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Hanna: Fathers' Day

06/12/12 5:55PM By Cheryl Hanna
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(Host) With Father's Day this coming Sunday, Vermont Law School Professor, parent and commentator Cheryl Hanna has been thinking about what it's like for fathers trying to balance work and family in the new digital economy.

(Hanna) When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg married his long-time girlfriend and medical doctor Priscilla Chan, I couldn't help but think about what their lives will be like if they have children. Will they fall into the ever-so-typical pattern of the mother sacrificing her career while the father feels pressure to work even harder?

I was reminded of a speech that Joan Williams gave at Harvard a few years ago on men and masculinity. Williams is a law professor and founder of the Center for WorkLife Law in California, and has done some groundbreaking work on how our workplaces often discriminate against people with family responsibilities.

She tells the story of a Silicon Valley engineer, whose boss wanted a meeting right away. The engineer panicked. "Sweating like a horse, he called his secretary" and said, "Hey, you gotta get me out of this, because my baby is getting Christened and if I don't meet with the priest it's not going to happen and my family is going to kill me and my wife will divorce me and I won't have any kids and my life will be terrible."

So the secretary lies for him, suggesting that he can't be at the meeting because of other work obligations.

The engineer saves face, but is nevertheless caught in a situation where his workplace reinforces the notion that good fathers are ambitious breadwinners while good mothers stay home. Indeed, there's research suggesting that men who have stay-at-home wives are more valued because of a macho work culture in which the longer hours you log at work , the more manly you are.

Yet, there are plenty of dads who, like the engineer, want to be involved in the lives of their children, but work expectations make that hard to do.

It's true that Vermont is far away from Silicon Valley. I suspect that the work culture here is more egalitarian and more flexible than in many places. A friend of mine who moved to Burlington from the industrial Midwest once noted that she shocked at how many dads there were at the playground here on a weekday morning.

Nevertheless, I don't think that Vermonters are immune from the kind of workplace machismo that Williams finds harm ful to dads and their children. And we're not likely to make the lives of families any better unless we change our expectations of what it means to be a good father.

Maybe its just wishful thinking - but if Zuckerberg does become a dad, maybe he'll institute a work culture that provides flexibility for working parents and perhaps he himself will model better work/family balance - like expecting everyone to go home for dinner instead of eating at the office. If that happens, we'll no doubt learn about it on Facebook.

Until then, we'll just have to keep making whatever strides we can in our own small ways to ensure that we don't discriminate against dads who, just like moms, struggle to balance work and family.

And Father's Day is a great time to start.

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