Tori Amos and the audacity of tiny changes

As the lockdown unwinds in earnest (got my tickets to the zoo booked already) I got to thinking about all we’ve lost living such an atomised existence through the pandemic.

But this isn’t a paean to what we’ve missed. It’s a call to model something different so we can build back better.

I’ll take the incidents that inspired me in reverse order.

Driving at the weekend I unthinkingly moved my hand to check three things I no longer have to check in a modern car. Whilst driving my mum would automatically press her finger against the choke (yes, I’m old enough to remember when cars had a manual choke. My first car had one and I never did get the hang of it) then the gear stick then the hand brake. Choke in, in the right gear, handbrake off. 

I do this too. Even though my current motor has no choke. Or hand brake. And it’s an automatic. Yet I still do it. 

It’s one of those tiny inconsequential behaviours we imbibe from our parents. It’s not in the genes. It’s in spending so much time around the same people and learning from them.

I’m reminded of the iconic scene from the very excellent film Barcelona in which Chris Eigeman’s character Fred goes off on a tangent about which is the right way to shave. It’s apparently inconsequential but in fact it speaks to the atomised existence of families. The way we learn things from our parents and don’t question them. 

But of course we expect to be influenced by our parents in ways big and small. And that process goes on through life. I didn’t copy my mum’s weird driving tick when I was small because I couldn’t drive. As soon as I passed my test I found myself doing it unconsciously as a safety step, or as a small way to maintain a connection to my mum as I grew away from her past 17 and the age of driving lessons? 

For the past year and a bit the generations have been all but barred from mixing. How are folks my age now supposed to learn how to be old if we can’t be around older people?

And, our wider family too is not an unexpected influence. But measuring that influence. Clocking it is something else.

For example some years ago my cousin shared a video of her son opening his Easter eggs. By smacking his head into them. Strange behaviour on the face of it. On further inspection it’s not without merit. By cracking the egg in its foil you don’t lose crumbs all over the furniture.

Of course my children copied this method. Then I did. Then they got their uncle to do it for a particularly amusing family video. And the madness spread. Now, every year, my Facebook feed is filled with friends and relatives smacking Easter eggs off their foreheads. (The hollow kind, a creme egg would properly hurt).

Does it matter if no more people smash Easter eggs with their noggin? No. But these tiny interactions, sharing of quirks, building of culture and tradition make life richer and, fundamentally, better.

So there’s close family. There’s extended family. What about the person you haven’t seen in over 25 years?

I was recently reminded or Tori Amos. I liked her first few albums (I’ve always had a weakness for female singer songwriters from Carly Simon and Janis Ian to Beth Orton and Taylor Swift). Upon hearing one of her tunes on the radio I tootled off to Apple Music and put together a playlist of my favourite Tori Amos songs. The sad ones mainly. I’ve no time for the dancey aberration that is Professional Widow. 

I called that playlist….Tori Anus.

Not (just) because I’m puerile. But because that’s how I’ve referred to her ever since I sat next to Sally Wilson in fifth form English. It was Sally that piqued my interest in Tori Amos, made me pick up Little Earthquakes in Boots (yes, they sold record in Boots. I don’t know why). And, let’s be honest what caught my attention was not just her raving about the music, it was that she called her Tori Anus. 

Nearly 30 years since I was in that English class I’m still calling Tori Amos by a different name because it’s silly and, yes, puerile and it reminds me of being young I guess.

But my point is that I haven’t seen Sally Wilson in over a quarter of a century. Sorry, Sally, but I don’t really give you much thought (- and I’m sure you barely remember me.). Except for when Tori Amos comes on the radio. Or I decide to make a playlist of her songs.

Something fleeting and unimportant has had a remarkable longevity. 

Again, those sort of tiny moments of richness have been absent from the lives of pupils who haven’t been able to go to school. How many other celebrities will never have rude words substituted into their name as a result?

And what of Tori Amos herself? No doubt Sally loved her because her music speaks to the experience of teenage girls. The fragility and strength, the potential and the insecurity and all the other myriad facets that make up teenage existence and can somehow magically be crammed into a four minute pop song or, at worst, the 45 minutes of bliss that is Little Earthquakes. Why did I like it?

On previous occasions when I’ve been asked on panels or podcasts why I’m a feminist I credit Alanis Morissette. Seeing her play T in the Park in 1997 triggered something in me. It was suddenly so obvious that the default was sweaty men moshing near the stage when girls and women surged forward as the first chords of You Oughta Know rang out. Women wanted to do the same stuff as the men. But they weren’t offered the opportunity or the role models. 

