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How Dads Can Build a Network of Parenting Allies at Work

Sep. 3, 2021 Harvard Business Review

We have all heard the truism that it takes a village to raise a child, and of course we all know that if you want to get ahead at work and in your career, you need to be an effective teammate and successful networker. But most fathers have not yet put two and two together and realized the importance of building a network of parenting allies at work.

Our research on modern working dads shows that while fathers still want (and need) successful careers, they also want to be present and involved as parents and partners. They want to share the workload and the joys. They want to soothe a crying baby at night and be home in time for baths and story time. They want fulfilling weekends with their family and meaningful time with their children throughout the week.

Unfortunately, workplace policy and tradition are still holding them back. The notion of fatherhood being segregated from work life, as well as a culture of presenteeism and face time, have been the norm since the advent of the office. Rather than confronting this culture, many dads succumb to it, particularly if their finances are fragile.

Nurturing a network of parenting allies can help fathers on two levels: support and advocacy. On the support level, your parenting allies are the colleagues who will have your back when you have to rush home to look after a sick child or offer a sympathetic ear when you’re overwhelmed. This type of support is interpersonal, unofficial, and can be fostered in any corporate culture. If a colleague can support you emotionally or practically in your goal of succeeding in your career and as a parent—and you do the same for them—then they’re a worthy ally.

The advocacy level of your parenting ally network has a higher goal: changing company culture for the better. If you’re hoping to mold your organization into a friendlier place for working parents, going it alone is a recipe for failure. Parenting allies can help you widen the discussion and take it in different directions. They have conversations with a wider range of people. They normalize the ideas and leadership starts to take notice. Slowly, they change minds.

Think about advocating for a more progressive paternity leave policy. One dad can’t fight for change by himself—he needs allies to help spread the word. A preponderance of conversations are needed about how better leave means happier, more productive dads. Fathers, and those who intend to become fathers, stay with the company longer, and new talent is easier to recruit. What a business loses in long hours, it gains in loyalty. Mothers benefit when fathers take longer paternity leave. These messages need to spread across the shop floor, in HR, marketing, and finance, and in the CEO’s office.

Building your parenting ally network

More people than you might think can be your parenting allies. Many will be mothers—moms have been fighting for parental work rights for decades, and they’ll appreciate the vigor a new generation of involved dads can bring. Your allies are likely to include parents who are older than you, those who remember the challenges they faced combining their family and career. An ally can have any job title, though if they have a direct influence on parental policy at work they can be more effective. They come in all shapes and sizes. They can be sounding boards for your own thoughts or ideas, or they can be in a position to spread those ideas widely. Here are a few steps to start the conversation.

Share your life as a dad, in all its messy, wonderful glory. We often hear of dads who are successful and popular at work and who keep the fatherhood side of their identities entirely hidden from colleagues and clients. This reticence has the tendency to be contagious. To overcome it, simply start talking. Talk about your weekend and include the family outing. Mention the fact that you’re leaving on time today to get home for story time. Joke about that diaper change that went horribly wrong.

Normalize your parenting life and your colleagues will see you don’t treat it as a taboo subject either. Maybe a parent with younger children will want to ask you for advice or a parent of older kids will have some for you. Either way, you’ve created a space for discussion. If you’re a manager, you’ve also provided an example for other dads to talk about their lives as parents. Don’t forget to mention the pressure of your dual responsibilities. Free others to admit that being a good worker and a good dad is sometimes a tough balancing act.

Fly your dad flag virtually. If you work remotely, you won’t bump into other parents in the kitchen, but the principle remains the same, even if you’re chatting over Zoom or Teams. Hang your children’s artwork in your background. Make your profile photo a family photo. Take an occasional meeting with a toddler on your lap. Start a Slack group for parents and parenting issues, invite a few people, and watch word of mouth take over. Create a virtual discussion around parenting.

Join existing conversations. There may already be formal parents’ groups in your organization. These are a brilliant way for moms and dads to start talking about the issues at work that affect them as parents. We’ve led a number of parent networking sessions where we’ve been asked to talk about the challenges we’ve faced as working dads. Workplace parenting groups are more likely to be mom-focused, often because moms are more likely to set them up. You and your allies can help change that dynamic.

Create a dads’ network. If there are no ready-made parent networks at your workplace, start your own. Make it a dads’ network, at least to start with, to coax reluctant fathers out into the open. Some men might be put off by the idea of a general parenting club and more comfortable discussing issues with other dads. You can change the policy, if that feels right, later. We’ve seen more and more work-based dad clubs starting to emerge, not least through our own Dad Connect program, which aims to help dads forge connections within and across organizations.

Ask other dads at your workplace if they’d like to meet informally to talk about issues around parenthood and work that are important to them. It shouldn’t require too much time or energy, so once a month at lunchtime might be enough to begin. Ask HR if you can advertise the group in the staff newsletter or put a poster on the notice board. Keep an email list or Slack group of interested individuals and contact them before each meeting.

As the group becomes more established, widen its responsibilities. Invite a member of the senior management team to talk about what the business is doing to promote family-friendly working practices. Invite moms to meetings or create ties with mom groups in the business. Compile a document of innovations the group would like to see implemented, alongside examples of best practices. Keep the group engaged between meetings through regular messaging and encourage members to discuss practical, everyday questions, like recommendations for family-friendly restaurants or the best things to do with a four-year-old this weekend.

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