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Subjective Experiences of Male Parental Leave

Info: 10368 words (41 pages) Dissertation
Published: 9th Dec 2019

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Tagged: Human Resources


It is known that even when family-friendly policies are made available to men, the uptake does not compare to that of women. Despite this, the majority of studies on the work/family interface have focused on the experiences of women or have relied upon quantitative research methods. This paper focuses on men who have taken parental leave for more than one month in order to better understand the factors that contribute to their subjective experiences. Semi-structured interviews with six professional services employees are analysed using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) in order to identify key themes. Four key themes are used to discuss the findings: give and take, fears and desires, influences and outcomes of the transition to the new role of carer. Findings point to the importance of the self-concept (in particular, congruence with the ideal self) and the psychological contract (in particular whether treatment is perceived to be unfair, fair or generous) in shaping the way parental leave is experienced. The results are conceptualised within the existing theoretical literature on work/family interface processes including spillover, segmentation and role conflict. Implications of the results in terms of positive organizational and societal change are discussed as well as opportunities for future research. Finally, recommendations are put forward for how to close the gap between policy and practice by suggesting interventions to improve the overall experience of men who take extended parental leave.


Australia ranks 46th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (2016), hence the topic of gender equality is a prominent one in this country. There is a great deal of research on the topic of women’s struggle for equality in the workplace however men increasingly share in this goal.  A 2012 study by the Center for Work and Family found that 65 per cent of fathers surveyed in Australia want to share the burden of caregiving equally with their partners however only 34 per cent said this was actually the case in their relationship. Furthermore, Australian men want access to the same benefits as women; 60 per cent would like to be working part time and slightly more than half said they would seriously consider the possibility of being full-time, stay-at-home dads.

Research has found that becoming a mother is the biggest reason for the gender pay gap between men and women (Budig & England, 2001 and Anderson, Binder & Krause 2003) and this is attributed to discrimination which fathers do not experience (Correll & Benard, 2007). In addressing this issue, paid paternity leave is considered essential to achieving gender equality and is one of the few policies found to create a shift in social norms around men’s caregiving responsibilities (Heilman et al, 2017). As sixty per cent of households in Australia are now dual-income (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013), this is a certainly a place where gender roles need re-thinking.

Parental leave is a benefit available to either or both parents, allowing them to take care of an infant or child usually after an initial maternity or paternity leave period (ILO 2014). It is longer term and in Australia is reserved for the primary caregiver (which can be the mother or father). On average, women take 32 weeks maternity leave (ABS, 2011) meaning that it is rare for the father to use any of the Government provision. The professional services firm concerned in this study provides employees with 18 weeks parental leave at full pay if they are the primary caregiver which can be taken on top of the government provision of 18 weeks at minimum wage. This scheme is on par with other professional services firms of a similar size but is considered very generous compared to other industries. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (2016) only 48.2% of employers provided paid parental leave for an average 10 weeks. Of those, 80.9% offered full pay and 8.6% only topped up the Government scheme to full pay.

The issue faced by this organisation is that take-up of the parental leave policy by men is extremely low which reflects the broader Australian society (Remeikis, 2017). In addition to the implications for equality, take up of parental leave and other family-friendly policies can reduce work-family conflict (Allard, Hass & Hwang, 2007), lead to greater organisational commitment (Grover & Crooker, 1995) and has the potential to increase productivity, retention, and company loyalty (Munn & Greer, 2015). Some studies also show that advancement and a higher salary has become less important to men than job security and flexible work arrangements. (Harrington, Van Deusen & Humberd, 2011). A 2012 study by the Russell and O’Leary found a fifth of men had seriously considered leaving their organisation because of a lack of flexibility. The transition to fatherhood presents organisations with the opportunity to engage men in accessing flexible work arrangements which can contribute to better work/life balance and self-assessed work and family performance and satisfaction (Carlson, Grzywacz, & Kacmar, 2010). It is therefore of great importance that organisations like the one in this study, take steps to understand and improve the experience of those who take up parental leave.

It is known from Kelman’s (1958) work on social influence that one’s attitudes and behaviours are affected by others and this is particularly prominent if being influenced by someone with authority or whom you like and admire (Cialdini, 2011). In the workplace therefore, if leaders speak of a good or poor experience of parental leave, this is likely to create a ripple effect within the organisation. We know for example that when an employee takes parental leave, the next colleague to have a baby is 11 per cent more likely to also take parental leave (Dahl and Løken and Mogstad, 2014). While research already exists as to the reasons why men choose not to take up parental leave (Chronholm, 2002), a deeper understanding of the experiences men have through taking parental leave is a gap that this paper seeks to address. For this reason, the interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) approach will be used to answer the research question of understanding the parental leave phenomenon from the perspectives of men who have experienced it. While this method will not allow for generalisation, it will provide deep insights and common themes that can be further scrutinised beyond this paper for ways to positively influence the experience.

The organisation in which this study takes place is committed to embedding programs and policies which support men’s caring responsibilities and has recently been awarded the Employer of Choice for Gender Equality (EOCGE) citation. Therefore, not only does this paper address an academic gap but it will be of great interest and benefit to the organisation that this study focuses on and to the broader business community. Despite the fact that work-life balance is not just a woman’s issue, fatherhood is still practically invisible in the workplace. As men’s use of parental leave is linked to gender equality and therefore an area of strategic importance for this and many other firms, the findings from this paper can assist with the re-evaluation of policies, practice and culture around parental leave and other family-friendly policies. As this is a potentially sensitive and political subject, what the organisation chooses to do with the information is another issue.

