the full allotment of time off.

Still, international research on men’s leave-taking behaviors demonstrates that fathers are most likely to make use of family leave when it is paid at a high level of wage replacement. This is especially true of those policies that include a use-it-or-lose-it portion for fathers that cannot be transferred to mothers—colloquially referred to as daddy days—and for policies that are available to as many workers as possible. Countries with nontransferable leave for fathers have the highest rates of paternity-leave taking. The experience of the Scandinavian countries highlights how particular types of family leave policies can influence behavior, drawing fathers into family care by providing a legitimating framework for their caregiving.

Sweden stands out in the international community as a leader in using public policy to address issues of work-family fit and to provide support for a more equitable division of labor between men and women. After Sweden reorganized their family leave in 1995 and 2002 to include a nontransferable portion for men to use before their children turned 8 years old, the percentage of fathers taking leave rose dramatically from 4 percent to 80 percent in 2010. The introduction of a paternity quota in Norway had similar results. Leave-taking among Norwegian fathers currently hovers around 89 percent. These statistics show, however, the strategic importance of use-it-or-lose-it father-only leave; even in Norway, only 15 percent of fathers avail themselves of any of the available leave that can be split between parents. Mothers, on the other hand, take all of this type of leave.

Looking a bit closer to home, recent research examining the Canadian province of Quebec’s experience with paid paternity leave illustrates how public policy that takes seriously men’s caregiving can influence behavior in a significant way. Qualitative research illustrated that the paid nature of the paternity leave made leave-taking an option for new fathers, while the experience of being on leave helped new fathers develop the skills and confidence to co-parent alongside their female partners.

What makes the Quebec case particularly interesting is the immediate impact of the paternity leave policy. In 2005, just 32 percent of Quebec fathers took paternity leave. By 2011, this percentage had risen to almost 80 percent. With three to five weeks of father-only leave, at a wage replacement level of up to 70 percent, Quebec’s leave program supports what other research on leave-taking policies has shown: Men do want to be part of the caregiving process and will use available leave to do so when that leave is organized in a particular way.

In all these countries, public policies continue to evolve as gender dynamics and the labor force change. But the increasing number of fathers taking advantage of leave policies shows that truly supportive policies facilitate fathers’ involvement in family life and help to change the ideal worker paradigm.

The aforementioned examples aside, it is important to remember, however, that such paid leave is not available to many American workers across the wage spectrum. In fact, only 12 percent of workers have access to paid family leave through their employers. The FAMILY Act, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), is one effort to provide all workers with up to 12 weeks of high-paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a seriously ill member of their immediate family, or to address their own medical condition. In the FAMILY Act, wages are replaced at up to 66 percent of monthly wages with a maximum amount of $1,000 per week. Similar to Social Security, this leave would be an earned benefit to which employees would contribute 0.2 percent of their wages in order to use the leave.

In discussing fathers’ and men’s use of leave related to family and work-life balance, the focus is often on new fathers and fathers with young children. The FAMILY Act is important because it also provides workers, both men and women, with a better ability to take care of adult family members. According to the Pew Research Center, 39 percent of Americans care for adults or children with significant health issues, and men and women report caring in similar numbers—37 percent to 40 percent, respectively. Furthermore, 30 percent of people with at least one parent older than 65 say that they help them with day-to-day activities and needs. Sixty-two percent of these caregivers have full-time jobs and, in 2009, nearly 70 percent reported making adjustments at work to accommodate their caregiving responsibilities. Currently, women are more likely to care for elderly family members or adults and children with special needs and are more likely to leave the workforce due to caregiving responsibilities. Increased access to paid leave and workplace flexibility arrangements for both men and women could promote more equitable caregiving arrangements and mitigate the financial ramifications of working fewer hours to care for loved ones.

Lastly, 49 million workers—or 39 percent of the workforce older than 18—lack access to paid sick days. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, slightly fewer men have access to paid sick days than women—60 percent compared to 62 percent. Access to paid sick days should be a basic aspect of the American workplace for all workers because, besides creating a healthier workplace, it can improve work-family balance. Earned sick days can allow workers to tend to their own health needs or to look after family members and children when they are sick. Such basic policies have already been put into place for some workers. Paid sick days gained remarkable ground in 2014 at the local level; prior to 2014, six cities and one state had paid sick. In 2014, California, Massachusetts, and 10 cities passed paid sick day ordinances. So far in 2015, Tacoma, Washington, has also passed paid sick days.

