While today’s working fathers still want a successful career, they also want to be present and involved as parents and partners. But workplace policies and traditions hold them back even more from a progressive view of parenting and work. To counter these cultures, fathers must build a network of parenting allies at work. Parenting allies can help fathers on two levels: support and advocacy. Supporters are colleagues who provide direct and practical help. Lawyers work together to improve corporate culture for parents. To build your network of parenting allies, just start by talking about your life as a father, in all its messy, beautiful glory. Normalize your parenting life and your colleagues will no longer consider it a taboo topic. Make fatherhood part of your virtual identity. Join existing conversations about working parents in your organization and consider starting a fathers network. The more people participate in the discussion, the harder it will be to ignore, and the sooner we will create cultures that genuinely support all working parents.
We all know the truth that it takes a village to raise a child, and of course we all know that if you want to get ahead at work and in your career, you need to be an effective teammate and successful networker. But most dads haven’t brought two and two together and realized the importance of building a network of parenting allies at work.
Our research about modern working fathers shows that while fathers still want (and need) a successful career, they also want to be present and involved as parents and partners. They want to share the workload and the joys. They want to calm a crying baby at night and be home in time for baths and stories. They want fun weekends with their families and meaningful time with their kids during the week.
Unfortunately, workplace policies and traditions still hold them back. The idea that fatherhood is separate from work life, as well as a culture of presenteeism and facetime, has been the norm since the advent of the office. Instead of confronting this culture, many fathers succumb to it, especially if their finances are fragile.
Nurturing a network of parenting allies can help fathers on two levels: support and advocacy. On the support level, your parenting allies are the colleagues who turn their backs on you when you have to go home to care for a sick child or lend a listening ear when you’re overwhelmed. This kind of support is interpersonal, unofficial, and can be fostered in any company culture. If a colleague can support you emotionally or practically in your goal of succeeding in your career and as a parent – and you do the same for them – then they are a worthy ally.
The advocacy level of your parenting association network has a higher purpose: to change corporate culture for the better. If you want to turn your organization into a friendlier place for working parents, it’s a recipe for failure. Parenting allies can help broaden the discussion and steer you in different directions. They have conversations with a wider range of people. They normalize the ideas and the leadership starts to notice. Slowly they change their mind.
Think about advocating for a more progressive paternity leave policy. One father can’t fight for change alone – he needs allies to spread the word. A predominance of conversations is needed about what better leave means happier, more productive fathers. Fathers, and those who intend to become fathers, stay with the company longer, and new talent is easier to recruit. What a company loses in long hours, it gains in loyalty. Mothers benefit from fathers taking longer paternity leave. These messages need to spread across the workplace, in HR, marketing and finance, and in the CEO’s office.
Building your network of parental allies
More people than you might think may be your parental allies. Many will be moms — moms have been fighting for parental work rights for decades, and they’ll appreciate the power a new generation of engaged dads can bring. Your allies are likely to include parents who are older than you, those who remember the challenges they faced by combining their family and career. An ally can have any job title, but if they have a direct impact on parental policies at work, they can be more effective. They come in all shapes and sizes. They may be sounding boards for your own thoughts or ideas, or they may be in a position to disseminate those ideas widely. Here are a few steps to start the conversation.
Share your life as a father, in all its messy, beautiful glory. We often hear of fathers who are successful and popular at work and who keep the paternity side of their identity completely hidden from colleagues and customers. This reluctance tends to be contagious. To overcome it, just start talking. Talk about your weekend and bring the family outing. Mention the fact that you are leaving in time today to go home for the stories. A joke about that diaper change that went horribly wrong.
Normalize your parenting life and your coworkers will see that you don’t treat it as a taboo topic either. Perhaps a parent with younger children would like to ask you for advice or a parent with older children may have something for you. Either way, you’ve created a space for discussion. If you’re a manager, you’ve also set an example for other dads to talk about their lives as parents. Don’t forget to mention the pressure of your dual responsibilities. Give others the freedom to admit that being a good worker and a good father can sometimes be a difficult balancing act.
Fly your father’s flag virtually. If you work remotely, you won’t meet other parents in the kitchen, but the principle remains the same, even if you chat via Zoom or Teams. Hang your children’s artwork on your background. Make your profile picture a family picture. Meet occasionally with a toddler on your lap. Start a Slack group for parents and parenting issues, invite a few people over and watch word of mouth take over. Create a virtual discussion about parenting.
Join existing conversations. There may already be formal parent groups in your organization. This is a brilliant way for moms and dads to talk about the issues at work that affect them as parents. We conducted a number of networking sessions for parents where we were asked to talk about the challenges we have faced as working fathers. Parenting groups at work are more likely to be mother-oriented, often because mothers are more likely to set them up. You and your allies can help change that dynamic.
Create a father network. If there are no ready-made parent networks in your workplace, start your own. In any case, make it a father’s network to start with to lure unwilling fathers out. Some men may be put off by the idea of a general parenting club and feel more comfortable discussing issues with other dads. You can change the policy later, if that feels right. We’ve seen more and more work-based dad clubs emerge, not least because of our own Daddy Connect program, which aims to help fathers make connections within and between organizations.
Ask other fathers at work to meet informally to discuss parenting and work issues that are important to them. It shouldn’t take too much time or energy, so once a month for lunch might be enough to get you started. Ask HR if you can advertise the group in the staff newsletter or put up a poster on the bulletin board. Maintain an email list or Slack group of interested individuals and contact them before each meeting.
Expand its responsibilities as the group becomes more established. Invite a member of the senior management team to share what the company is doing to promote family-friendly work practices. Invite mothers to meetings or create links with mother groups in the company. Compile a document of innovations that the group would like to see implemented, along with examples of best practices. Keep the group engaged between meetings by messaging regularly and encouraging members to discuss practical, everyday questions, such as recommendations for family-friendly restaurants or the best things to do with a four-year-old this weekend.
Those are just a few ideas. What you do with your allies is up to you. Whether you’re in a formal or informal setting, and whether you’re having the conversation with dads, moms, or anyone else, the most important thing is to start the discussion. A work culture that recognizes working fathers is a step towards a more progressive view of parenting and work. The more people participate in the debate, the harder it becomes to ignore, and the sooner we create cultures that genuinely support all working parents.
This article is adapted from the HBR Working Parents series book Advice for working fathers.