The personal is political. That statement may be a feminist cliche at this point, but when Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said on Tuesday that he "cannot and will not give up [his] family time," to become speaker of the House, we were reminded just how true it remains.
Ryan's very public focus on his personal life got almost as much attention as the actual question of whether he will become speaker. Some, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Huffington Post editor Arianna Huffington, praised Ryan's stance. Others called him a hypocrite, noting that he's voted against paid family leave and proposed cutting funding for child-care subsidies for low-income families.
Of course, Ryan's not the first high-profile man to shock the American public (or at least the American media) by prioritizing family over career. Take Max Shireson, who stepped down as CEO of database company MongoDB last summer in order to find "balance" and be with his family. Then there's former Google CFO Patrick Pichette, who famously decided to leave the company to spend more time with his wife after an epiphany atop Mt. Kilimanjaro. As with Ryan, both men's announcements made headlines and raised eyebrows in a way they would not have had they been made by women.
Whether or not we want to brand these men as poster children for work-life balance, the level of attention given to their pronouncements proves one thing: Our society still thinks of work-life balance as a woman's issue.
Yet that perception clearly lags behind the facts on the ground. As Fortune recently reported, half of MBA students—male and female—say they plan to prioritize their families over their careers. In that same study, 42% of male MBAs said they feared that keeping some balance in their lives would derail their career ambitions.
And it's not just younger men who feel this way. The Pew Research Center reports that working dads are as likely as working moms to say that they would prefer to be home with their children, but must work for financial reasons. The organization also notes that half of fathers say they have difficulty balancing work and family.
Like public opinion, many employer policies have also ignored this shift in the psyches of working dads. Just 14% of companies offer any paid paternity leave and, according to the Boston College Center for Work & Family, a full 99% of working fathers feel that their boss "expects no change to occur to their working patterns as the result of their becoming parents." And roughly a third of men say that options like going part-time are looked down on at their jobs.
In order to finally shake off this outdated idea that parenting while working is just a "mom thing," we need more men to follow in Ryan's footsteps. That doesn't necessarily mean making a public statement—though if you're in a high-ranking or visible job, it couldn't hurt. It might also be as simple as talking to a supervisor about the importance of flexible work arrangements or letting your subordinates know you're heading out to take your child to a doctor's appointment. The more men remind their colleagues that they're dads as well as employees, the sooner we'll accept that work-life balance is an everyone thing.
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