The Journal of Total Rewards

1st Quarter | 2019 | Volume 28

Successfully Enrolling Men in Work-Family Programs


There is increasing evidence that today’s generations of working fathers are more involved parents, feel increasingly challenged by work-family demands and more commonly express an interest in workplace solutions to work-family conflicts than earlier generations (Behson, Holmes, Hill and Robbins 2018; Harrington, Van Deusen, and Humberd, 2011; Heilman et al. 2016). Most Millennial fathers aspire to sharing care and earning responsibility with their spouses, and many are doing so (Beutell and Behson 2018; Harrington, Fraone, Lee, and Levey 2016).

Despite this, most organizational work-family policies are, by design or accident, seen as more relevant to working mothers, who are likelier to participate in planning and taking advantage of work-life programming. As a result, professionals in the areas of benefits, training, and diversity and inclusion (D&I) have grappled with how to more successfully enroll men in work-family policies so that they are included in their development and participate in these programs with vigor and pride. Work-family policies can and should be planned, organized and marketed in ways that more successfully involve men in creating and benefiting from programs, but the way forward isn’t always clear.

This article discusses the gender imbalance in work-family program participation and suggests ways in which HR professionals and managers can better encourage male participation. Specifically:

  • Why men often are reluctant to participate in work-family policies
  • Practices that have been successful in enrolling men
  • Advice on how companies and clients can apply these learnings.


Research indicates that men who accommodate their work schedules around family concerns often face workplace harassment (Coltrane, Miller, DeHaan, and Stewart 2013); perceptions that they are not dedicated employees; and negative career consequences that include marginalization, reduced earnings and limited advancement opportunities (Berdahl and Moon 2013; Rudman and Mescher 2013; Vandello, Hettinger, Bosson, and Siddiqi 2013). In multiple surveys, working fathers reported that they are given less support and leeway than working mothers (Hill et al. 2012). Put simply, in many workplace cultures it is not considered “safe” to “out” yourself as an involved father (Behson 2013).

When it comes to behavior that runs counter to traditional gender norms, men tend to be highly attuned to peer pressure and how their actions may be perceived by high-status men they know (Cassino 2016; Ladge, Humberd, Watkins, and Harrington 2015; Thebaud and Pedulla 2016). At work, this means the reactions of managers, leaders and competitive peers are particularly important. In family life, the experiences and opinions of extended family members hold sway. Considering Gen X and Millennial fathers aspire to parent differently than their own fathers and role models, these pressures can be particularly acute (Harrington et al. 2016).

Financial concerns add to this pressure. Despite the rise of breadwinner mothers and single-parent households, men are the primary or sole providers in more than 85% of dual-parent families (Wang, Parker, and Taylor 2013). This makes the risk of financial and career consequences of involved fatherhood particularly acute for most families.

Society also sends subtle and not-so-subtle signals that diminish fatherhood, especially as it relates to traditional breadwinning behaviors (Raeburn 2015; Samuel 2016). For example, even today, highly involved dads are sometimes referred to as “babysitters” or “Mr. Mom,” referring to the 1983 Michael Keaton movie. These phrases imply that parenting is mother’s work, and that fathers who do primary parenting can’t possibly measure up and/or maintain their masculinity (Kimmel 1995). These terms often are used thoughtlessly from bosses who may not have had to attend to work-family struggles in their lives, peers who want to seem fully career-oriented and women who see work-family as their traditional domain. While there has been progress, television shows and commercials still portray many fathers as incompetent, out of their depth or as adult children themselves (Tropp and Kelly 2015).

Additionally, many well-intentioned fathers feel awkward when talking about their work-family challenges and stepping up in work-life programs because they understand the struggles working women face, and know that work-family often has larger psychological and career-related effects on their female counterparts. As a result, they ask themselves, “What right do I have to complain? After all, my wife and my female co-workers have it worse. Work-family balance really is their area and I don’t want to intrude.”

Furthermore, the people who men hear talking about work-family issues, see creating policies and programs and making use of work-family programs are overwhelmingly women. As a result, workplace messaging on work-family may not be as inclusive of men as it can be.

This all adds up to a chicken-and-egg problem: Men are less likely to participate in work-life programming, so work-life programming skews more toward women’s concerns, which continues to discourage men. We need to make work-family programming more welcoming to, and involving of, fathers.