Literature review

In order to understand the role of parental leave and why there is a need for new research, the following literature will focus on:

  • The home/work interface and the importance of parental leave and other family-friendly policies
  • The current research on parental leave including levels of uptake and reasons for uptake
  • The broader social context and case for change including consequences of taking or not taking leave
  • Why a qualitative exploration of experience is relevant to the change agenda
  • The approach best suited to address this

The home/work interface and the importance of parental leave and other family-friendly policies

With increased competition and globalisation, careers are no longer for life and organisations need to understand how to attract and retain the best talent to remain competitive. For this reason, it is important that companies understand a potential employees’ values and needs and how to build a psychological contract (Argyris, 1960) that supports the whole person in all of their roles and takes into account the way work and family life is intertwined. Psychological contract, as defined by Rousseau (1989) as ‘an individual’s belief in reciprocal obligations’. There is evidence to suggest that when workers are supported in managing the work / life interface by their organisational culture and associated policies and practices, the result is improved performance and attitudes towards work (Konrad, 2013). There is also evidence that organisational support is critical in reducing work-to-family conflict (Aycan & Eskin, 2005). For example, it is considered best practice to offer unpaid and paid family leave so that workers are able to meet both their home and work commitments (Baird and Whitehouse, 2012). Further research goes on to suggest that it is not just those who access the policies directly that express greater satisfaction and organisational commitment but other employees too because of the belief that the organisation cares (Grover & Crooker, 1995 and Butts, 2013).

Super’s theory of the ‘Life Career Rainbow’ is a visual depiction of how the emotional involvement in each of the different roles a person plays, changes throughout their lives (1980). The importance of a role, also known as ‘role salience’ is determined by level of commitment, participation and knowledge (Nevill & Super, 1986) and we know that preferences for a certain role are influenced by many factors, including ‘social traditions’ (Super, 1990) hence men are often drawn towards paid work while women are drawn towards caregiving. Self-concept, later referred to as personal construct, is the dual focus on self attributes and the meanings derived from their interactions with the environment (Super, 1990). Carl Rogers (1959) believed that self-concept was made up of the following three components; self-esteem, self-image and ideal self. If colleagues react with prejudice when a man takes parental leave for example, this may negatively affect the man’s self-esteem and subsequent self-concept.  The psychological contract therefore, encompasses formal and informal practices and in this context should allow the employee to enact their chosen roles while avoiding judgement in order to maintain a healthy self-concept.

A review of research and theory examining the relationship between work and family spheres have shown that more than one paradigm is needed to increase our understanding in this area (Greenglass, 2000). Some of the processes considered to link work with family include: spillover, segmentation, compensation and accommodation. Spillover is the positive or negative carry-over of emotions, skills or attitudes from work to home or vice versa (Belsky et al., 1985). Segmentation is the (usually deliberate) separation of work and family life to better deal with work-related stresses (Piotrkowski, 1979), also known as ‘psychological disengagement’ (Kahn et al. 1964). Compensation refers to the way workers seek out satisfaction from either their home or work when the other sphere is causing them dissatisfaction in order to compensate and create balance (Dubin, 1967). Accommodation is the process of reducing involvement in one role to avoid work/family conflict (Greenhaus & Singh, 2004).  These theories are somewhat dated because these days, so much time is spent on paid work activities, both from the office and home environment, that there is a blurring of the lines between roles and it is expected that you seek paid work that gives you satisfaction because it is where you will be spending most of your time. Despite this, they hold face validity and are relevant to the discussion of parental leave and other family-friendly policies; creating the opportunity to spend time away from work in the role of parent is a form of segmentation while spillover can indirectly occur through the satisfaction that is created when a worker feels their employer is responding to their wants and needs (Lambert, 1990). Accommodation takes place when a person takes leave or reduces their hours to be part time to be with their family.

The policies thought to help workers balance work and family responsibilities include: childcare provisions, flexible work hours and locations, employee counselling and parental leave which are increasingly being implemented by organisations (Friedman, 1987). We also know that organisational support more generally plays a key role in reducing work-to-family conflict for both men and women (Aycan & Eskin, 2005). To date, the research on the effects of these policies and the work-family interface more broadly have been predominantly from the woman’s perspective (Greenglass, 2000). In addition, there is consensus that both the family-related programs and services in Australia and the research that accompanies them is extremely limited from the father’s perspective.  Many are directed towards ‘parents’ but actual numbers show drastic disproportion towards women (Bronte-Tinkew, Burkhauser & Metz, 2012; Maxwell et al., 2012; Burgess, 2009). The topic of men and extended parental leave is therefore a largely overlooked concept within work-family research and so this study will make a significant and distinctive contribution to an otherwise under-explored area.

We know that men have fewer role models to look up to for guidance around balancing home and work commitments (Higgins & Duxbury, 1992), and men are less likely than women to ask for help (Addis & Mahalik, 2003). As the expectations of men in their work and family roles are also different to the expectations of women in similar roles, it is important that a man’s work-family experiences and how they respond to policies be studied separately to research on women (Higgins & Duxbury, 1992). Work-life research on men is also necessary to challenge the norm of the ‘ideal worker’ (Williams, 2000) and make workplace adjustments that consider the work-family interface for male employees (Sav, Harris & Sebar, 2014).

