“I always put my career first, and my family turned out fine.”
“Must be nice to go home early.” (Said to a father after he said he was leaving to take care of his sick child.)
These are all real statements that managers have said to men seeking to be more present in their families’ lives.
Today, as different ways of working collide, men who want to be full parents are facing the type of discrimination at work that working moms have dealt with for decades. Some men worry these comments could be a sign they are “getting daddy tracked,” while others reject the phrases as microaggressions.
Whatever you call them, such hurtful, unnecessary statements demotivate workers or inspire them to find another job. While often the utterances of older, male bosses, these jibes may also come from women leaders who waded through waves of misogyny to advance in their careers.
Men want to spend more time with their families
“I actually started logging these comments because of how frequently I heard them after our daughter was born,” said Eric Arthrell, who worked as a consultant for Deloitte and was the lead author on the firm’s The Design of Everyday Men Report, which examined the ways men are reacting to the end of traditional gender norms. He now runs a company that makes tissues from bamboo.
Eric remembers one manager, a woman, cutting him down for leaving at five p.m. to take the train home to his newborn and wife who was on maternity leave. “You’re just not a driver personality,” he recalled her saying.
Dozens of studies have shown the benefits to children when fathers take parental leave to bond with them. The extra time also helps the broader family figure out one of life’s great transitions: taking care of a small child.
There is also a bottom-line benefit to employers. Companies that have adopted more equitable leave policies have found that people quit their jobs less, feel more engaged and connected to their managers, and are generally grateful for a benefit that has a tangible use, Brad Harrington, the executive director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family at the Carroll School of Management, told me.
Many companies that were early adopters of equitable parental leave told Harrington they did it because they thought men wouldn’t take the time off. Men not only took it but also reported feeling less stressed and more engaged afterward, so the C-suite began to listen.
Still, microaggressions persist as a form of discrimination that gets a pass.
Why managers think that such statements are OK
A big part of it comes from biases common to anyone with a passing familiarity of behavioral science, namely confirmation and anchoring biases. Or put another way, “I did things this way and you should too.”
Michael Cohen, a partner in the human resources practice at a law firm in Philadelphia, recalled partners telling him when his daughters were born that they had missed so much of their children’s lives so they could be at work. These men were boastful, not remorseful.
Fast forward two decades and Cohen, now a partner, encourages his associates to take their full parental leave. He also strives to create an environment where they can participate fully in their children’s lives.
That’s a step in the right direction. Companies before the pandemic were largely comfortable with men being “event dads.” Managers were fine with them leaving to go to a game or recital at midday. But where there’s a disconnect–and that’s where these snide comments originate. It’s about men who want to be fully engaged in their children’s lives and share in their family’s care and planning responsibilities.
These “lead dads” are a growing group: In the U.S., 2 to 3 million fathers are stay-at-home dads, 18% of fathers are either divorced, widowed, or otherwise single, and 46% of married women earn as much as or more than their husbands. They’re natural allies of working moms who have been stigmatized and sidetracked for far longer as they juggle motherhood and paid work. When these two groups come together, they are a powerful block. And management takes note.
What companies can do to eliminate microaggressions and improve care culture in the workplace
Employers should think about benefits to working parents as part of a broader care strategy. Some workers may not be parents, but everyone will be a caregiver in their lifetime.
To this end, we have called on companies to focus on the three C’s of care at work: care days, care shifts, and care confabs.
Care days are separate from sick days, personal days, bereavement days, and certainly vacation days. They’re designated days that allow workers to be honest when they need a day or two to tend to a care emergency.
Care shifts give workers the option to work a day that oscillates between dedicated collaboration time (say 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and the ability to work at nontraditional times.
Care confabs are organized discussions around parenting and caregiving that include men and women. Currently, most employee resource groups for parents or caregivers are stocked with working women but lack men in similar situations.
Additionally, managers need to have evaluations that include an assessment of work-life integration and hybrid work. Whatever senior leaders may feel about returning to the office full time, the facts paint a different picture. Few people are willing to be in the office five days a week and they balk at what they see as attendance-taking strategies. The pandemic showed us that the most highly sought-after employees can be productive in different settings, and they want companies to be intentional with demands for face time.
Finally, whatever you do, avoid one thing at all costs: Don’t say to anyone back from parental leave, “How was your time off?”
Paul Sullivan, a New York Times business columnist from 2008 to 2021, is the founder of The Company of Dads, a media company, community platform, and workplace educator aimed at Lead Dads–those men who are the go-to parent, whatever else they do.
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