Do Your Homework

While both moms and dads face similar levels of work-family conflict and stress (Aumann, Galinsky, and Matos 2011), the contours of these pressures are different. Specifically, while working women feel pressure to maintain their role as family caretaker, they also are expected to expand their roles in the working world. Conversely, men are expected to uphold breadwinner status and values while also expanding their roles at home in terms of child care and housework (Behson 2015; Harrington et al. 2011). Considering the perceived risks to one’s career and earning potential of being seen as accommodating one’s work schedule for family priorities, many men feel trapped by these conflicting and unrealistic expectations (Coltrane et al. 2013; Levs 2015). Those planning work-family programs need to consult research and talk to men about what is different for them, and then include this information in their employee policies, programs and marketing.

One excellent way to do this is to collect and share fathers’ stories of their work-family challenges and successes, and include these in both program content and internal marketing. In this way, more men see themselves represented and can feel more included. This also makes the organization’s work-family material more specific and relatable to a wider variety of men.

Father-Specific Content

One company the author consulted designed an orientation program for expectant parents to help them plan their parental leaves (the original designers were women). The initial content skewed heavily toward women’s concerns, including topics such as body image, calcium deficiency and the use of breast pumps. While this content is valuable, much did not apply to expectant fathers and, as a result, could turn them off from the other excellent content.

The decision was made to develop a separate training program for fathers, acknowledging their realities. Content was changed based on conversations with dads at that company (more about financial pressures and feeling unsupported) and tone (more jocular, encouraging and masculine), and having male trainers deliver the information. The focus also shifted from struggle and conflict to one of joy and confidence, “It is a great thing to be a highly-involved dad. It is a great thing to have a successful career. You can do this!” Because of these changes, there was significant uptick in male participation, and feedback from trainees has been overwhelmingly positive.


Many consider interventions such as parental leave or flex time as “time outs” from one’s career or as an opportunity to care for new children (Beacom, Behson, Hammer, and McDade 2018). However, it is equally valid to frame parental leave as:

  • A personal and professional development opportunity (i.e., the acquisition of new skills and perspectives)
  • A project-management challenge (i.e., planning for off-loading work to colleagues and then re-integrating after parental leave)
  • A health and wellness initiative (i.e., reducing stress)
  • An opportunity to give tangible support to one’s spouse and children (i.e., being a provider and an involved father is truly stepping up).

The Center for Parental Leave Leadership has had success with a wider perspective toward parental leave. These alternate frames may be more appealing to a wider variety of men.

Relatedly, the Center for Work-Life Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has been successful in enrolling both men and women into its programming because the challenge is framed as a self-leadership issue as opposed to a family matter (Friedman 2008). By creatively integrating leadership training and a work-family perspective, Wharton is able to reach and help more working parents, especially men, than it would have otherwise.

These alternate frames have the advantage of making the gendered elements of parental leave less prominent, and making it more amenable to the aspirations and concerns of men. This can reduce resistance to widespread participation and buy-in. Similar framing can apply to flex programs, work-family benefits, telecommuting programs and a wide array of informational resources.

Involvement of Visible Male Leadership

Visible male leadership amplifies the importance of events and reinforces that work-family is for all employees — even men who care about career progression (Ladge et al. 2015; Thebaud et al. 2016). This can be accelerated by featuring male role models in events. Male leaders who have been challenged by work-family and gone on to have successful careers and the respect of their companies are particularly important. Having a male C-suite executive talk about his experiences can be a powerful demonstration that even the most successful and manly of men can effectively deal with work-family challenges and that, at least in your company, being an involved father does not carry career penalties.

For example, in several events the author has participated in, a handful of well-placed working fathers (both leadership and high-potential, mid-career professionals) have been identified to tell their stories and discuss their strategies. These have been great in demonstrating the applicability of work-family for dads, often leading to more active follow-up events.

Equally important, well-situated male champions are needed to work on and visibly support these programs. Soliciting male volunteers may not be enough; you may need to appoint male leaders to the task forces and planning groups that develop work-family programming. Fair or not, a male CFO talking about the importance of work-family balance for dads is likely to be more powerful (and will get more people to show up to an event) than a mostly female group of HR professionals. Male employees add a useful perspective on a task force developing work-family programming and messaging.

Marketing and Imagery

While not dealing in stereotypes, it would be smart to package and market work-family programs in ways that appeal to a wide variety of men (Berlyn, Wise, and Soriano 2008). It may be effective to establish a jocular, masculine tone at events and in internal marketing around programs. For many men, this is the spoon of sugar that helps the emotional components go down.

For example, two of the most popular books for fatherhood advice are titled, Dude, You’re Gonna Be a Dad! How to Get (Both of You) Through the Next Nine Months (Pfieffer 2011) and The Working Dad’s Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home (Behson 2015). Men may not attend touchy-feely support groups, but they may go to a happy hour with a small amount of programming with time to talk informally. It may also be smart to build initial programming around sporting events (i.e., a Monday evening workshop followed by watching football) or calendar events such as Father’s Day.

