A new study looking into how men returning from paternity leave were treated differently to women came out this week. It’s small but as one of the few looking at men post-paternity leave is useful.
They focused on how much administrative tasks were delegate to men, women and new grads. Men, they found, are treated unfairly when they return to work but suggest it’s temporary. For women we know sadly that’s not the case.
There are stark differences for men returning to work after parental leave, compared to women. The vast majority of dads return after a few weeks. Mums after 6 - 9 months, in the UK anyway. There is a world of difference in life between a new born and a 9 month old. Sleep deprivation is a big part, but only a part. Your whole world view is being reformed in those early weeks.
I was exhausted when I returned to consultancy work after my first son. 36 hours of no sleep, followed by 2 weeks of 5- 6 hours of broken sleep. I wasn't fit for certain tasks. I told my team and we worked together. It took time to get back to functioning properly.
Equality is the language we use for fairness at work, but they don’t mean the same thing. Fairness runs much deeper than two things being the same. It’s a principle that flexes, making you account for the intricacies of each situation.
The most recognised articulation is Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance thought experiment. It goes like this.
You have to decide something, it might be a new law (inheritance tax is a good one for the experiment). You, the decider sits behind the Veil of Ignorance. Knowing nothing of yourself, age, sex, race, nationality, position or individual tastes, what do you decide? Self-interest is removed. What level of inheritance tax do you set if you don’t know if you’re set to inherit £10m or 10p?
Fairness is a real challenge for any parent. Take screen time, or wifi access if the kids are older. It isn’t always about everyone getting their allotted time, it’s also about behaviour over the day, how they’ve made people feel and how much they’ve contributed.
Teaching fairness is incredibly hard, because we’ve never had to articulate it. We just sort of apply it. Sometimes, when we’re busy and stretched thin, we get it wrong. When we do, or when we don’t have time to apologise and calmly explain, we fall back on ‘because I said so’, ‘that’s just the way it is’, or the worst ‘the world isn’t fair’.
In the short term, teaching children fairness is much harder. You muddle through explanations, not sure they’ve understood. You make mistakes. You make yourself vulnerable stumbling around for the words and stories to explain. You reach for the phone and google it, which adds guilt and if you get anything about Rawls, god help you translating that for a five year old.
But this effort is worth it. Not today, not tomorrow, not in a month, maybe in a year, certainly in three and definitely in five. Raising children is the longest game. We’re teaching them principles, instilling values. It’s hard work, but gives them something immeasurably valuable.
If they understand fairness, they can enact it on others behalf. And we all know people who are fair, earn respect and often fairness in return. People who understand fairness also have a much better chance of realising and not tolerating when they’re being treated unfairly.
If we don’t take the extra time, saddle the discomfort and make ourselves fallible, we’re doing them a disservice. We’re not giving them what they need to really flourish in life. Take this thought to its extreme and we end up raising selfish children. Kindness and self-respect come up time and time again when I’ve asked dads what kind of children they want to raise.
Of course, we must be careful when it comes to teaching fairness, because life isn’t fair, but you can only teach them this once they understand fairness. It’s a layering thing, like learning to write. First how to hold the pen, then how to make crude letters, then joined up writing. We need to account for inherent unfairness, we have to be careful not to contribute to it.
Everything you do shapes the world your children will inherit. What you do at work shapes the workplaces they will enter. The way you treat your partner will set what they expect from theirs. The way you parent will shape the parent they become. The way you vote will shape the society they grow up in. If we want work, relationships and society to be fair, we must play our part in making it so.