This summer, I took a lesson on making workplaces better for all caregivers from the most cerebral movie I’ve seen in years: Barbie. (Pause while my three young daughters cringe—and my wife, who works in financial services, nods in agreement.)
I’ll share a quick primer (and some light spoilers) for those who haven’t seen the movie. There are two types of male dolls in Barbieland in addition to the actual Barbies: Alan, the lone man completely supportive of the Barbies, who’s rejected by the Kens; and, well, the Kens, who introduce the concept of patriarchy to Barbieland after one of their own takes an eye-opening trip to the real world. Pretty soon, the smoothly running operations of Barbieland devolve into a scenario where the loudest voice carries the day.
You’re probably wondering: What does this have to do with the workplace?
Plenty. Two years ago, I started The Company of Dads, a media company, community platform, and workplace-education program created to support, and help employers support, the men I call Lead Dads: those who are the go-to parents at home and allies of women at work. More men are Kens—mostly decent, but largely unaware of how they could make small changes at home or around the office that would have a big impact on their family, their colleagues and their own home/work happiness. They’re open to new ways of balance, but they’re not going to a lunch and learn on caregivers’ issues. The Alans are thoughtful, well-intentioned men who ooze empathy, and show up. But they’re outliers.
Let’s say an organization is sponsoring an event for the parents or caregivers on staff. In my experience, they tend to look a lot like this: Of the 100 people who show up, roughly 98 are going to be working moms with a desire to figure out a better system for juggling the demands of work and life. The other two are going to be Alans, the men in the company who least need to be there because they’re already allies at work and doing the right thing at home.
The problem is that the traditional model of creating seemingly inclusive parenting or caregiver groups doesn’t reach the Kens, the men who most need to step up to support their female partners and colleagues. The events aren’t conceived or promoted in ways that make the Kens believe they’re the target audience and encourage them to participate. They’re advertised through parents’ employee resource groups. Or they’re labeled as opt-in lunch and learns. Or the speakers brand their advice as being for working moms, even if most of the concerns are universal. Or they focus on issues around returning to work post-parental leave, at the expense of covering all the challenges working parents have to face long after they’re back.
The good news is that Kens can be persuaded. If they’re invited into the conversation and feel there’s something in it for them, they’ll engage.
I’ve learned through my own work that a more effective approach is to come at the work-life discussion from a position of cooperation, equity, and inclusion. Focus on solutions that are actionable and can bring about change for parents and caregivers more broadly. And most importantly, make sure both men and women can see what’s in it for them.
To that end, here are three things we’ve proposed to companies that are having a positive impact. They’re a light lift for managers that can take a heavy burden off of working parents and caregivers.
Care days. They’re not sick days, personal days, or bereavement days, and they’re certainly not vacation days. They are days when you can be honest about taking time to care for a child, a spouse, an aging parent, or a sick pet. A small minority of employers currently offer unlimited paid time off, and even those workers who have it may hesitate to be fully transparent if their organizations don’t vocally support caregiving already. Care days are a way to do so, loudly, whether as a separate benefit or simply a cultural norm of calling a care day what it really is. They encourage employees to be honest, so that no parent feels the need to pretend to be sick when their kid is really the one who’s ill. Just as importantly, offering care days conveys the expectation that workers will actually take the time they need for their caregiving obligations.
Care shifts. Many organizations that allow and promote flexible work are doing this on an individual basis already, but a company-wide practice of allowing workers to clock in and out as needed—figuratively or literally—could encourage more people to take advantage. For hourly wage workers, this could look like shifting start times to match up more neatly with caregiving responsibilities like school dropoff. For knowledge workers, this could look like allowing workers to modify the traditional day as needed—say, starting an hour or two later, then putting in an hour or two after dinner and kids’ bedtimes to wrap everything up. David Booth, whose name is on the University of Chicago’s graduate school of business, has successfully instituted a version of this at his investment firm Dimensional Fund Advisors.
Care confabs. Companies need to promote discussions that invite fathers into the conversation—in team gatherings, in 1:1s, in other settings that make clear that the topic is a part of improving how work gets done, rather than something to be addressed in a silo. When employers create low-pressure spaces for men to ask questions and be vulnerable, it’s not just good for those employees; it’s also good for working moms who now know they have an ally in the office. Doing so leads to greater equity for both men and women when it comes to being productive workers and caregivers. Care confabs help men figure out how to be Lead Dads, not just Event Dads—in other words, men at work can be fully committed fathers, husbands and employees, not just the guys who leave early to go to an occasional soccer game. These men can show that caregiving is not gender-based, which begins to remove the stigma that all parental duties will be handled by working moms, to the detriment of their work obligations. And they enable middle managers to understand the dynamics of the working parents they manage, while also bringing their concerns (and stories of productivity) to more senior leaders.
Unlike a lot of proposals to change how, where, and when we work, these suggestions are easy to implement. They also come with little to no downside. But to make these care propositions work for everyone, companies need to start finding ways to bring the Kens into the meetings—while honoring what Alan has been doing all along.
Paul Sullivan, the New York Times’ Wealth Matters columnist from 2008 to 2021, is the founder of The Company of Dads, a media company, community platform and workplace advocate aimed at Lead Dads—those men who are the go-to parents whether they work full time, part time, or devote all their time to their families.