The City Dads Group, which operates in about three dozen metro areas, has success with new-dad boot camps in which veteran fathers of young children provide advice and mentoring to expectant dads, and allow expectant dads to practice holding, feeding and changing babies. The military-style framing device gives these sessions a more masculine feel and, as a result, are attractive to new fathers.

It takes time to change the culture around work-family programming. Consistent messaging is important. Once men feel more comfortable, they are likelier to participate in traditional programming. Start with fun dads-only events to build participation and momentum. Be careful here to not be exclusionary or discriminatory. But a dads-only kick-off event that could feed into current D&I or family-related employee resource group (ERG) programming can be very important. This could be a panel or speaker event/workshop or more of a social event, such as a happy hour or lunch in which you can promote work-family programming and spur informal peer support.

Further, the language and imagery used in marketing events and providing information also is important (Berlyn et al. 2008). For example, if the invitations sent out for a work-family seminar are light blue and pink or the web portal for family-supportive benefits highlights only pictures of moms, babies and storks, men will quickly get the signal that these programs, however valuable, are not really designed with their needs in mind.

For example, one project involved a client’s HR/benefits website, which was particularly cutesy when it came to parenting and new-parent resources. It was changed to a portal where moms and dads could click on “their side” of the screen to be taken to resources that may be relevant to them. Breast pumps on one side, new-dad hang-out groups on the other.

Similarly, review all materials and messaging to ensure they do not unintentionally communicate that work-family is solely a woman’s domain (Berlyn et al. 2008). The National Fatherhood Initiative provides resources for schools, hospitals, military installations and social services offices to ensure messaging is appropriate for both men and women, especially concerning health and family issues.

Use External Resources

Many communities have parenting and father-related resources. For example, the city in which we implemented parental leave training has a great community organization with meet-up and peer support groups for new parents. We refer attendees of our parental leave training to that organization to provide ongoing parenting support.

Further, in addition to new-dad boot camps, the City Dads Group hosts:

  • Dad and kid meet-ups (i.e., at a playground or local museum)
  • Dad-only social events (e.g., March Madness happy hour)
  • Dad programming (including guest speakers on particular topics).

Life of Dad is a web-based community with blogs, podcasts and other social media geared specifically to fathers. Leverage these available resources and potentially find ways to work together for the benefit of your employees.

The Results

Here is a sampling of feedback received after events that used many of the principles provided in this article:

  • “I’m so proud my company is highlighting this issue and making us (working dads) feel included.”
  • “My biggest takeaway is that other men in this company face the same issues. I never knew that was the case.”
  • “I didn’t know that about X and Y (two upper-level managers who shared their work-family stories). If they can adjust their work for family and still get where they are, then I guess it’s possible for me, too.”
  • “I got more out of the information because it felt more like a discussion among friends at a barbecue.”
  • “I never realized how my husband was feeling about all this. I’m even more proud of what a good dad he is.”

Despite the obstacles, employers can do a better job of enrolling men into work-family conversations, planning and programming. This is important, because fathers are important. Research shows that involved fathers are good for children’s health and life achievement (Flouri 2005). Involved fathers are good for mothers in terms of their career prospects, work-family balance and gender equity at work and at home (Levtov et al. 2015). Involved dads are likelier to be active in their neighborhoods, community organizations and churches. Fathers themselves benefit from involved parenting, as involved dads live longer, healthier and happier lives (Behson et al. 2018; Eggebeen, Knoester, and McDaniel 2013; Heilman et al. 2016; Raeburn 2015).

Finally, in the workplace, support for fathers addresses turnover concerns and keeps men engaged and loyal to their employers, all while promoting gender equity, making this a critical bottom-line business issue (Harrington et al. 2014). After all, work-family is not a woman’s issue. It’s not even a men’s issue. It’s a family issue that affects us all. We’re all in this together. We need to design, deliver and promote work-family programs that address all working parents, including fathers.


Scott J. Behson

Scott J. Behson, Ph.D., is a professor of management and Silberman Global Faculty Fellow at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he teaches organizational behavior and human resource management. In addition to his academic publications in the area of work and family, Behson writes for the business and popular press, including Harvard Business Review, Time, Fast Company and The Wall Street Journal, as well as his book, “The Working Dad’s Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home” (Motivational Press 2015). He also provides consulting and corporate speaking services on work-family programming, often with an emphasis on ensuring that work-family conversations include and reflect the experiences of working fathers. Behson earned a Ph.D. from SUNY-Albany and a bachelor of science degree from Cornell University.


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