Could dads’ peers be more accepting of flexible working than they think?

What if dads’ assumptions that their colleagues are against them working flexibly and taking longer periods of parental leave were wrong? A new study suggests they are.



Gender equality has never been simply a women’s issue. A large part of the agenda involves men. Greater equality at work for women is intrinsically linked to greater equality at home and greater sharing of home-based responsibilities.

Gendered assumptions about women and work have, over the decades, contrived to make women feel guilty about working [especially full time], less ‘committed’ at work and less interested in promotion. And similar assumptions about men have made men feel that part-time working is somehow ‘unmasculine’, that they need to work more rather than less after having children [as the main breadwinner] and that they shouldn’t take any time off – or very little – for child-related issues, including becoming a new parent.

Yet social attitudes have changed over the years and Covid may accelerate this. What if dads’ assumptions about other colleagues’ [specifically men’s] attitudes to them asking for flexible working and parental leave are not wholly founded? I remember interviewing a dad who worked for a ship building firm a while ago. He thought other dads, particularly older dads, in such a male-dominated sector would give him a hard time over taking shared parental leave. In fact, he found the opposite. Older dads told him they wished they had been able to have more time with their kids.

A new study from the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team – the so-called nudge unit – at Santander and another unnamed bank seems to back this up.

It sought to find out whether “pluralistic ignorance” in relation to flexible working and parental leave – where dads underestimate the support of their co-workers when it comes to them requesting flexible hours and taking longer periods of leave – was preventing uptake of policies and whether providing feedback on the actual beliefs of their peers would lead to greater take-up.

They found that providing feedback which showed the majority of male peers supported parental leave significantly increased men’s intentions to take between five and eight weeks of parental leave in comparison to a control group in both trials [but interestingly, at Santander fewer dads said they planned to take over 16 weeks’ leave]. The same occurred when it came to flexible working, although the increase in men wanting to request it was much less marked.

So is it worth just going for it and not worrying too much? It would be interesting to follow up to see if any dads’ careers were impacted by working flexibly or taking longer parental leave because it’s not just the attitudes of colleagues that matter, but that attitudes of managers, especially when promotion decisions are taken.

Women have long had to put up with the perception that part time and remote working means less commitment, despite lots of evidence to the contrary. Yet those attitudes when it comes to hiring and progression will not change until part-time working and taking more parental leave are normalised across the population and can no longer be just a cover for undervaluing women in the workplace.

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