Baseball Star Throws Fans a Work-Life Curveball

dads 2 baseball-baby-showerWhat does Major League Baseball have to do with family and work-life juggling? A lot, and not just in terms of the flexibility to take your kid to the ballgame.

For one dad the issue is getting time away from the game to be with family.

This is the case for Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, who chose to skip two games at the start of the season to attend the birth of his first child. Though his union contract stipulates he can skip three games (regardless of how they are spaced out) and he only skipped two, he has been targeted by some pundits or using only a fraction of the leave to which he is entitled.

A radio talk show host upset that Murphy decided to take a break for paternity reasons ranted:

“You’re a major-league baseball player. You can hire a nurse. Whaddya gonna do, sit there and look at your wife in the hospital bed for two days?”

On the one hand, this is a very specific case of a very high profile man in a very desirable job. It’s easy to say he should just accept that loss in family experience in exchange for the wealth and privilege of being an MLB player.

But it’s also a sign of the conflict that American society has with men not just saying that their role in the family extends beyond work but actually living that statement, like taking leave from important work events to attend equally important, and in this case once in a lifetime, events at home. This conflict plays out in a number of places as shown by Families and Work Institute and other research.

Shortly after the completion of our 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce, FWI announced that the work-life conflict experienced by working men was higher than that of working women. At the time, no one could believe that in 2008, 60% of fathers in dual earner couples reported experiencing some or a lot of work family conflict, up significantly from 35% in 1977. It was equally unbelievable that women’s reports had remained relatively stagnant during that time (41% in 1977 and 47% in 2008). 

These numbers point to two intertwined and very important issues. First, women have been effectively treading water for 31 years, not getting any closer to a solution on how to integrate work and family responsibilities despite the three decades of effort covered by our research. Second, the floor has dropped out from under many men plunging them into their own extreme work-life conflicts.

There are a lot of different reasons why both men and women are struggling with work-life conflict. Some are shared, like the inflexible way work is still structured in too many workplaces, while others are unique to each gender.

Researcher Jennifer Berdahl, found that men and women are harassed differently in their workplaces. Women are taunted for choices which are perceived as favoring work over home and men are taunted for choosing home over work. (Witness the radio host who started this conversation.)

Despite claims that the teasing was due to a culture that values work above all, the difference in topic and target of the harassment, shows that it was really punishment for breaking from gender roles that say men work and women stay home; a paradigm that limits both genders, albeit in different ways.

For women, a big problem noted by researcher, Pamela Stone, is that organizations are too willing to let them walk away. Her work has shown that when working women are confronted with work-life conflicts they tend to be greeted with sympathy by their managers, sympathy that quickly turns into a high speed exit ramp from the workplace. Managers are more willing to let women feel overwhelmed and choose to exit the workplace than encourage them to reconsider how work and family can be brought into greater alignment with support from the organization. When women choose to leave their careers entirely for caregiving roles they are making “the right choice.” The fact that this behavior robs the economy of women’s skills and their lives of an additional source of personal satisfaction, confidence and economic security for them and their families really never enters into the equation.

For men the situation is different. Instead of pushing them out, gently or not, the workplace clings to them and as shown by Mr. Murphy’s experience and Dr. Berdahl’s research, men can find themselves harassed for using the time off to which they are legally entitled. A quick review of the Institute’s National Study of Employers series exemplifies this pattern. In 2005, 2008, and 2012 employers were less likely to offer at least 12 weeks of paternity leave than 12 weeks of maternity, adoption or seriously ill family member leave.

Later this month the Institute will be releasing our 2014 National Study of Employers, so we’ll see whether the workplace is becoming more or less dad friendly.


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