The current research on parental leave including levels of uptake and reasons for non-uptake

There are large global differences when it comes to availability of parental leave; with Estonia offering 146 weeks compared to zero in the US (OECD Family Database, 2016). Within Australia, we know that when only unpaid leave was on offer, men were unlikely to take this up (Whitehouse et al., 2007). Even when the policy is available however, workers do not necessarily feel comfortable taking advantage of it (Blair-Loy, Wharton, & Goodstein, 2011). After the Government paid parental leave scheme was introduced, only 620 of the 170,501 people who applied for it in 2016/17 were men. (Remeikis, 2017). It is likely that this is due to the fact that the provision can be claimed by either the man or woman and mothers typically wish to use all available leave themselves. (McKay & Doucet 2010 and Bygren & Duvander, 2005). This is the reason why global best practice is considered to be when paid leave is available just to men and cannot be used by the woman (Smith & Williams, 2007).

With men usually taking on the role of breadwinner, it is no surprise that one of the main reasons men choose not to take extended parental leave is financial concerns (Women’s Business Council, 2012). The traditional view was that that to be a good husband and father was to dedicate oneself to work (Barnett & Baruch, 1987). This may explain why in 2010, of those fathers that did take leave in Australia, 83 per cent took less than six weeks off (Diversity Council of Australia, 2010), thereby minimising any financial ramifications. Research from Spain shows us that, for those fathers who take a longer period of time off, this appears to be driven from the view that this is their family duty (Romero-Balsas, Muntanyola-Saura & Rogero-García, 2013) which would suggest that the attitude difference of what it means to be a father, plays a big part in the length of leave taken. It is no surprise that men are experiencing conflict; with a shift in gender roles that prescribes men be more involved fathers (Cinamon & Rich, 2002) yet many organisations are still not providing sufficient support, from the perspective of policy, practice or cultural norms.

Men find themselves put off taking leave by the prospect of their request being rejected and the expectation that they will be discriminated against (Skinner, Hutchinson & Pocock, 2012). These fears are sadly justified as research shows that men are more likely than women to have requests for flexible work arrangements declined (Sanders et al., 2015) and 1 in 4 men who took as little as 2 weeks paternity leave, experienced discrimination (AHRC, 2014). Men who request family leave are viewed as poor organisational citizens and ineligible for rewards (Allen & Russell, 1999; Wayne & Cordeiro, 2003). Linking back to the theory of compensation, this discrimination could be explained through the perception that a man who increases involvement with his family must be unfulfilled and dissatisfied with his work (Greenglass, 2000). Research also shows that taking on non-traditional caregiving roles leads to men being viewed as higher on weak feminine traits and higher on agentic masculine traits (Rudman & Mescher, 2013) which leads to them being treated worse at work than men who stick closer to traditional gender norms in the family (Berdahl & Moon, 2013).  Role congruence occurs when men are rewarded for adhering to the socially accepted norms and behaviours (Katz & Kahn, 1978) yet when men stray from the typical work role it is considered a sign of deviance (Robertson &Fitzgerald, 1990). Interestingly, Even though both male and female employees suffer lower pay and fewer promotions after taking time off work to care for family, (to an extent that cannot be explained by hours, performance, or skill loss), men took a greater hit to earnings than women (Coltrane et al. 2013).

Even though the research is 25 years old, it seems to still stand that a man will make use of parental leave policies if he can avoid firstly a reduction in earnings, and secondly the perception of not being committed (Pleck, 1993).


The broader social context and case for change including consequences of taking or not taking leave

Though Australia is slowly shifting towards a more gender-equal society, women are still find themselves at a disadvantage at work and in the home. Women typically spend about twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work and childcare and half as much time on employment-related activities (ABS, 2016).  While women see their domestic duties as an essential commitment that they must fulfil for themselves, men typically see performing these same duties as ‘helping’, even in dual-profession couples (Silberstein, 1992). Interestingly, while women participate more in home roles than men, there are minimal gender differences in terms of level of commitment towards paid work (Nevill & Super, 1986) therefore paid parental leave is found to be positive for workforce participation (Productivity Commission, 2009). When men and women receive financial support that enables them to combine work and care, it allows women to develop their careers and maintain participation in the workforce, thereby contributing to gender equity (Hegewisch & Gornick, 2011).

Research shows that children also benefit from having involved fathers (Levine & Pittinsky 1997). Studies show higher cognitive and emotional functioning and improvements to physical health for children with fathers who actively participate in childcare. These fathers also report better health and higher levels of life satisfaction than those who spend less time caring and interacting with their children (OECD Policy Brief, 2016). When fathers struggle to access parental leave however, this is perceived to affect father-child attachment and places additional pressure on the primary care-giver, usually their partner which can put strain on the relationship (Brough et al. 2009). There have been suggestions that men who take parental leave are subsequently more involved fathers, however research has been published in Australia that contradicts this theory (Hosking, Whitehouse & Baxter, 2010).



Why a qualitative exploration of experience is relevant to the change agenda

It is likely that men who have a good experience with parental leave will share this with others and increase the numbers of leave takers overall. In order to establish how to influence and improve this experience, the experience must first be understood.

There are numerous survey-based studies on attitudes towards parental leave from around the world (e.g. Chronholm, 2002; AHRC, 2014 and Haas, Allard & Hwang, 2002) especially looking at the reasons why men do not use the full allocation available. There are however few in-depth studies of the subjective experience men have of extended parental leave. From the research highlighted above it is clear that there are many factors that will influence the reason a man chooses to take leave, the length of leave he opts for and the experience he has while on leave and individual attitudes and beliefs are likely to play a big part.

