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Male caregivers face gender bias at work

Feb. 8, 2013 at 8:25 AM ET

As a growing number of men adopt the role of caregiver to their children or elderly parents, they’re fighting outdated gender norms in the workplace — a battle experts say will eventually usher in changes that benefit both male and female employees.

“Men who do take the time as caregivers are more likely to be seen as less committed to work because they’re violating gender norms,” said Kelli K. Garcia, a former fellow at O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and current adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

“The law does in this country does protect the ability to take leave” for both men and women, said Eileen Appelbaum, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “I think a lot of companies don’t realize that,” she said.

Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California — Hastings, said both men and women can be subject to what she termed a “flexibility stigma.” It can be an issue for women seeking a part-time or flex-time schedule, but for men, “It’s typically triggered if they even try to take leave,” she said.

Demographic factors are behind the increasing number of men taking on the role of caregiver. The recession relegated many men, especially young men, to periods of unemployment or underemployment. At the same time, women have taken on more of their families’ financial obligations. A Prudential Financial study published last year found that 53 percent of women are the primary breadwinner, and 22 percent make more money than their spouse. “Among female breadwinners, nearly a third say they earn more than their spouse as a direct result of the challenging economy,” the report said.

There also has been a shift in cultural norms that’s propelled men into caregiving roles, said Williams. “A group of young men is really drawing a line in the sand and saying ‘I don’t want to do it the way my father’s generation did it,’” she said. “They’re caught between that ideal and workplaces that haven’t caught up.”

“As women have learned, you have to assert the fact that this is not a ‘choice,’” Appelbaum said. It appears that more of them are doing just that: roughly 12 percent of the lawsuits filed alleging family responsibilities discrimination in the workplace are filed by men.

The experts think this number is bound to grow. According to a study published in 2009 by the National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with the AARP, nearly 30 percent of Americans perform at least some caregiving tasks for relatives, and about one-third of caregivers are men. “I think it’s clear that the demands on men as well as women are going to increase in terms of family care,” Appelbaum said.

In California, which began mandating paid family leave in 2004, the effect on men’s participation in caregiving is measurable, Appelbaum said. The number of men taking leave to care for a relative rose slightly between 2004 and 2012, from 30 percent to 33 percent, but the number taking time off after the birth of a child nearly doubled, climbing from 17 percent to 29 percent in that same time. “When we talk to HR managers about this... they told us that once the leaves were paid, it became more acceptable,” Appelbaum said.

Advocates for more flexible workplaces say men’s involvement ultimately will have a snowball effect that will lead to positive change. “The real advantage of having men taking leave is that when the issue of leave and the issue of caregiving is not just a women’s issue, you’re more likely to get good policies and not get gender-based judgments,” Garcia said.

“The more that men start taking leave and it becomes normalized and expected, then those judgments are going to change,” she said. “We’re at a moment where... we have this opportunity to change the workplace culture." 

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