07/02/2013 12:16 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2013

Men Struggle With Work-Life Balance, And That's A Good Thing


All of the recent focus on mothers who work -- from Anne-Marie Slaughter's "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" to Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In to the latest data from the Pew Research Center showing a record number of breadwinning moms -- begs the question what about fathers? What are male breadwinners and the increasing number of stay-at-home fathers thinking about having it all, leaning in and opting out?

It turns out men are having the same internal debates about balancing career and family that women are. According to the latest research on fathers from the Boston College Center for Work and Family titled The New Dad: A Work (and Life) in Progress, "fathers are launching a quiet revolution." The authors of the report have surveyed close to 2000 fathers since 2009 and have found that men are seeking "roles that are much more integral to the lives of their families and require greater presence and engagement," and therefore, like women, are struggling with work-family conflict.

This struggle is good news. Work-life balance has traditionally been viewed as a woman's issue, and it shouldn't be. We have more women than ever in the work force, more men than ever staying home and men at work expressing a desire to up their involvement with their families. In order to give both women the support they need to pursue their career goals and men the flexibility they need to pursue a greater caregiving role at home, we need to work together. Work-life should not be a mothering issue, It shouldn't even be a parenting issue. It should be a workplace issue. Parents, after all, aren't the only ones who need flex benefits, as a recent Huffington Post article reminds us.

The fact that men are seeking balance, however, doesn't mean the work-life discussion can be gender neutral. As the authors of the study rightfully point out, "While organizational policies are designed to be gender neutral, organizational cultures are not."

For starters, becoming a parent has a very different effect on how men and women are perceived at work. Ninety-six percent of the fathers surveyed said their managers' expectations of them at work remained the same after they became a parent. Three percent even said expectations at work had risen. This is not what most women experience. Research has shown the gender-based wage gap is even bigger for mothers than it is for other women. Employers often believe mothers are less committed to their careers than other workers. And many mothers have experienced managers and coworkers questioning whether they will continue to work at all after giving birth. In contrast, none of the men in the study felt fatherhood resulted in negative perceptions by their employer and some felt a career boost because they were seen as "more credible, mature, responsible and career-minded."

Then there is the housework gap. While fathers are certainly doing more household chores and childcare than ever before, women still do the bulk of the work at home. Of the fathers who were surveyed, 65 percent believe both partners should provide equal amounts of care but only 30 percent of fathers reported that caregiving actually is divided equally. This extra load at home can affect the time and energy women can dedicate to their careers. So, when men and women get together to discuss improving work-life balance, they have to recognize they are approaching the situation from very different places.

The same goes for workplace biases. While both women and men face biases in the workplace that will affect their willingness and ability to access work life benefits, their experiences are generally very different. Women face inherent gender biases at work that can affect their overall satisfaction and ability to advance in their careers. Outside of the office, they may still be questioned about why they work and who is taking care of the kids. A significant percentage of men believe their employers would not support their using flexible benefits and therefore haven't used them. And the men considering a full time caregiver role worry about the social stigma from friends and family who wonder why they don't have real jobs.

These gender-based differences don't need to be seen as obstacles to bringing men and women together to tackle the work life conundrum, but rather as the starting point. As the study notes, "men and women have come to understand that traditional gender roles only hinder today's fathers and mothers in their efforts to succeed at integrating their work and family endeavors." Now, they need the businesses that employ them to understand another key point from the study that, "flexible work arrangements are one of the most important benefits a company can provide to enable its workers to better balance work and home life." Flexible workplaces lead to higher levels of engagement, satisfaction and productivity. That's a win for Dad, for Mom, for their families, their coworkers and their managers.