Cities and states with paid sick days laws

• San Francisco, California (2006)
• Washington, D.C. (2008)
• Connecticut (2011)
• Seattle, Washington (2011)
• Portland, Oregon (2013)
• New York City, New York (2013)
• Jersey City, New Jersey (2013)
• Newark, New Jersey (2014)
• San Diego, California (2014)
• Eugene, Oregon (2014)
• California (2014)
• Passaic, New Jersey (2014)
• East Orange, New Jersey (2014)
• Patterson, New Jersey (2014)
• Irvington, New Jersey (2014)
• Oakland, California (2014)
• Montclair, New Jersey (2014)
• Trenton, New Jersey (2014)
• Massachusetts (2014)
• Tacoma, Washington (2015)

Paid, nontransferable paternity leave—as well as increased access to caregiving leave and paid sick days for all workers—has the potential to recalibrate expectations and norms around caregiving and breadwinning. By providing fathers the opportunity to bond with their children and develop the skills and confidence necessary to parent autonomously, the door is left open for negotiations and strategizing at the family level about how best to appropriate caregiving and breadwinning.

Pay inequality

The causes of pay inequality between men and women are varied and complex, but shouldering the majority of care work and domestic responsibility figures prominently into the gender wage gap. Despite this, the gap persists even for younger women who are less likely to have caregiving responsibilities. In the absence of policies that facilitate men’s care work and the persistence of workplace ideologies that discourage men from pursuing available options for balancing work and family, care work will continue to fall disproportionally to women and the gender wage gap will persist.

As such, women struggle with the penalties described above, causing them to fall further behind their male counterparts in earnings. In turn, social patterns develop that naturalize a cyclical social system where men specialize in breadwinning and women specialize in caretaking, lending support to unequal pay.

Men and women also tend to cluster in different occupations, and those dominated by women pay less on average. The fact that men and women end up in different careers is not based solely on choice; it is also based on naturalized, but not always beneficial, beliefs about “women’s work” and “men’s work,” among other things. Moreover, when mothers find themselves in jobs that pay less than their husband’s or partner’s, they may make the decision to reduce their work hours or stop working altogether to accommodate their families caregiving needs. As Sarah Jane Glynn of the Center for American Progress explains, “In turn, that reduction in job hours and job tenure both lowers women’s wages overall and contributes to the cultural notion that women are not as devoted to employment once they have children.” Moreover, in certain occupations, working shorter or longer hours can lead to a disproportionate decrease or increase in wages.

Beyond the cyclical ramifications of primarily female caregivers earning less over their work lives because of the time not worked for family reasons, there is the underlying association of mothers with caregiving and less attachment to work. In other words, some argue that there is a “femininity stigma” that equates mothers—or actions perceived as feminine or maternal, such as caregiving—with being less committed workers. For men, behaving in a way that is not seen as stereotypically masculine—for example, by violating gender norms and requesting flexible work arrangements related to family—can lead others to perceive them as less devoted workers as well. One admittedly very preliminary study from 2013 suggested that men who sought these arrangements were also seen as having negative traits that are associated with femininity, such as weakness and lack of agency, among others. And, while these associations appear to lead to pay penalties for fathers, they are not as long lasting as they are for women.

Given these stigmas, developing truly gender neutral policies and shifting organizational cultures to make such policies viable options for men and women will allow men to be the caregivers they want to be while allowing women to be the workers they want to be. At the same time, critically examining the prevalence of stigma related to the ways in which gender norms play out in the workplace are necessary to change work-life culture.


Considerable research has focused on the imbalances of and barriers to adequate work-life fit for women and mothers. But there has been far less research focused on the ways in which gendered notions of the so-called ideal worker and an out-of-date workplace clash with modern notions of fatherhood. Still, increasing both men and women’s access to and use of policies such as flexible work arrangements, paid family leave, and paid sick days can move the workplace forward to meet the needs of the 21st century workforce. At the same time, breaking down the gendered notions and stigmas around so-called “women’s work” and “men’s work,” as well as around caregiving, can create a more equitable and better-balanced work-life experience for all American workers.

Erin M. Rehel is a consultant with the Clinical Operations Board at The Advisory Board Company. Emily Baxter is a research associate for Women’s Economic Security at the Center for American Progress.

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Erin Rehel

Emily Baxter

Research Associate