The failures of dinosaur dads

15 March 2005

Comment piece by Jack O’Sullivan, published in the Times Newspaper, 23rd October 2002

You can spot dinosaur dads easily. They should be extinct but in fact dominate the boardrooms of British business. Typically men in their fifties and sixties, they hold jurassic attitudes to work and family life that are blighting the lives of millions of children, not to mention damaging the economy. The reason? They are stuck in the past, when men might as well have been childless as far work was concerned. That would be fine if they kept their antediluvian attitudes to themselves. But these men set a corporate culture that expects today’s dads to shape up as they did or forget promotion. While they are in charge, there is little chance for today’s younger fathers to break the mould.

Long hours are no problem to these dinosaur dads nor are power breakfasts, hastily arranged meetings late in the day or weekend conferences. Yes, they have children, but they are probably grown-up. In any case, there was always someone else to take the children to school, pick them up, feed them, bathe them and help them with homework. The unspoken deal with the company was always: “employ me and you get a wife and a mother for free”.

This might have been fine in the 1970s. But now, with so many women working, there are not enough mothers at home to go around. Men must to be allowed flexibility for domestic responsibilities.

Ironically, dinosaur dad probably thinks he is modern in his thinking. He may even support offering family-friendly work to mothers. After all, in his book, looking after children is women’s work. But the dispensation does not apply to his male employees. For dinosaur dad a man’s place is at work, bringing home the bacon and he has little time for tree-hugging, uxorious shirkers. Changing nappies and the bottom-line don’t mix. Men are supposed to leave their fatherhood at reception on a Monday morning and pick it on the way home on Friday.

Dad’s Army, a new study from the Work Foundation, published this week exposes this corporate culture and the damage it does to families and the economy. It quotes one top male executive from a merchant bank cynically discussing a new generous paternity leave scheme: “We’re going to use it to weed out the losers.” Not surprisingly, finds the study, a scheme offering five days paternity leave at another bank had not been taken up by a single employee. A leading UK headhunter is quoted saying that whereas firms can be falrly accommodating to women with childcare responsibilities, it would be the “kiss of death” for a man to say he needed flexibility for this reason.

The result of all this hypocrisy is “stealth parenting” by fathers with any ambitions at work, who lie about “breakfast meetings” when they take their children to school and “client appointments” when they sneak out to look after a sick child.

The worst of this is that dinosaur dad thinks that this repressive regime is good for business. Big mistake. Today, the best young talented men are, not surprisingly, having children with some of the most talented women, who themselves have demanding careers. These new dads in their twenties or thirties can no longer dump children and domestic responsibilities on their partners. Unlike the chief executive in his fifties, they cannot behave as though they are childless. So a company or an economy that is not father-friendly will fail to draw its talent from the pool of the best.

Furthermore, who would you prefer to see promoted: a man actively involved with his children or a man whose children are asleep when he leaves in the morning and returns in the evening? The former, I suspect, because, as smart businesses realise, the all-important skills that employers call “feminine” are more accurately described as “parental”. They come from the experience of nurturing and raising children.

In case you think “dinosaur dad” is an overdrawn caricature, remember that the Institute of Directors has vigorously opposed new leave entitlements for fathers. The IoD says it does not oppose the principle, just the red tape of legislation. It should stopped hiding behind the “red tape” argument and instead actively promoted the business case for dads at work to receive a better deal.