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Do Men Prioritize Family Time More Than Women?

Elizabeth Weingarten unpacks a new study that suggests men prioritize home and family over work more than women do.
(Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

(Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

On a recent Monday evening, Jacob Lief was perched in a Manhattan loft, devouring a stuffed mushroom and listening to an intimate conversation between the founder of Wikipedia and an editor of the Economist. Surrounded by a couple of dozen young tech start-up CEOs and venture capitalists, Lief, the 38-year-old founder and CEO of the Ubuntu Education Fund, knew that he could “work the room, build some new relationships and raise capital for my organization.” This, he recalled, was his “sweet spot.”

But there was someplace he would rather be. Just as the men were preparing to open up the conversation to audience Q&A, Lief snuck out.

“I thought, I don’t really care what else they have to say that much. I want to see my kids and kiss them goodnight,” Lief, who has a two-year-old and a four-year-old, explained. “It’s what I prioritize.”

Lief is part of a new generation of fathers that is re-defining what it means to be a working dad, with implications for all working caregivers: According to new research published by the salary database PayScale, men now say they are prioritizing family over work at a higher frequency than women.

Are women so worried about how people will perceive their prioritizing family over work that they’ve started to back off?

The report also reveals new dimensions of the gender wage gap with a survey of about 1.4 million full-time workers across the United States. But it went a step further than other wage gap studies, anticipating the arguments often arising in response to this kind of research. “Any time data about the gender pay gap is out there, the immediate backlash is—well, women are choosing to raise a family and opting out of their career pursuits so that’s why you see a gap,” explained Lydia Frank, the senior director of editorial and marketing at PayScale. “And so we said, what can we look at or ask to really understand if that’s true?”

Their solution? They decided to ask how often men and women were prioritizing family over work. Fifty-two percent of men prioritize home and family over work at least one to two times per month, compared to 46 percent of women—and, unsurprisingly, the more a woman says she prioritizes family over work, the larger the pay gap becomes, they found. The pattern was consistent when researchers compared women to men with similar jobs who said they prioritized family over work at roughly the same rates.

The fact that the study authors left “prioritize” up to the interpretation of the survey participants and didn’t define it means we can’t actually draw too many conclusions from these findings. For some, prioritizing family over work may have meant re-scheduling a meeting to attend a soccer game. For others, it could’ve meant unplugging from email a little early to read a bedtime story. Or taking a couple of weeks of paternal leave. What’s more, the survey couldn’t possibly reflect the nuances of these decisions—a parent’s desire to prioritize family over work, but inability to do so because of a challenging office environment. Take, for instance, Lief’s wife—a doctor at New York-Presbyterian hospital who has little control over her shift schedule.

The point here is that studies like this one illuminate a much larger trend, and raise some important questions: Are women so worried about how people will perceive their prioritizing family over work that they’ve started to back off? Does this point to changing norms around masculinity and fatherhood—and men feeling more comfortable asserting their status as caregivers at work?

More and more, working fathers are feeling the same pressure and desire to prioritize family that working mothers have felt for decades. The National Study of the Changing Workforce found, for instance, that,  between 1977 and 2008, the percentage of mothers in dual-earner couples who reported feeling conflicted about work/family responsibilities grew from 41 percent to 47 percent, while for fathers it surged from 25 percent to 60 percent. Nearly half of working dads (48 percent) say they don’t spend enough time with their children, compared to 26 percent of working mothers.

In response to these pressures, working fathers are demanding more time. According to a Boston College Center for Work and Family survey, 89 percent of fathers said it was important for employers to provide some kind of paid leave; three-fourths of those surveyed said they should give fathers two to four weeks. Still, despite a series of splashy paternal leave benefit announcements from Silicon Valley in recent months (the latest from Amazon), according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, only 38 percent of working men say they have an option to take paid leave after the birth of a child.

But the lack of a formal policy through government or work may not stop them from taking the time anyway. One solution for many fathers has been to take PTO without telling their supervisors what it’s for. Indeed, gender differences over speaking up about PTO intentions could be a key reason for the pay gap between working fathers who prioritize family and working mothers who do the same, suggests Gary Barker, the international director and founder of Promundo, an NGO that works with men around the world to promote gender equality. That’s partly because this behavior triggers unconscious bias among employers, and there’s reason to believe that announcing PTO intentions might not hurt men as it does women. Enter the well-documented “daddy bonus” and “mommy penalty”: Employers tend to reward fathers, viewing their paternity as a sign of responsibility, while they penalize mothers, who may be seen as more likely downshift at work and to be distracted by caregiving responsibilities.

Gender differences over speaking up about PTO intentions could be a key reason for the pay gap between working fathers who prioritize family and working mothers who do the same.

Still, the 52–46 percent difference identified in the PayScale survey isn’t huge, so “it suggests to me that close to half of men and women make similar calculations about family over work, but that women pay the higher wage price for it,” Barker says.

This new research comes at a time when experts and parents alike are taking a hard look at the bigger picture, especially the fact that, while close to half of both men and women are prioritizing family over work with some regularity every month, around half are not. “We’re working more hours than ever before,” says Simon Isaacs, founder and CEO of Fatherly. According to Gallup, the average work week in the U.S. for adults employed full-time is 47 hours, with nearly half of full-time salaried employees working more than 50 hours a week, and nearly a quarter working more than 60. “For many working parents, this means working on the weekends or a ‘third shift’ late at night after their kids are in bed.”

This culture of overwork isn’t good for anyone, employers included. Evidence is mounting that employees who are able to work flexibly and take time off—for caregiving responsibilities or just for leisure—are happier, more productive, and more loyal than those who don’t have those options. Sometimes, parental leave or flex-time policies can even save companies money, because they’re not experiencing the same levels of turnover.

Giving workers time and space to care for loved ones may also help them become better managers. In her new book, Unfinished Business, New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter makes the point that parenting is like taking a crash course in effective management. Great managers, like great parents, are tasked with helping their employees (or children) grow into their roles, and to realize their full potential. “It’s time for CEOs, supervisors and team leaders to assume that the experience of caring for children, aging parents, or any loved one will give your employees experience and insights that will help them on the job,” Slaughter writes. “To begin with, they will be extremely efficient; working caregivers do not have time to waste.”

They will also have some perspective. “The thing I learned with having children is that at 7 p.m., if something’s not solved, it will still be there at 7 a.m.," Lief says. This mentality doesn’t mean Lief and his employees aren’t driven, but that he understands that “when people have good balance, they are most productive.”


This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.