Survey: Fathers Experience Greater Work-Family Conflict Than Ever Before

A new survey by the Families and Work Institute finds fathers are torn between work and family far more than are mothers (Families and Work Institute, 2011).  Indeed, today’s dads experience work-family conflict more than mothers ever have.

“Work-family conflict” is defined as how much each interferes with the other.  The FWI compared mothers and fathers in dual-earner households in 1977 and 2008.  The percentage of mothers reporting work-family conflict remained statistically the same (41% in 1977; 47% in 2008) over the 31 years while the percentage of fathers increased dramatically from 35% to 60%.

The authors sought to explain the change and the imbalance between mothers and fathers.  What they found was what they call the “new male mystique.”  That’s obviously a nod to Betty Friedan, but in this case the term means “traditional views about men”s role as breadwinners in combination with emerging gender role values that encourage men to participate in family life and a workplace that does not fully support these new roles have created pressure for men to, essentially, do it all in order to have it all.”

In other words, men still view themselves as primarily breadwinners, but have taken on the additional role of father as well.  Those two things combined with employers who aren’t inclined to accommodate fathering activities make for conflict.  How can a dad work and earn as much as he feels he needs to and still spend enough time with his kids?

One of the significant findings of the survey is that it’s specifically work, not family, that provides the stress.  First, the more a father works, the more likely he is to report work-family conflict.  That’s nothing more than stating the obvious.

Second, 54% of men say they’d like to work fewer hours than they do, and those who want to work less report greater work-family conflict.

Time spent working does not fully explain why conflict has increased substantially over the past three decades, because men spend as much time working today as they did three decades ago:
• In 1977 and in 2008, men worked an average of 47 hours per week.
• By contrast, women”s work hours have increased from 39 hours per week in 1977 to 42 hours in 2008.

Consistent with emerging egalitarian gender roles, men do, however, spend more time involved at home–e.g., doing chores or caring for the children than men did three decades ago:
• In 2008, fathers report spending 3 hours per workday (on average) with their children, up significantly from 1.8 hours per workday in 1977.
• Similarly, in 2008, men report spending an average of 2.3 hours per workday on household chores, up significantly from 1.2 hours in 1977.

Although it seems logical that increasing demands on men”s time at home would be a major factor in work-family conflict, importantly and perhaps surprisingly, our data reveal a more complex picture. Although work and family hours, taken together, are indicative of more conflict, when we control for the hours spent at work, we find:
• Workday time spent on child care, chores and leisure is not significantly related to work family conflict when taking into account time spent working.

This means that the amount of time men spend working is more important in predicting their work-family conflict than the time men spend on child care, chores and leisure.

Also, the nature of men’s work is more demanding and, in some ways, less rewarding now than it was in 1977.

Increasing job demands, the blurring of boundaries between work and home life, declining job security and flat earnings have made it more challenging for men to live up to the new male mystique, thereby contributing to an increased probability of work-family conflict.

Men who tend toward the “all work and no family” model tend to experience more work-family conflict than do those who seek more of an even balance between the two.  But interestingly, the authors found that men and women are about equal in their preference for dads working and earning while moms stay home with the kids.

Our data show that there is no statistically significant difference between men and women on these views–40% of men and 37% of women somewhat or strongly agree with traditional attitudes about gender role values.

Nevertheless, those men who strongly value work over family experience greater work-family conflict than men who place less value on work.  That shouldn’t be surprising; the more time a man spends at work, the more onerous family responsibilities become.  He still values his family, so there’s greater conflict.

And the delegation of family responsibilities makes no difference in the amount of work-family conflict a father experiences.

Fathers work more than non-fathers, but, since they have children at home, also desire time with their kids.  That makes for significantly greater work-family conflict for fathers than for non-fathers.

Those dads want to work fewer hours, but feel compelled to continue working.

Fathers want to work fewer hours were asked in this study why they don”t reduce their work hours. We find:
• 47% say they need the money they earn by working long hours, whether or not their spouse earns more money than they do.
• 16% say they could not keep their jobs if they worked fewer hours.
• 14% say they need to work long hours to keep up with the demands of their job.

The report goes on to suggest that fathers facing significant work-family conflict would benefit from greater flexibility on the part of their employers and understanding on the part of co-workers, supervisors, etc.

All that is well and good, but the authors leave out what to me is an important issue.  The fact is that, as they say at the first of their report, fathers experience conflict between work and family much more than mothers do.  Why would that be true?  After all, both men and women work, and both have kids and the attendant responsibilities to them.

So why is it that 60% of fathers but only 47% of mothers report significant levels of work-family conflict?

I think the answer is obvious – mothers work less than men when they work and are more likely than fathers to not do paid work.  The authors are clear on their finding that it is specifically work, not family, that is the cause of work-family conflict.  So it stands to reason that the parent who works less experiences less work-family conflict.

In fact, among fathers, those who work more have more conflict than those who work less, so it’s not surprising that the same is true of mothers.

The lesson seems clear.  We can try to wheedle employers into being more flexible, but that’s unlikely to make much of an impact on employer behavior.  But what we can do, individual couple by individual couple, is to even out the work and the childcare between fathers and mothers.  That way the work-family conflict will be evened out as well.

The arguments in favor of equal parenting are many.  This is another one.

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