The One Kind Of Discrimination That Nobody's Talking About

Robert Anthony, writing for the online relationship blog YourTango, raises a little-considered facet of workplace gender discrimination — single dads. As a divorced parent, he describes the experience of being unable to attain the sort of child-friendly schedule leniency that his female colleagues can. Leaving early for a doctor's appointment, school function, or PTA conference is met with a much colder reception, he says, than the one many women get:

“For me, and for so many men like me, being an involved parent and being a productive employee can often be at odds. The need to properly raise one’s child is something that most modern workplaces do respect and make provisions for — but this respect seems to extend mainly to mothers. For fathers, it seems the message is, ‘Work first, parenthood second.’” 

It seems there’s a dissonance here. On the one hand, it is nearly universally accepted (as Anthony wisely points out), that workplace discrimination against women remains an unattractive reality throughout much of the country. As I have previously reported, higher education and executive-level business are still boys clubs. It has been observed that the rise to the top is actually accelerated for men with children, while successful mothers still encounter a glass ceiling made up of discrimination and exhaustion. As Mary Ann Mason has written, many female post-graduate students report substantial stigma from advisers whenever future family plans come up.

Of tenured faculty, 44% of women are married with children, compared to 70% of their male counterparts. In the business world, 49% of female executives have children, compared to 84% of males. Those same scheduling leniencies available to mothers in middle management turn into stigma as they rise through the ranks, ultimately precluding them from top-level promotions.

“Ask any working dad and he will tell you that it is significantly more difficult to win that same unspoken respect that moms often enjoy in the workplace … For me, and for many men like me, leaving work early to pick up kids, or to attend a PTA meeting, for example, is nowhere near as simple or socially acceptable.”

If a dad in the workplace is met with so much hostility, then why are the majority of male business leaders fathers, compared with a minority of their female peers? Anecdotal evidence suggests that good, old-fashioned gender roles may be responsible. For men (or married ones, at least), those who climb high up the corporate ladder may be relying on a stay-at-home spouse to tend the children. It seems equally likely that the married father may carry more intuitive trust than the single man, which — so long as he’s not ducking out of meetings for soccer practice — could be advantageous for business. 

But the experience of middle-management corporatism may be a different story. “The second tier is not a complete career graveyard,” Mason writes. “We have found that a good proportion of those toiling as adjuncts and part-time lecturers do eventually get tenure track jobs. On the other hand, single, childless women get those first jobs at higher rates than wives, mothers, or single men — almost at the same rate as married fathers.”

And here we might have found what Anthony describes — a strange discriminatory reversal. The workplace gender discrimination we so often hear about may be resigned to those few, hyper career-driven individuals struggling to find the balance between job and family. But throughout the ranks of tier two, where maternity leave and harassment protections keep some (though certainly not all) women buffered from traditional corporate sexism, the scale may have actually tipped away from the single dad. In this land the working-mother is a mini-hero, rewarded for juggling kids and family. A dad with a diaper bag, meanwhile, is emasculated.

“As a dad, you’re usually less of a parent in the eyes of workplace superiors. You are seen as less essential to your kid, meaning by implication that you can, and should, give more of yourself to the job than a mom should be expected to…It’s an offensive workplace double standard that is unfair not only to working fathers themselves, but to the mothers confined to outdated gender roles by default.”