Within an organisation, the culture is made up of the shared values and norms.  Conformity, or majority influence, often means that the historical patterns of behaviour continue to shape the behaviours of today. Those men who opt for extended parental leave are knowingly going against the grain and it could be that for each man, there is a different reason for this. For this reason, a phenomenological study that is unconstrained by pre-defined questions is necessary to truly understand the parental leave experience from the man’s point of view.

The approach best suited to address this

An approach similar to Milward’s 2006 study into ‘the transition to motherhood in an organisational context’ will be taken, which, rather than assuming an objective reality of the return to work decision, explores the experiential, first-hand accounts of women through maternity leave. The aim of interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) is to gain a deep insight into people’s lived experiences and how participants make sense of a particular phenomenon (Smith, 2004). As Malim, Birch & Wadeley (1992) describe it, this kind of research addresses ‘the wholeness and uniqueness of the individual’.  Evaluations of father-specific initiatives are frequently of poor quality (Panter-Brick et al., 2014), the small sample size in this study allows for greater depth and quality of analysis. How a father engages with parental leave may be influenced by a complex range of factors and therefore this research is likely to present a depth of data that will complement the quantitative data that currently exists.  Reid, Flowers & Larkin (2005) take the view that common themes across accounts and the supporting ‘analytic commentary’ can result in useful insights which have potentially wider implications than larger, more superficial studies; ‘a focus on the particular… can help illuminate the universal’ (Warnock, 1987). Adapting such a method will support an understanding of how the internal imperatives (such as the intrinsic desire to be a good father) are balanced with external factors (such as organisational support). This approach will allow for the findings to be grouped into appropriate themes and conceptualised within existing theoretical frameworks such as those detailed above on the work-family interface.

Questions worth addressing include:

  • What role does parental leave play in terms of the work-family interface and associated dynamics such as accommodation, spillover, compensation, and segmentation (Lambert, 1990)?
  • What role does the psychological contract play in the way parental leave is viewed?
  • What affect, if any, does parental leave have on self-concept or identity (Super, 1990 and Millward, 2006)?
  • To what extent do the cultural norms of an organisation impact the overall parental leave experience?

These and other questions will be investigated through the qualitative study of the experience men have of taking extended parental leave that follows.

Research method

In order to gain an understanding of men’s subjective experience of the extended parental leave phenomenon which is not well understood, the study had to be both qualitative and exploratory. The Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) methodology that allows such idiographic experiences to be explored, and which falls under the interpretive paradigm, was therefore used. This approach looks at the meaning that people assign to their experiences and interactions with their environment (Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999) and therefore requires the researcher to avoid setting a hypothesis or entering with any preconceptions (Husserl 1970).


Participants were all recruited from the Melbourne office of one professional services firm in Australia, which was the simplest solution for the researcher. The approach to participant selection was bounded by the research question hence a combination of non-random sampling strategies was used; ‘purposive’ and ‘snowball’. Participants were targeted via a whole-of-office e-mail and through a notice on their internal online notice board. Two of the participants also heard of the study through word-of-mouth from colleagues who had seen the notice. In contrast to grounded theory that engages in comparisons and seeks exceptions and odd cases; IPA research aims to use a fairly homogenous sample; hence this study looked purely at men who had taken extended parental leave with the main differences being their functional business area and level within the firm. This sample consisted of two Managers, one Senior Manager and three Directors and no two participants were from the same functional area.

Six men were recruited for the study, following Smith, Flowers & Larkin’s (2009) guidelines for a master’s level IPA study. Six to eight participants is also recommended by Turpin et al. (1997) as it provides the opportunity to explore similarities and differences between the individuals. This small sample size is adequate as the population drawn from (men who have taken extended parental leave within this one firm) is also relatively small. Furthermore, this study does not attempt to generalise the findings beyond this group and therefore there was no need for random or representative sampling. Had the sample been larger, the researcher may not have been able to perform such thorough analysis due to time constraints.

Participants who expressed interest were given an information sheet and asked to complete an informed consent form (see attachments). This was followed by a fifteen minute pre-interview conversation which served as a ‘warm up’ to build rapport, alleviate concerns and prepare the participant to discuss more personal and sensitive issues during the interview itself, as recommended by Pietkiewicz & Smith (2012). This initial call was beneficial in that it potentially saved time at the beginning of the interview that may otherwise have been spent explaining the process, answering questions and getting to know one-another.

Data collection and analysis

One-hour semi-structured interviews in the Melbourne office were used to collect data, allowing participants to discuss the issues most important to them while simultaneously avoiding going completely off topic. A structured approach would have been too rigid and could have limited the findings, while a fully unstructured approach could have resulted in the discussion being too focussed on one topic or not gaining the depth of data required to fully interpret the findings.  A high level interview plan was prepared for the researcher’s benefit which allowed the conversation to flow naturally by providing a rough guide (Smith & Osborn, 2003). The plan consisted of; a broad opening with general context-setting questions (e.g. “when was your leave taken and how long was it for?”), followed by questions in chronological order about experiences prior to (e.g. “how did you feel about telling colleagues of your intention to go on leave”), during (e.g. “what thoughts or feelings, if any, did you have about work during your leave”) and after taking the leave (e.g. “what was most on your mind as you transitioned back into work?”). Having only minimal structure in place allowed the participants to cover anything they felt was appropriate and elaborate at any point where the topic felt personally significant to them (Smith & Osborn, 2003). Participants were also at liberty to jump around as and when certain memories or points were triggered and could speak freely with only verbal nods and prompting or exploratory questions on the side of the researcher. Taking such an approach meant that the researcher’s understanding of the experience of taking extended parental leave was not imposed on the participant’s narrative (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009).

