“Why doesn’t your wife look after the children?” I was told it was unusual for men to work part time. The part time jobs were more for women

In my previous post, I wrote that I went back to work after 20 months as a Stay-At-Home-Dad (SAHD).  It has certainly been another interesting experience looking for part time work and working part time as a man.

When I first dipped my toes back into workforce waters, I found some recruiters here in Switzerland were surprised at my status as a SAHD.  There were a couple of interviews where I was asked “Why doesn’t your wife look after the children?”  I was quite surprised at being asked such a question, but my answer was always “My wife moved here to Zurich for an excellent work opportunity, so she is working, and we agreed that I would look after the children for a while when we moved to Zurich”.

It is still not common for fathers’ to be the primary caregiver, especially in culturally conservative countries.  While Australia may not be the most progressive of countries, there are a lot more SAHDs there than I have seen in Europe (In fact there was a television show in Australia not long ago called “House Husbands”, a comedy drama about men being the “house hubbies” for their families).  There is still some stigma associated with men who stay at home and look after the family.  It is not seen as macho enough, not strong enough, not good enough, not cool enough.  Yet, it is good enough for women to do it.  If you know me, you know I am none of these things, but like any stereotype, it is the image that is in most people’s minds. 

When I said I would become a SAHD to some friends, the first reaction was, “That’s awesome.  You’ll have so much time on your hands, what are you going to do?”  It was said in jest, but it shows the underlying unconscious bias towards stay at home parents.  In between school drop-off and pickup, making breakfast, lunch and dinner, cleaning the apartment, buying groceries, paying bills, organising kids play dates, sorting out chores, I managed to go for a run twice a week, if I was lucky.  This Stay-At-Home-Parenting gig takes a lot of time.  I was doing the thankless job that mums had been doing for eons.  Again, nothing new from a parenting perspective.  What I would tell my friends now is that while it seems like you have plenty of time to “do stuff”, actually between the hours of 9am to 3pm, there isn’t a lot of time to yourself.

Anyway, it was time for me to look for a job and try to go back to paid employment.  In my experience in Zurich, Switzerland, there are quite a few part time jobs available, ranging from 20-90% roles.  I currently work an 80% job.  Part time roles can mean a couple of things.  It could be a 4 day working week, or in my case, a 5 day working week with shortened daily working hours, so I can do drop off and pick up from school each day.  One idiosyncratic thing about Swiss schools is that Wednesday is a half day, so school finishes at midday on Wednesdays.  So many part timer workers don’t work on Wednesdays to accommodate the shortened school day, or work from home on Wednesdays.  We are fortunate to be able to send our kids to international school, so my kids are able to spend the full day at school, as if we were back in Australia or Singapore, hence my working the shortened hours Monday to Friday.

In most professional organisations, part time work has been traditionally provided for female workers, so they could accommodate their familial schedules.  With the increase in the rate of participation of women in the professional workforce, working part time provides opportunities for women to return to paid employment, as well as managing any familial requirements.  Therein lies the unconscious bias for women in that last statement.  To work part time and continue to carry the load at home.  Again, this is a cultural and societal standard that is difficult to change.  It started off as something to help women to return to the workforce, but the heavy lifting of domestic household work still remained with the female member of the family.  Times are changing, and we are seeing more men doing their share of household chores, but the studies still show women still performing much of the domestic duties.

It has not been as common for men to pick up these part time roles.  Not to say that men don’t work part time, they do, but there are a lot more women working part time than men.  When I was looking for part time work, I was told it was unusual for men to work part time.  The part time jobs were more for women.  I felt it put me back into the pack a bit.  Being an English speaking minority and SAHD in Zurich wasn’t exactly putting me in the target market for part time roles.  I was lucky I was referred a role in financial services, and not long after I was working part time.

One of the challenges of the part time working, is working with full time colleagues.  One of the perennial jokes for part timers is that we work full time, but get paid part time.  I work in a highly stressful, demanding environment, where things are required to be done ASAP, turned around immediately, with updates made in real-time.  Full time workers deal with this as part of their work load, something I used to do as well.  An email comes into your inbox, someone’s world is about to end, someone else’s inbox is going up in flames, and you need to save them.  It requires things to be done immediately, you go ahead and do it, and delay any plans for that evening.  As a part timer and primary caregiver, the ability to be able to address burning emails becomes much more challenging if your time at work is shortened.  From my perspective, I can try to manage this, but come 4pm each day, I need to leave to go pick up my kids from school.  I often work as close as possible to my train arrival time, to maximise my time at work, but if I don’t pick up my kids, they get left at school, and I get in trouble with the school, with my kids and with my wife.  This outcome doesn’t suit anyone, especially me.  Like many other workers, I will log into work remotely from home, once the kids are asleep, and try get whatever work is outstanding completed.

The other challenge I face, is that, contractually, I will not be paid more than 8 hours a day as a part timer.  Once, when one of my colleagues had fallen ill for a sustained period of time, I covered my colleague’s work and worked over10 hours a day over a week, as I logged on from home after my kids went to bed and did more work.  After I submitted my timesheet for that period, my payroll firm advised me that as a part time worker, I would not get paid for more than 8 hours a day, as stated in my contract.  I should have read my contract more carefully.

So while I have no issues working from home and getting work done, the challenge I find is that people want items turned around immediately, and delivered by the end of the day/ close of business. Sure, I get that, but at Close of Business (COB), I’m usually dragging my kids home or cooking dinner.  I found that the interesting work was by-passing my inbox, as people found out I wasn’t able to provide them what they wanted by COB.  This was both discouraging and frustrating. I know I am capable of performing the tasks required and turning it around, but I am constrained by my familial duties.  Not that I am unhappy about looking after my family, far from it.  Unfortunately corporate culture is still dog-eat-dog, get the stuff done, or you’re out!  Unfortunately I cannot commit to short turnaround times which come into my inbox late in the afternoon, which means people not coming to me to help with their issues, and slowly I was being left out of key meetings and demanding work. 

This is probably an experience shared across part time workers, regardless of gender, but most felt by female workers, as they make up a high percentage of part time workers.  This is something corporates need to consider, especially with regard to providing greater opportunities to part time workers.  We are just as capable, not just 100% of the time from 8am to 7pm.  I hear stories of people working till 2-3am to get presentations done.  In the majority of cases, these people don’t have families or commitments at home or they have “outsourced” their commitments to 3rd parties.  Banking is brutal, I’ve been there when I was younger.  Working as a part timer, you want to show you’re still capable to doing all the cool, sexy but difficult work, but due to the nature of the familial duties, you no longer can make such commitments, so a small part of me died in the last year, as I knew I could the work that by-passed me, but I was no longer the go-to guy anymore.

We know there are very capable women working part time, but if the challenging and interesting work is by-passing them, employee engagement is difficult to maintain, and the female employee feels shunned and disillusioned.  Returning back to being a full time stay-at-home-parent may come back to the table if they are no longer being challenged.  There is no perfect solution to this, but it is something that needs to be considered when employing part time workers.  We’re not just here to make up the numbers.

Postscript: My time as a part timer worker is coming to an end.  My contract was not renewed due to cost reduction requirements for the new year.  So it will be back to being Super-Stay-At-Home-Dad again in the new year for the time being while I seek other employment opportunities.

Author: Jason Chui

Photo Credit: Jason Chui

Thanks to Jason Chui for his second blog contribution. He writes openly, honestly and with passion.

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