White House conference: 'The country cares' about working dads

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By Paul Raeburn

Seeking to “explode the outdated stereotypes of fathers,” officials in the Obama administration on Monday met with experts, working dads, and business leaders to explore questions of work-life balance for dads.

One of the working fathers at the conference was New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, who defended his decision to take three days of paternity leave when his son, Noah, was born in April. The decision — which caused him to miss the Mets opening day game — drew some criticism and sparked a national debate on paternity leave.

When his wife, Victoria, told him last summer that she was pregnant, he said he quickly did the math and concluded, “This is going to be an in-season baby. We’ve got ourselves a situation here.”

He decided to take paternity leave because he wanted to support his wife “any way I could,” he said, and because he knew being there would one day mean something to Noah. “Long after they’ve told me I’m not able to play baseball any more, I’ll be a father and a husband,” Murphy said, as Noah slept in his mother’s arms.

The conference is one of a series of events leading up to a White House Summit on Working Families to be held June 23.

Jason Furman, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, noted that the participation of women in the labor market rose from 50 percent in 1970 to 75 percent now, and the number of couples in which both parents work rose from 40 percent to about two-thirds now.

Administration officials said they hope they can use these conferences to reshape the workplace, and they hope to do it by showing that progressive policies encouraging flexible work schedules and parental leave can make businesses more profitable and competitive.

Several business executives reported that they had instituted such policies and found that workers’ productivity increased and they were less likely to quit their jobs, which leads to costly recruiting and training of new employees.

Delta Emerson of Ryan Accounting said the company was no longer evaluating employees on the basis of how long they spent in the office. “Now people are judged on what they do and whether they meet their timelines,” she said, “not when they get on or out of elevators.” 

Scott Coltrane, a sociologist at the University of Oregon who has done research on fathers, says younger parents are beginning to demand more flexibility and more time with their children. “We’re at a tipping point,” he told the conference. “Men want to be involved — especially young men.” The conference, he said, “sends a message that the country cares.”

Brad Harrington, the director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family, said that 77 percent of men in recent surveys say they would like to spend more time with their families. The same number of men say they would also like to have more responsibility at work. “Men are realizing they can’t have it all,” he said.

Indeed, according to a TODAY survey of 2,000 moms and dads conducted this May, only 51 percent of fathers said it's possible to "have it all," compared with 54 percent of moms. Among dads, 61 percent said they are more involved with their children than their own father was with them; 62 percent say society underestimates dads and 37 percent say there are limited resources available to help dads.

Granting more flexibility to fathers can help women in the workplace as well, Harrington said. “The most important thing to help a woman advance is choosing the right partner. We need to support dads so they can be good partners to their sponsors.”

Paul Raeburn is the author of "Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked," published June 3 by Scientific American/FSG.