With the consideration that this study had the potential to cause a form of psychological harm to participants through discussing sensitive topics, the researcher monitored the affective reactions of the participants and was prepared to stop the interview at any time should it be deemed necessary.  Participants were also reminded at the start of the session of their right to stop at any time or decline to answer any questions and of the fact that the interview was being recorded.

With permission from the interviewees, the interviews were recorded using a smartphone recording application and then manually transcribed verbatim for analysis, which according to Smith & Osborn (2003) is an essential component for IPA interviewing to ensure objectivity. Though it would have been preferable to follow up the initial interview with a subsequent interview (as used by Rush, 2010) to validate what had been captured and minimise subjective interpretation, the time constraints of the study deemed this impractical.

The approach to analyse the data in IPA is described as a dual interpretation or double hermeneutic process, because, in the first stage the participant ascribes meaning to their world and in the second stage the researcher attempts to understand that meaning (Pietkiewicz & Smith, 2012). To begin, the researcher immersed herself in the data, listening to the audio and reading the transcript several times to allow potential new insights to present through each listening / reading. This was an extremely time consuming process but was important for picking up on not just the language used but also the intonation, silences, sighs etc. that all contributed to the researcher’s understanding of the participants’ experiences. This process of data analysis is known to be vulnerable to researcher bias because the way the researcher interprets and sees themes will be dependent on her own phenomenological world and experiences; it is called interpretive as “there is no definitive or prescribed way” (Conrad, 1987).  There is also a level of skill required to ensure thorough systematic analysis without imposing one’s own conceptual categories on the data, this presents the risk of relevant themes being missed.

The coding process for IPA is a three stage process; firstly noting initial observations on one transcript which may relate to content, use of language, distinctive phrases or emotional responses etc. then pulling emergent themes from these notes (Pietkiewicz & Smith, 2012). This is repeated for each individual transcript, rather than looking at the entire dataset together as is the case with Thematic Analysis. Once coding and theme development is complete for all transcripts, subordinate themes can be developed across the dataset. With mixed reviews around the use of computer-assisted qualitative data analysis and considering the small sample size, the data from this study was not analysed NVivo nor any other software solution.

In writing up the study, each theme has been described and supported with data extracts in the form of quotes, this is important for two reasons, firstly so as to retain the voice of the participant, secondly to allow the reader to ‘independently audit’ how the researcher has interpreted the participants’ account (Osborn & Smith, 1998). What follows is therefore the researcher’s analytic comments and a discussion that relates to existing literature. The inductive nature of this study means that theories may be derived from the data. We may therefore learn more about such concepts as role conflict, work-life spill-over, psychological contract etc. in the context of men who take extended parental leave.  In order to protect the anonymity of the participants and for ease of capturing the findings, each has been assigned a false name as is shown in the below table.

Table 1: Participant details

False name Level within hierarchy Weeks of leave taken
Aadi Director 3 + 15 (18)
Brian Manager 3 + 15 (18)
Chris Manager 3 + 15 (18)
Dave Senior Manager 52
Ethan Director 3 + 14 (17)
Felipe Director 3 + 10 (18)

Results and Discussion

This section will present the four key themes derived from the accounts of the six participants; give and take, fears & desires, influence & comparisons and adjustment to the new role. Within each section there are a number of sub-themes which will be described and illustrated using direct quotes and followed by the researcher’s interpretive analysis. Three dots (…) indicates that the author has omitted words and square brackets ([ ]) indicates that the author has added a word to clarify the context of the quote. Participants have been given false names to protect their identity. Where the word ‘Partner’ is capitalised, it refers to the rank within the firm, when it is lower case it refers to the wife of the participant.

Table 2: Summary of themes and sub-themes

Theme Sub-themes
Give and take Give:

  • Earned the leave due to tenure, grade, credibility, contributions and minimal time absent
  • Gave through time and effort in the lead up to leave
  • Gave to their wives


  • Feeling ‘unloved’ as transitioning onto leave
  • No contact to provide support
  • Too much work related contact
Fears and desires Desires:

  • Create change
  • Be an involved father


  • Missing out at work
  • Not being needed at work
  • Not being a good enough father
Influences Positive:

  • Media / society encouraging active fathering
  • Role models


  • ‘Jokes’, discrimination and judgement
  • Treated like an outsider
  • Imagine society to perceive as lazy
Outcomes of transition to new role Experience of:

  • Unprepared
  • Understanding of wife’s role
  • With/without support network
  • Bond with child
  • Work ‘reset’


Give and take

This theme is about the decision to take leave and how this was influenced by both; a sense of obligation or responsibility towards work or their partner, as well as their felt right to do so.

From the work perspective, in general participants felt grateful for the opportunity to go on paid leave and at the same time, justified this in their minds by the contribution they had already made to their work in terms of the number of years they had worked there or how short their period of leave had been to date.

Felipe explained:

Since starting here I haven’t taken a secondment or extended leave, the longest I was away was four weeks for our honeymoon over twelve years. So I thought this is a pretty significant life event so you know what, I’m going to take the time to experience and get involved and work can be second for the first time in a long time.”

From this statement it can be deduced that Felipe felt it only fair to allocate some time to his family based on his level of dedication to work for more than a decade. This suggests a desire for balance and perhaps entering into a different phase in his overall career where he feels comfortable shifting life priorities.

Tenure and grade within the firm also influenced the extent to which participants felt they had a right to the leave however interestingly, two opposing perspectives were expressed.

