Men, Fathers, and Work: A Note for Father’s Day

I write a lot about women, and their roles – desired or expected – in economic life. I’m a big believer in each of us being able to use our gifts and talents to offer the best of ourselves to the world. Often, that offering is cut short, channeled into something smaller, or rejected entirely. I think we all lose when this happens, and it can happen for men as well as women.

My father was many things: he was a helicopter mechanic in the Navy (standing, far right, in the photo), a Midwesterner, a college student as a young parent, an accountant, a gentleman farmer, a boater, a stroke survivor. We are all many things, and we all have a full complement of attributes that make us human. We get short-changed when we’re only allowed to show part of who we are and what we think and feel. When men are relegated to being providers only, and not encouraged to be caregivers as well, it needlessly limits their roles in their kids’ lives.  Current workplace norms cheat both mothers and fathers: You can have kids, but that limits your work.  Or you can have kids and your work limits your time with them.

We all have fathers. Some of us are closer to them than others, some only figured into our lives for a short time, or part time, or on weekends and select holidays. We all have been shaped by this primary relationship. I loved my father, though we were very different people, and I wish I’d known him better. The quality I loved most about him was his ability to want for me what I wanted (work I loved), even if it wasn’t what he would have chosen for me himself (husband and kids).

In my twenties, I was living in Boston and working in litigation consulting, an intense job with long hours. Stressful, fast-paced, detailed and analytical. I loved it. When a case we were working on was going to trial, it was all-hands-on-deck moment, and everything intensified. The firm structure was flat: research analysts (like me), then associates (those with grad degrees, managing the engagements), and partners (often expert witnesses). The analyst role was terminal, meaning you were expected to leave after a few years for grad school: law or business school, maybe for a PhD. Analysts were in their 20s, Associates in their 30’s and 40’s.

One late night, the Associate running the case I was on was wrapping up for the day. It must have been midnight or later. He was getting ready to drive home – he lived just over the state line, in Nashua, New Hampshire – when another analyst suggested he just stay overnight, at the hotel across the street, the bill for which the client would surely pick up (and would likely not even notice, given the very high fees we were billing already). That way, he could get a couple of extra hours sleep. He looked at us and said no. He wanted to see his kids. They were little, and would be asleep, but it was worth the hour drive each way and less sleep that night so he could see them.

I was surprised. I had never heard a man express this sentiment.

Undoubtedly, a lot has changed since this experience. It was the late 1980s, Reagan was in office and “family values” was the slogan of the time. Those little yellow diamonds that said “Baby on board” started showing up in car windows. It was the Me Decade[1] and it was all about money and status and Yuppies. Men were Masters of the Universe.

Fast-forward a few decades. Friends have had children, and grandchildren. I’ve held those little bundles myself, been to recitals and graduations. Some parents stayed at home, sometimes both parents continued careers. The default is still She stays home, He works outside the home. Sometimes this works beautifully, but more often than not, someone gets short-changed. Sometimes that person is Dad.

You know I am going to fight for women’s rights and equality, for their ability to have kids and a job. Fighting for that means fighting for that for men, too. To have a job and to also be able to be there for their kids.

Claudia Goldin won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2023 for her research on the gender gap in pay. What her review of 200 years of economic history showed was that the gap was less about discrimination and more about how we have organized work. Inflexible workplaces come at a high cost, for pay equity and for families, and that includes dads. The “greedy jobs” that require massive hours – like the one I worked in consulting – allowed a worker to earn big paychecks, but they typically required another worker, unpaid at home, to support them. These jobs greedily consumed a share of time that might have been devoted to a partner and kids, and crowded out the possibility of equally engaging work for the other partner outside the home. (BTW the solution isn’t for only singles to work the Greedy Jobs; research has shown that married men are not only paid more than women in these jobs, but also more than single men.)

For all the fathers out there who also want to be dads – men with a real and regular role in their children’s daily life – you need flexible jobs, too. Workplace flexibility is beneficial to everyone. One blessing from the pandemic may have been to show a greater range of ways to get a job done.  Similarly, research from Norway has shown how dads who take parental leave can be role models for other new fathers, who are more likely to also to take time off with a new kid when they have see the benefits of leave.

While some high-performers out there may insist that if you don’t sacrifice everything for the job, in the words of Mark Cuban, “there’s somebody else out there that you’re competing with that’s trying to kick your ass”, there are also folks like Marc Randolph.  Randolph, co-founder of Netflix and serial entrepreneur, recently posted about the limits he put on his greedy jobs.  To Randolph:

 “the thing I’m most proud of in my life is not the companies I started, it’s the fact that I was able to start them while staying married to the same woman; having my kids grow up knowing me and (best as I can tell) liking me.”

It takes guts to challenge norms and stereotypes, to demonstrate a new way to weave work and family life together.  You can read Marc’s full post here.

I remember distinctly time I spent with my father, and it sometimes shows up in weird ways, decades later. I find I use a push broom in the same manner he did; I print the alphabet the same way he did; I still feel the pride I felt when he first complemented me, as a teenage driver, for my lane position as he followed me back in his car from some outing we had been to together. How many moments will you have to show the children in your life who you are, dad jokes and all?

Life is fragile, and we are so lucky if we find moments of love and connection. Reinventing our roles to let each of us live fully and work fully, to foster a man’s ability to share more of who he is with his kids – his humor, his stories, his feelings – lets us rework the greedy jobs and inflexible structures of work so that ideally kids get to know more completely both of their parents.

Happy Father’s Day.


For more on Claudia Goldin’s work, see the Grattan Institute’s discussion here.

[1] If you ask JSTOR, it will define the 1980s as the “Decade of Greed” (which it was) and the 1970s as the “Me Decade.” The excesses of the ’80’s felt very me-me-me to me, nonetheless.