House committee hears testimony on the problems of working fathers

June 12, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

WASHINGTON -- The American workplace, barely adjusted to the needs of women, is facing a new challenge: how to accommodate working fathers.

"Working fathers in corporate America are largely invisible," James Levine, a senior researcher with the Families and Work Institute, told the House Committee on Children and Families yesterday.

"This is illustrated by the fact that we don't have a term in our language for them," added Levine. "'Working mother' means conflict. But working father is a redundancy. Men work; they always have. Somebody else is supposed to be worrying about the children."

In today's world, that notion has gone the way of Ozzie and Harriet.

With most mothers taking jobs outside the home, fathers are being called on to assume more responsibility for the kids.

In 1990, there were 24 million working men with children under 18, about 36 percent of the male labor force. Two-thirds of them also had a working wife. And about half had children under age 6.

Yet Levine and other experts testified that employers are often unaware of how the juggling that goes on in modern families affects their male employees.

Fathers often find it easier to tell the boss a little lie than to ask for time to handle a domestic duty.

"It's a lot more acceptable to say that you had a flat tire on the way to work than to say you had to take your kid to the doctor," said Lynn O'Rourke Hayes, co-author of "The Best Jobs in America for Parents."

Though many large companies have instituted parental leave policies that let fathers -- not just mothers -- take time off to be with a newborn, that's only part of the answer. Fathers may not want to take more than a couple of weeks of leave, but they want room to deal with day-to-day family demands.

A recent survey showed that 75 percent of men would accept slower career advancement if they could have a job that let them arrange their work schedule so they could spend more time with their families.

Options for a more flexible workplace could include ability to vary starting and quitting times, job sharing, a compressed work week or working from home.

"Flexibility ranks high on the employee wish list," said Hayes.

Beverly King, personnel director for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said the desire to spend more time with the family is not just a white-collar phenomenon.

In 1985, the utility studied the family conflicts of its employees and concluded it was losing $1 million a year because of absenteeism and turnover. The response was a family services initiative that includes child care, special services for expectant parents, family support groups, a newsletter, a library and a "fathering" program.

Under the fathering program, expectant fathers can borrow company beepers; fathers can enroll in a mentoring group and get a hand from more experienced dads; divorced fathers can have their child support deducted from their paychecks; and dads can take their kids on company-sponsored outings.

"This is a hard hat program, not a briefcase program," said King. "You see these people, line workers with heavy boots and hard hats, coming in at 5 a.m. and discussing child care tips."

King said every dollar spent on family support programs has saved the company $2.50 in absenteeism and recruitment costs. The utility-wide turnover rate is 7 percent, but turnover for those enrolled in the parenting program is only 2 percent.

"These programs do pay back," she said, "and documenting it is not


Families also benefit when dad gets involved with the kids.

Norma Radin, a University of Michigan social work professor, followed a group of families for 11 years. Her research, she said, convinced her that children whose fathers take an active role in parenting will be more flexible and better able to adapt to the changing demands on families.

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