Think carer, think male

Jane O'Leary

When you think of ‘carers’, who comes to mind? Often we automatically think of women, usually mature age women, and certainly DCA’s research report Older Women Matter shows that this demographic makes up a significant proportion of carers. We are, however, much less likely to ‘think carer, think male’. In Carers Week, it is timely to challenge our default thinking about who carers are, and acknowledge men’s increasing role as carers of children and relatives who are elderly or have a disability.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data indicate that the population with the highest caring role is women aged 55–64, 25% of whom are carers [1]. However, 11% of all men are carers – close to one million (898,400) of working age (between 15 and 64) [2]. Significant changes have occurred in men’s work and family/personal experiences over the past 30 to 40 years. Certainly many of us can look to our own families to see just how much the expectations of working men have changed in a short period of time.  Men want and expect to be engaged members of their families, especially where they are in dual earning families. Moreover, many men no longer identify with the ‘ideal worker’ professional identity – that is, a full-time, fully committed employee without personal or family commitments that impact on their availability to work.

Harvard University research [3] suggests only 40% of men meet this criteria at work, with the rest either looking to change careers to align their lives with their values (30%) or being ‘unavailable ideal workers’ (30%), that is they have a high commitment to work but create some boundaries between work and home life (e.g. by being home at night to have family meals, not working on weekends). Interestingly, the research showed these men were in fact the highest performers based on independently obtained performance evaluation data! As our society ages there is also an increasing cohort of men expecting flexibility as they approach retirement – close to a million full time working men intend to change their working arrangements leading up to retirement [4].

Unfortunately, it is clear that many workplaces have not kept up with the changing reality of men’s experience, as well as with changing family and community expectations.

  • Missing Out On Family Caring – Almost two-thirds of Australian fathers agree or strongly agree that, because of work responsibilities, they had missed out on home or family activities that they would have liked to have taken part in [5].
  • Increasing Work-Life Conflict – Fathers in dual-earner marriages have experienced the largest increase in work-family conflict over the past several decades, reporting their work-life conflict as higher than that experienced by mothers in the same family situations [6].
  • Leaving Due To Lack Of Flexibility – 18% of male employees have seriously considered leaving their organisation in the previous 12 months because of lack of flexibility, and this figure is even higher for young fathers (37%) [7].
  • Few Work in Workplace Cultures Supportive of Flexibility – Over a third (36%) of working Australian men state that their work commitment would be questioned if they used flexible work options, and less than half (45%) report that their work environment promotes and encourages flexibility [8].
  • Flexible Work Uptake Is Only Moderate & Mainly Ad Hoc – A significant number of men want flexible work but their uptake is moderate only, and most commonly involves ‘tinkering’ with ad hoc informal flexibility. While 81% of young working fathers in Australia are able to temporarily vary start and finish times on short notice when a special need arises, only 13% regularly do paid work at home, and only 3% work part-time [9].

So, what does all this mean for contemporary Australian organisations? First, it means organisations need to widen their definition of carer – clearly, men are a growing employee segment in this regard. Second, it means organisations need to mainstream flexibility in their workplaces, including considering how this can be done through focussing on men. DCA’s research report, Men Get Flexible! [10] sponsored by The Westpac Group, with support from Stockland, Origin Energy and Allens, provides invaluable evidence-based guidance on how this can best be achieved:

1. The Business Case – Articulate a compelling business case for engaging men around flexibility in your organisation. Get clear on what it would look and feel like if men in your organisation were engaged in flexible work and flexible careers.

2. Rely On Evidence-Based Guidance – Use the seven components of DCA’s ‘Men Get Flexible’ framework to engage men in the mainstreaming flexibility journey.

3. Engage Business Leaders – Take a first step by engaging senior leadership teams in an enquiry process similar to that used in this project.

  • Why flexibility for men? What is our business case for a focus on men and flexibility?
  • What is the current situation? Do men value flexible work in our organisation? To what extent do they utilise it and in what forms? What is the diversity amongst men in terms of valuing and utilising flexible work?
  • What needs to change? How can we increase men’s engagement in flexible work and thus move flexible work from the margins to the mainstream?

4. Consider Men As Employees & Men As Leaders. Consider men’s experiences of both accessing flexible work and careers AND leading organisational approaches to mainstreaming flexible work. While many men may be interested in accessing flexible work, not all will necessarily be in a leadership position that enables them to lead the ‘flexibility charge.’

5. Focus On Metrics – Develop a set of process and outcome indicators for, and measures of, men’s effective engagement in flexible work and flexible careers.

6. Be Wary Of Silver Bullets – Focus on men and flexibility as part of your organisation’s strategy to mainstream flexibility, but be cautious about treating this as the silver bullet for delivering on your flexibility, diversity and gender equality objectives.

7. Take A Bigger Picture Approach – Take a bigger picture approach to the issue of men and flexibility, and consider the contribution men and fathers make to individual, family and social well-being. There is an abundance of research demonstrating the positive impact engaged fathering has on men themselves, women and children, and organisations can play a key role (in addition to government, community and families themselves) in facilitating this through making flexible work and careers standard business practice.

8. Make The Connection – Recognise that gender equality at work depends in part on gender equality at home. Consider how your organisation’s communication strategies around flexibility can validate men increasing their overall engagement in caregiving and household work. Facilitating the more equitable and less gendered division of labour at home can have positive flow on consequences for your organisation, as women are freed up to increase their participation in and engagement with the workplace.

About Dr Jane O'Leary

Dr Jane O'Leary has been with DCA since 2001, assisting members to foster inclusive and productive organisational cultures. In 2008 she took on the role of Research Director to oversee DCA’s mission to generate leading diversity research, thinking and practice in the Australian context. As Research Director Jane works in partnership with leading diversity thinkers and practitioners in business and academia to conceive of, design and implement innovative research projects, which influence progress and the broader public debate in diversity management and equity. Jane has a PhD degree and a Master’s degree – both of which investigated diversity management in the Australia context. Prior to joining DCA, Jane worked in the former Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) where she held their senior policy position, with responsibility for developing the policy framework for interpreting and administering the amended Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986.


[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Caring in the Australian Community 2009 (No. 4436), Canberra, ABS, 2011.
[2] Ibid.
[3] E. Reid, ‘Passing as superman: The ideal worker and men’s professional identities’, Academy of Management Annual Meeting Proceedings, pp. 1-6, 2011.
[4] ABS, Retirement and Retirement Intentions 2010-2011 (No. 6238.0), Canberra, ABS, 2011.
[5] J. Baxter, and D. Smart, ‘Fathering in Australia among couple families with young children: Research Highlights’, Family Matters, vol. 88, pp. 15-26, 2011.
[6] E. Galinsky, K. Aumann, and J.T. Bond, 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce: Times Are Changing—Gender and Generation at Work and at Home, New York, Families and Work Institute, 2008. K.M. Nomaguchi, ‘Change in work-family conflict among employed parents between 1977 and 1997’, Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 71, pp. 15-32, 2009.
[7] Diversity Council Australia (DCA), Men Get Flexible! Sydney, DCA, 2012.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.

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