Last week, Republican candidate Paul Ryan was confirmed as the new Speaker of the US House of Representatives. However, his acceptance of the post was on the condition that he would travel less than previous speakers in order to preserve valuable time with his family. Of course this type of demand from such a high-profile man garnered a lot of press attention, as notions of family time and flexible working remain rooted in the ‘working mum’ domain in many countries, industries and companies. It’s still (sadly) rare to hear as may working dads negotiating school drop offs with busy work schedules, as working mums. So, will Mr. Ryan’s bold statement be a catalyst for change?
My work at the Future of Work Research Consortium highlights time and again the importance of role models when it comes to shifting an organisation’s culture. No matter how many policies and practices HR may devise around flexible working and work/life balance, if those at the top aren’t using them, then those attempting to climb the ladder will take this as a signal that they shouldn’t either. Having leaders simply avail of flexible working options isn’t enough either. They need to use the options in a way that is visible to the rest of the organisation. One of the most interesting comments I heard recently from leaders at a Professional Services firm was that they were working flexibly and assumed that others in their teams were doing so as well. However, this was not the reality. Their teams were often unaware that they were taking this approach as the leaders weren’t communicating about it and hence the signal that this kind of autonomy in working style was accepted and, lo and behold, normal was not being received. Mr. Ryan’s very visible commitment to work/life balance will hopefully act as the cue to his team that making time for family is not a barrier to success.
That is the implication for his own team, but what about the wider American and Global audience? What impact can this action have on a larger scale? These are tougher questions. While Mr. Ryan has the bargaining power to make such demands, the average American worker does not. Moreover, he has previously voted against providing paid family leave for federal employees, which has made him an unlikely advocate for a cultural shift in favour of work/life balance. It’s promising to see signs of his change in views on this and we will have to expect that as a matter of course, he will now work for these rights to be extended broadly so that it is both socially acceptable and financially viable for all dads – and not just those in powerful political positions – to exercise the same choices.
So, can Paul Ryan move the needle on work/life balance? My view is that he can certainly change one important aspect of the dialogue. We need more male leaders to demonstrate their desire to be actively involved in their children’s upbringing and highlight the challenges they face in juggling responsibilities – and of course the flexibility they avail of in order to strike a balance. Making this a conversation that managers have with all employees, rather than a request working mums submit to HR, will be a significant step in achieving work/life balance and gender parity.