For Felipe, the time that you put into the firm adds to your overall credibility and therefore the extent to which you have ‘earned’ the leave:

“Because people have a perception about your reliability and your track record so… I could see how five years ago I might have thought ‘I don’t know how keen I am’.”

This would suggest that the younger, more junior version of himself would not have felt that he had given enough to the organisation to justify taking leave.

Interestingly however, Ethan felt the opposite way; that his seniority meant that he could not afford to take such time out of work:

“I’m a Director and a lot of the people who were taking it were Managers so I thought this doesn’t really apply to me”.

Here Ethan implies that as a Director you become too important to the firm to be able to take the time out which was why he perceived parental leave to be taken up by more junior members of staff and thought initially that he has missed out on the opportunity through some unwritten rule.

In continuing this theme on ‘giving’ to the organisation, most participants made a conscious effort to minimise any negative impact by taking their leave at a quiet time or providing support to their colleagues after their leave had begun. This was often accompanied by apparent guilt about the situation they were leaving their work in. This is best summarised by this quote from Aadi:

In my mind. my preference was around trying to make it work with work so it didn’t feel like I was pushing something on the business that they disagreed with or made it hard for them…I tried to go about it the right way in terms of making sure that people didn’t feel put out.”

Aadi put energy into being accommodating, no doubt because he didn’t want the way he went on leave to damage his reputation or perception of him as a good organisational citizen.

This need to ‘give’ to the organisation was in direct conflict with the felt need to give to their wives. Almost all participants expressed the importance of helping their wives return to work in a way that would be less stressful than if the child went into full time care. Dave clearly articulated the reciprocal agreement he felt he and his wife had:

My wife and I look at our careers in an equal and balanced way… because it’s a partnership right? And that’s certainly how we view it. Other people might view it differently they might see it as a traditional kind of ‘female stays at home’ thing, but personally that’s not me.”

For Dave, his wife had as much right to work as he did and therefore felt obliged to do his share of the childcare so as not to disadvantage his wife and her career.

Now reflecting on how participants felt the firm ‘took’ from them, a number of the men felt that the experience was unjust and that the firm hadn’t held up their side of the contract. This was partly due to the processes and systems being used that were not tailored to men taking parental leave but also the human side of the experience. Participants felt under-appreciated and had expected more, Dave’s frustration in particular, on his last day before going on parental leave was audible:

I’m not catching up with anyone, there’s no departure meeting, there’s no planning session around maintaining levels of contact, there’s no farewell stuff… [if the checklist and leaving process was better] it would have made me feel a little more loved as I left.”

Use of the word ‘unloved’ shows the perception of work as being like any other relationship in one’s life where if you show commitment and loyalty, you expect a similar level of care in return. Even though previously Dave had expressed that the policy was an entitlement, it is clear that there was also a level of expectation around how the policy would be implemented and the disappointment was palpable.

Similarly, with the effort Aadi had put into being accommodating, it made him angry when the boundaries he had attempted to put up were disrespected:

those first couple of weeks were really hard when it was taking phone calls however many times a day trying to still do work through times when she was asleep…definitely some difficult days where I was really, really pissed off, where I was on a call typing things up for a Partner while my daughter was crying in the background and I thought ‘come on, you can get your EA to type up things for you’.”

Clearly Aadi struggled with saying ‘no’ to the Partner, he was thinking that the Partner’s treatment of him was unfair but he could not voice this. This was likely because of the Partner’s seniority and the good impression Aadi was trying to leave with him even when he was no longer supposed to be at work.

For Aadi, he had the hope that work might show a level of care by checking in to see how he was doing during his time away:

“I didn’t have anyone contact me for anything other than work, not to provide support, so I was a little disappointed.”

Interestingly, other participants did not want to be contacted by work for any reason so a complete lack of contact was seen as work holding up their side of the bargain. The general consensus was that the leave they were taking (10-15 weeks on average) was too short a period of time to require check-ins.


Fears and Desires

This theme is about how the leave decision was embedded in the participants’ sense of identity and the desire to preserve this idea of their ideal self and the associated fears.

Aadi for example, had heroic visions of creating change:

“In some respects you have to go out there and be progressive otherwise you will never make change, and so as someone who has aspirations to be a future leader of the firm, this is probably one of the best things from a long term perspective I could have ever done… I also think as a more senior person within my group doing it is a good thing in setting a precedent and without wanting to be self-promoting, a role model for other people to look up and say ‘well if it’s OK for him to do it then it should be OK for me to do it’.”

Aadi seemed self-conscious about referring to himself as a ‘role model’ but, possibly having experienced first-hand, the ‘archaic views’ of many of the Partners, he saw that it was his responsibility to create change within the firm’s culture.

Most of the participants expressed the desire to be an involved father and saw parental leave as playing a key role in this. This was especially prevalent for Dave who said that

“To my mind it’s an absolute no brainer right, because if you want to play an active role in supporting and guiding and raising your child it’s a no brainer.  Some people may not want that so it’s kind of a choice… ‘I’d rather be at work and get that done’ but my personal values would suggest I wanted to spend as much time at home as possible and play an active role in raising my two kids.”

Here Dave reiterates ‘active role’ and ‘no brainer’, demonstrating that his desire to be an involved father is deeply rooted in his values and therefore taking leave was an easy choice for him. At the same time he acknowledges that this isn’t for everyone so doesn’t voice judgement of the men who make a different choice.

