workingmums.co.uk talks to Jessica DeGroot, founder of the ThirdPath Institute, about how to encourage a different approach to work.
Do you want to work but get more time out of your day to spend with your family, but lack the time and space to figure out how to do it and to break free of social norms which straitjacket women and men into different family roles?
Jessica DeGroot set up the US-based ThirdPath Institute 14 years ago precisely to address this question. “It was long enough ago that when I first started that both men and women would say that men do not want more time with their families,” says Jessica. “There has been a lot of movement in the last years as more younger men want to share parenting. We no longer have to fight.”
At the time Jessica was at Wharton Business School where she met interested academics and employers including Lotte Bailyn who had written a book about how technology might change work culture. Shortly afterwards Jessica co-wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review about how work and life were no longer mutually exclusive and that an integrated approach was possible. She hoped companies would come knocking, but they didn’t.
“I didn’t want to wait for companies and legislation to change. I wanted to reach people right away. I wanted to get families to see that both parents could work and share parenting and create time for their families,” says Jessica. “ThirdPath is not about saying there is a right way of parenting. It’s about finding the right direction for each different family and showing that there is not just one path.”
She cites one family where the woman was originally the prime carer and working flexibly. Over time she realised she was more suited to working outside the home while her husband found he preferred to be at home. They have since switched roles and he is the primary carer.
Jessica says demand is growing for the Institute’s work. “It’s still a minority who understand that men and women can do things differently, but definitely millennials want something different,” says Jessica, who says that interestingly the Institute has seen more interest from young men than young women. “We are seeing the early adopters now,” she adds.
ThirdPath also has a focus on leadership and works with business leaders and owners, supporting them in developing an integrated approach to leadership. The role of leaders is vital to create a new work culture.
Jessica cites one grandfather Ivan Axelrod, chief operating officer for Provident Financial Management, who reduced his hours to a four-day week in order to spend time with his grandchildren. “Finding ways to interact with children and grandchildren just has a reward you can’t get out of work,” he told ThirdPath.
Every two years the Institute holds a Pioneering Leader Summit just before Father’s Day. Jessica is clear that parenting is an issue for men and women and the summit includes a significant percentage of men. The most recent one had 30% men.
This autumn the Institute, whose UK-born marketing manager is the main carer to his two children, is focusing on men and flexible working. Its 1,000 Man Flex campaign includes “a series of activities that underscore why supporting men to flex is good for families and good for gender equity”.
Another ThirdPath graduate is Ben Applegate who left a big law firm as he found he had no time for his family. He founded another firm which allows its employees to have what Jessica refers to as “whole lives”. He says: “It’s really about making that counter-cultural decision that enough money is enough, and that we don’t have to make it all about maximising profits.”
“It’s about thinking what kind of life you really want,” adds Jessica.
She says that both men and women are stuck in strong social norms which can be difficult to counter. “It can be hard to think outside the box.”
ThirdPath provides a safe space to talk about work life balance issues they may be struggling with. These may include one partner’s anger that they feel they are shouldering most of the childcare responsibility. The Institute provides regular peer support as well as therapists to work with couples on what changes they may need to make to reach their work life goals.
When a couple approaches ThirdPath they get a 30-minute session where they are assessed as to what further support such as coaching they might need. Some couples just need the Institute’s workbook which allows them to figure out their options using worksheets and other tools provided, such as examples of what other couples have done. Others are signposted to coaches who can work with them on a one to one basis and talk about how they can redesign their work and parenting roles and think differently. The Institute also brings counsellors together to talk about integrated life issues once a month.
“Early on we realised that it is not about a light switch change,” says Jessica. “This is a process. We need others who have been through it to advocate for an integrated life, to talk about the skills they are using to move ahead and have time for their lives, whether for children or elder care or other things. These are skills we can teach.”
ThirdPath hosts monthly lunchtime webinars where people can learn integrated life skills and these are put online.
“We live in a culture where organisations are run by workaholics,” adds Jessica. “That is the norm and it can be very hard to try something different and to argue that leadership can be done better and that no-one can be available 24/7 to a client. It such a culture pioneers are very important.”