If you’re a man and you decide to leave a big public job and you say you’re leaving because you want “to spend more time” with your family, it’s pretty much dismissed as a joke. But you don’t even have to be a retiring (male) senator to feel the sting of disapproval for deciding to spend time away from the office. If a woman takes a leave to be with her kids, everyone gets it. If a man does, well, how manly is that?
My own answer would be “pretty manly,” but I’m not a man, so it doesn’t matter. As Lisa Belkin points out in an essay in the Sunday Times Magazine, to make taking time off to spend with the family work for women and men we’ve got to start thinking about the men.
Belkin explains that when it comes to the acceptability of time off for women and men there are basic differences that need to be acknowledged. She writes: “Biology dictates that many women will take pauses during the prime career-building years that men don’t need to take. Similarly, breast-feeding during the first month to year of life means a child necessarily spends more time with the mother. Often, though, what look like causes are really effects — we make assumptions about sex roles and then reinforce them with our behavior. If you challenge those assumptions, it follows that you can change behavior.”
Belkin gives the expected example of how the Swedes challenged convention and got dads to take the time off offered by their government and spend it with their kids. But she also tells how the now defunct investment bank Lehmann Brothers did it. Wanting to make flex time and working from home a gender-neutral benefit, Lehmann Brothers told its employees it was creating a pilot program for telecommuting in case of natural disaster or terrorist attack. Men started staying home. Like Jessica Seinfeld hiding those vegetables in cupcakes, Lehmann Brothers wrapped up flex time in a manly man package of national security and got results.
It’d be nice if a story about how to reframe flex time in a corporate setting didn’t require reframing the truth, but so it goes. Last week the Governor of Hiroshima, Hidehiko Yuzaki announced he’d be taking paternity leave to a chorus of boos and things aren’t much better here. Maybe no matter how you get men to work at home or take time off, the more it happens, the more manly it’ll seem. What do you think?