A common fear expressed by many of the participants was that being on leave would disadvantage them in relation to their work-status, not directly through missing out on promotion so much as the loss of knowledge that would result from the time away. For Chris:

“Yeah but I was more anxious coming back then when I was going on leave.  Because I just didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how things would’ve moved around… Where am I going? Where’s my team? …What’s happened with clients? What kind of work has come up since? Who are the new staff? Who has left?… there was that sort of butterflies in the stomach sort of feeling, has something taken place that I’m not across?”

In the knowledge economy and considering professional services is a heavily relationship-based business, no longer knowing who’s who and what changes have occurred in the organisation was perceived as detrimental by Chris. Use of the expression ‘butterflies in the stomach’ suggests a physical feeling of trepidation.

Others expressed concern around their role and whether, after being away, the firm would still have need for them: Aadi explained:

“By the end of it… my own, perhaps insecurities playing out a little bit around ‘oh shit I’m away, is it all going to work out? Am I going to be needed when I come back?’ So there’s definitely a little bit of that feeling that as things become quiet and I think ‘shit they can really survive without me’ which you know they can but you naturally want to feel wanted and important.”

This insecurity continued on returning to work:

“It was hard coming back… confidence that you can still do this because it’s been a little while, confidence that you can still play a role, that you have a future…”

While most participants expressed an increase in their perceived self-efficacy in their role of parent, this extract from Aadi suggests that this was accompanied by a drop in their perceived self-efficacy as a worker. Even though Aadi and others would have known that their role was, by law, secure, this did not alleviate concerns that they may be informally ostracised or that they may have lost their ability to do what they did before.

There were also concerns about performing in their new role of full-time carer, and in particular, living up to the standards set by their wives. Chris remarked:

What I was most anxious about though was whether I’d be able to do what she does. She’s a pro by that stage, she’s had eight months of training in whatever she did and I thought what if baby all of a sudden needs mummy for something that I can’t do?”

Chris was one of several participants to allude to the fact that, the mother has the advantage of breasts which can both feed and calm a crying baby and therefore, regardless of ability, the father may never be able to perform as well as the mother. Chris’s use of language through the word ‘training’ is a reflection of his sentiment throughout the interview that being the carer was like a job and therefore he felt as though he would have to quickly get up to speed in this new role without the same ‘training’ as his wife had had.

Influences and comparisons

This theme is about the fragile self-concept and the way perceptions of others’ reactions affected their self-esteem and confidence in both a positive and a negative way.

From a positive perspective, participants talked about men taking leave as becoming the norm which played a role in their decision to take it. For Felipe:

“It was probably… more and more you hear in the press about co-parenting and men doing these things more and more and people regret having not done it or not being more involved or engaged. So some of that general awareness was driving me.”

Felipe suggests that in the local community, there is an increase in men making choices that go against the traditional role of father as purely the breadwinner and that this made the decision for him easier.

Most of the participants also talked of direct role models in their lives that helped to influence their decision to take leave. Ethan explained:

“One male Partner I spoke to said it was the best thing he ever did… Then I found out another Director and Senior Manager in our team were also taking it just ahead of me. So there were three people taking it almost back to back and so it definitely seemed like the normal thing to do.”

For Ethan, who had acknowledged that at first he thought his seniority meant extended parental leave wasn’t an option, hearing about other senior men doing it was significant in persuading him to take it up. Knowing that others that he knew personally would be doing it at the same time would also have taken some of the attention from him and made it less of a big deal to outsiders.

Chris suggested that he would have felt less comfortable and would have had to be more guarded about his leave intentions had he been discussing it with someone who could not relate to his situation:

“It also helped that [my Partner] was fairly new to motherhood herself so she was very understanding through that process. I did have some open conversations with her…if the situation was different and if I had to talk to a male Partner who was a senior Partner of maybe thirty years, might have put a different angle to it.”

Though Chris would likely have still taken his leave, the common bond he felt with his Partner affected his experience in that it gave him greater comfort in his decision and allowed him to let down his guard in their discussions.

On the negative side, perceptions of judgement and discrimination were common amongst the participants, and though most participants didn’t articulate the impact this had on them, it is possible to read between the lines that this would have caused them discomfort.

There were a number of comments that related specifically to (male) Partners in the firm. Felipe’s experience when conversing with one Partner about his leave was:

“He made some jokes, I don’t know whether they were jokes or not but he’d say ‘it’s leave, it’s kinda like holiday’… I don’t think he understood. I said this to him. His response was: ‘all credit to you, you’re far more involved than I ever was or probably would’ve wanted to be’.”

Felipe perceived there to be covert messages from the Partner that the leave was simply an opportunity to take some time off, as opposed to replacing one form of work with another. This drastically different perception creates a divide between the two men and creates a challenge for Felipe and others who are clearly deviating from the mould yet looking to join the rank of Partner.

It wasn’t just Partners who expressed this view as Ethan explains:

 “The number of people that did say to me ‘how was your time off?’ or ‘are you looking forward to your time off?’…There was a sense that a marketing campaign was needed about what I was doing and why I was doing it and it wasn’t a free kick…I did feel I had to keep reinforcing that.”

Though Ethan didn’t express the impact it had on him, his tone would suggest that the lack of understanding on returning from leave was hurtful and it took effort to reinforce his credible image. Ethan’s choice of language with ‘marketing campaign’ suggests that he felt he should have systematically considered his target audience and planned to send clear, timely messages in order to help people to understand that it would be hard work, and could not simply expect people to understand without this.

With Chris, the perception of judgement as he approached his return from leave was not grounded in actual experience:

“Maybe the last month or so… nobody had said anything or did anything to make me feel that way but I was just thinking people outside the firm would be thinking: ‘well, what’s this guy up to and why is he still at home?’ So I just felt judged in that sense, I don’t know whether it was warranted but I started thinking maybe it’s time to start going back to work so I was starting to look forward to coming back”.

