All credit to the advertising industry for taking steps to become more mum-friendly. But focusing on working mothers is only part of the picture. Many new mums can’t return to work, or can’t return in a meaningful way, unless their partners volunteer to share the parenting beyond taking the kids to playgrounds at weekends.
With a shockingly tiny 1% of new parents taking advantage of the April 2015 introduced shared parental leave scheme, we still have a very long way to go when it comes to balancing expectations around who stays at home and who goes into the office. Many might think fathers return to work because they’re the ones earning the big bucks. But with women now the main breadwinners in around 40% of homes, this thinking is hideously out-dated. So if the advertising industry wants to be a cheerleader for gender equality and encourage women into leadership positions, let’s start by encouraging dads to take time out of the office.
Luckily for us mothers, we have an ever-increasing number of role models who juggle the mother/career act. Sometimes elegantly, sometimes clumsily. Usually a bit of both. But it’s happening. And that’s amazing and important and encouraging. Fathers, however, are still lacking in men to take inspiration from. A recent article in the Guardian described how fathers still feel “too embarrassed” to take longer than their statutory paternity leave, for fear of seaming less committed and ambitious at work.
And to a certain degree I have sympathy with that. I would argue there is a greater stigma attached to working fathers acting as primary care givers - coming in late, leaving early, or staying home with sick children – than there is for mothers. A few years back when I was on maternity leave I attended a Nabs workshop aimed at helping parents who work in advertising. Only one man attended. And he was full of stories that highlighted the discrimination fathers face in our still very traditional industry. We operate in a value system where mothers are presumed to be the leading parent and take on most responsibility for childcare; consequently shouldering most of the bourdon and disadvantage to their careers.
A very rare but much publicised example is Mark Zuckerberg who decided to take two months' paternity leave for the birth of his daughters. He used the opportunity to highlight Facebook’s improved parental leave and strongly encouraged others to follow suit “because studies show that when working parents take time to be with their newborns, it’s good for the entire family”. Obviously most of us aren’t Mark Zuckerberg. But the point is that he is leading from the top, by example. Setting a precedent that he wants others to follow. Because he recognises that if he doesn’t do it, paternal leave will remain the exception, not the rule.
To date, much of the equal opportunity debate has focused on supporting mothers into leadership roles through flexible working arrangements, equal pay (hazzah!), and general goodwill towards all that parenthood may throw at you. What would really help us is if equal focus were placed on fathers taking more shared parental leave and childcare duties.
Too few fathers sitting at the top of organisations are making it part of their working culture, not just policies, to be an active parent. Not just sharing a cute picture or weekend anecdotes from the football pitch, but also deal with the, let’s face it and be honest, pain-in-the-arse moment the nursery calls at 11am, abruptly cutting a day short to pick up a sick child, then juggling a series of awkward conference calls and emails in between naps to try and catch-up. A few less of these for mothers to deal with can really make a big difference. It really really can. It means being able to commit to a pitch, to go networking after work, to simply be present when it really counts. Company policies can create flexibility, but the real support and difference comes from shared responsibility.
So, on this Mother’s Day, let’s support more fathers and anybody in a fathering role, in their active parenting duty. Let’s not forget that they are the key to unlocking more women who come back to work, more women in leadership roles and helping to set a great example for the little leaders of the future.
Anna Vogt is chief strategy officer at TBWA\London