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By Pamela Mendels
MARCH 27, 2000

Fathers Want Work-Family Balance, Too

Smart small companies can give themselves an edge over big outfits by offering men more flexibility


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As far as I know, Ralph, an employee at a tech magazine, doesn't leap tall buildings in a single bound. But when I read about him in a new book, he made my cut for superhero.

His act of derring do? Ralph opted to stay home for his daughter's fifth birthday party rather than travel out of town for a conference his boss wanted him to attend. Ralph and a lot of other dads like him (all the names are pseudonyms) are the point of Suzanne Braun Levine's new book Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First (Harcourt, Inc.). Levine, the founding editor of Ms. magazine, chronicles the obstacles men face when they reject single-minded careerism and seek a balance between work and family life.

That's hard enough for men who work for large companies. What about those who own their companies? Entrepreneurs -- the culture heroes for today's ambitious professionals -- are, if anything, more driven than wage slaves. And many drive their employees hard, as well. To find out more, I recently ended up in Levine's New York apartment talking to her about the topic.

OPEN TO CHANGE. I asked whether her book, which surveyed the work spectrum -- from freelancers to employees of large companies -- could possibly hold any lessons for small-business owners and their employees. Yes, indeed, she replied. Small businesses, which don't have the entrenched employment policies of bureaucratic corporations, have the freedom to experiment with schedules, to offer fathers alternatives.

"Small businesses are often described as places that can least afford social change," Levine said. "I think that's not necessarily true. They are in the best position to be creative and innovative about work-styles." In this tight labor market, companies that put family first have a great opportunity to compete for talent against better-heeled but hidebound rivals, Levine said. She plucked from her book the example of the senior partner at a small law firm that prides itself on reasonable work hours.

"He claims people come and work for him at half the salary they would receive at a big law firm, because they can have a life," she said. "People are very willing to trade money for hours at this point."

SOBERING CALL. Levine also cites her profile of Brian, a hard-driving, 10-year veteran of the financial-services industry, who received a sobering call from his 12-year-old son's guidance counselor. The boy was drifting. Brian had to spend more time with him. "Brian found a small business that was more responsive," though it meant a pay cut, Levine said.

She said that in researching her book, she conducted extensive interviews with about 50 fathers who are seeking the career-family balance that so many working mothers have clamored for in recent years. She found them by word-of-mouth. As Levine describes it, theirs is a lonely and difficult battle. Companies may grudgingly acknowledge that parents need accommodations to tend to their families. But the fact is, "parents" usually means mothers.

Disturbing themes emerged in the interviews. Most telling was the fathers' reluctance to use their employers' parental programs. Typically, they would take vacation or sick days -- not family leave -- to spend time with their kids. Why? Because taking family leave says: "This is not the most important part of my life," Levine explained. For an ambitious man's career, that can be the kiss of death in big organizations.

SET AN EXAMPLE. As for smaller employers that don't offer any parental leave, the message is unequivocal: Go elsewhere if kids are your priority. (See my last column, "Why Is Small Biz Allergic to Paid Parental Leave?")

Companies large or small can do plenty to change this picture, Levine said. One is to acknowledge the problem. Set up meetings where working dads can discuss their concerns. Companies are often surprised at how many show up. Some direction from on-high helps, too, Levine told me. She urges CEOs to follow the example of President Clinton who, she believes, sent a powerful message in 1995, when he issued a memorandum urging executive branch departments to be sure to include fathers in family programs and policies.

At the end of her book, Levine calls the men who take the initiative to balance work and family "heroes." Take Ralph, the birthday-party dad. Levine said his small act not only gratified his daughter but also educated his company. "My expectation is that his boss will not be as blind to this kind of situation again," she said.

If she's right, CEOs take note. With men adding their voice to women in demanding family-friendly career paths, no company will be able to ignore the clamor. And small companies have an opportunity to be in the vanguard.

Pamela Mendels is freelance writer based in New York City. She wrote about small business and had a workplace advice column at Newsday, and has written about workplace matters for Business Week, WorkingWoman, and the Web site iGuide.


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