Within the firm Chris felt confident that he had built up sufficient credibility to avoid persecution, however to those who would not know his professional history and status, Chris was afraid to be perceived as lazy. Simply imagining that wider society might be judging him, was enough for him to feel pressure to return to the more socially accepted role of father as breadwinner as opposed to full-time carer.


Outcomes of transition to the new role of carer

This theme is about the way the participants managed the transition into the primary caregiver role and the associated challenges and rewards.

For most of the participants their expectations were not aligned with the reality of the new care-giving role as Brian explained:

“I don’t think I was prepared enough. I have to say I thought oh it’s just caring for my daughter… but I don’t think I was entirely prepared for the full day of work… I had this perception I was going on vacation… my expectation was easy level 1 but it was 3.5.”

While many of the participants were offended by the comment that they were ‘going on holiday’, Brian actually shared this sentiment until he had the opportunity to experience it himself. Brian uses language akin to a video game, possibly alluding to the fact that he had not taken the role seriously enough to begin with.

There was also a level of surprise of just how difficult it had been for their wives and a recognition that they had not previously understood this. Felipe admitted:

“[Before going on leave] you’d get home, you’d had a long day and the house is turned upside down and you’re like ‘really?’ But you learn pretty quickly why that is… you get an appreciation for what your other half has been doing for the last ten months.”

The realization that Felipe so honestly expresses was one that required him to walk in his partner’s shoes in order to understand the difficulties she had faced. It is likely that this heightened sense of empathy brought about benefits for their relationship.

On the other hand, Ethan found it to be less challenging than he had anticipated:

“I had the impression that every day would be chaos and that you wouldn’t feel in control but… it was quite the opposite… I felt a complete change of lifestyle. A great time.”

Because Ethan’s pre-conception had been one of feeling out of control, his ability to work to a daily routine gave him considerable comfort. Several other participants talked of the change of pace of ‘lifestyle’ that was less stressful than they were used to with their paid work role.

Not all of the participants had access to a support network to lean on but those who did found it easier to connect with, and lean on, other men as opposed to women. As Dave explains:

“I still remember going to my first mother’s group where it was just me and all of the mums… a bunch of women sitting around talking about mastitis and feeling awkward about breastfeeding in front of me. That’s probably why I gravitated so quickly to [one of the dad’s] and why we developed such a strong bond…. I was incredibly fortunate to have him… we were raising a one year old and finding out and learning from each other”.

Dave admittedly attempted to connect with a formal support network, the same one as his wife had used, yet because he was a man, felt distinctly unnatural in the environment and felt unwelcome through the other women’s discomfort. Having someone of the same gender and with a child at the same stage of life, created for them both a safe place through which to discover what the new role of care-giver meant.

Aadi on the other hand had nobody to support him, which proved extremely difficult:

“The bit that I’d say that probably was the most challenging is that… perhaps isolation and mental stimulation… there is not necessarily anyone around for the same time so it was a little bit isolating to sort of have that every day without a lot of connectivity with someone you can converse with and have adult conversations with, but, again, it’s only three months so I don’t know what I’d do if it was a year, I’d probably go insane.”

For Aadi, the support need was, for him, for about his ability to connect on an adult-level with another person as opposed to learning about parenting. Aadi alludes to the experience that women often have with leave periods of a year and expresses fervently that this would be beyond his capability.

While many of the participants had expressed their concerns around their self-efficacy as a carer alongside their desire to be an involved parent, there was certainly consensus that the biggest reward from taking leave was the depth of relationship that they developed with their child. Chris said:

“I always say the greatest takeaway for me was the time I got to bond with the baby because before going on leave, the baby of course recognised me as the parent. But just someone who comes in at the end of the day and leaves in the morning… the bond with me wasn’t as strong I felt as it was with the mother. But having had this fifteen weeks I feel that of course she still prefers mummy – I think nothing’s going to change that and it’s fine, but she does accept me as a good alternative, more so than before definitely.”

Chris suggests that taking leave has led to long-term positive changes in the relationship he has with his child, despite never being exactly the same as the relationship his wife has, he is not bitter about this and is grateful for the shift that has occurred.

Furthermore, the time taken created significant rewards from a work-role perspective, as explained by Brian:

“I think it’s reinvigorated me… it gave me a chance to think about what changes I could make professionally …   how can I improve myself, what do I want to do? What type of clients, what type of work I wanna do? So it gave me a chance to reset and think about how I might want to develop myself.”

Brian’s use of the term ‘reset’ suggests that the break from work has given him the opportunity to start over and re-establish himself professionally, realigning his needs and wants with his career path. This is beneficial not just to Brian but also to the organisation as such self-discovery will aid in engagement and drive towards his new direction.

Summary and discussion of main findings

It can be deduced from the participants’ accounts of parental leave that the issues experienced related primarily to the self-concept and in particular, the drive towards the ideal self and struggle with self-esteem issues. This was shaped by multiple factors and can be partially explained through certain work/family interface theories, as detailed below.

Through participants’ accounts of their experiences we can deduce that segmentation did occur with how the men became psychologically disengaged (Kahn et al., 1964) with their work once they assumed the full time carer role, as Aadi explained:

“You have to work to create that divide, as you detract yourself from certain scenarios it became easier”.

Furthermore, we can say that spillover occurred both directly and indirectly; directly in the sense that new skills were picked up while on leave that can be applied to work; as explained by Felipe:

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