But looking back now did Tori Amos plant that seed a few years earlier? Did she spark my interest in different stories, another perspective? Listening to Me and A Gun must have made me twig that contemporary depictions of gender relations like Basic Instinct were neither an accurate nor healthy.

So mum, my cousin’s son, Sally Wilson and Tori Amos have all influenced me in some way. 

But it’s not a one way street.

We all make an impression when we meet someone. We all literally change people’s lives. In lockdown that’s been limited at best, and at worst that’s been the rationale behind staying at home. But now that society is opening up again opportunity knocks. 

Tiny steps can make a big difference. Role modelling matters.

One of my particular areas of expertise is around the role of dads. It’s an area rich with examples of what I mean. If you, as a working dad, walk away from your workplace on time because you’ve got to collect your child from nursery someone will notice, respect that decision and seek to copy it. Curtailing a Zoom meeting because it’s time to get the kids tea on, might seem unimportant. But it will leave an impression with someone. 

A little step can influence many people for a long time.

You can use that power to invert a rude version of a pop star’s name. Or you can model the change you want to see in workplace culture, online engagement or political best practice. Or you can do all of the above.

For no-one is insignificant when it comes to making change. We all impact others around us through our behaviour and the example we set. If we’re aware of that we can use it for good, one tiny change at a time as we try to build a new and better normal.

Photo by Ryan Clark on Unsplash

On communitarianism

For some reason this column from July last year for the Press and Journal didn’t get published on their website. It happens. I’m posting it here because I see the shadow of communitarianism in the Race and Ethnic Disparities report published by the government today (March 31)

Any lingering doubts that the current Westminster regime is populist to the marrow surely went out the window last weekend.

There was the announcement of plans to build landmark national infrastructure, backed up of course with precious little detail.

There was the briefing that the government wants a fitter, healthier nation – the hallmark of both the vilest and silliest regimes in history.

And most bizarre of all the PM was pictured doing press ups part way through a press interview. 

When it comes to populist bingo Boris Johnson only needs to drop some crocodiles in the Trafalgar Square fountains for an Idi Amin full house. And if you think that sounds far fetched bear in mind this is a man who, as Mayor of London, funded a cable car over the Thames. At least crocs would be cheaper than white elephants.

But perhaps most concerning was the sacking of Sir Mark Sedwill from his twin posts of chief civil servant and national security adviser. The latter post was immediately filled by a Number 10 chum, David Frost. 

It’s not quite clear why the PM and his Brexiteer chums are so fond of ‘Frosty’. He’s currently negotiating terms with the EU but he’ll be familiar to some in P&J territory as the one time head of the Scotch Whisky Association. He’s qualified to recommend a suitably stylish dram to James Bond, but little else when it comes to overseeing the nation’s spooks or interpreting their intelligence.

A regime that surrounds its leader with cronies and favourites looks more like a medieval court than a healthy democracy.

Sedwill quit after some nasty briefing against him. He will have read last week in the newspapers of his own imminent departure. Again, that’s the sort of stuff that happens in basket case nations.

The move to boot Sedwill speaks to the Brexiteers rhetoric against elites. The idea that civil servants are an out of touch mandarin class when in fact they are the ones at the coal face of policy and how it impacts people. And this is where populism goes awry. If a nation is being run by a crooked and autocratic elite then harnessing the populace to improve or unseat it is for the good. The problem with populism is when the ‘people’ are ranged against the ‘elite’ by the elite. And that’s what’s going on here. No-one could describe Boris Johnson or his right hand man Dominic Cummings as anything other than elite, their background is defined by money, privilege and opportunity but not fear of failure.

They are using the hopes and anger of those less fortunate to fuel their project and fulfil their esoteric aims. Next to none of those 17 million Brexit voters gives a fig for civil service reform. But they can get on board if it’s sold as taking down an elite that’s holding them back.

The paradox at the heart of populism is the idea that some elites are better than others. 

And that divisiveness is key to the latest ‘ism’ catching on in Westminster. Communitarianism sounds inclusive, but it’s another case of us versus them.

One of the most vocal advocates of communitarianism is Nick Timothy. As Dominic Cummings is to Boris Johnson so Timothy was to Theresa May. Quite why he gets a hearing given he managed to muff what ought to have been the easiest election ever is a mystery. Johnson proved hammering Jeremy Corbyn at the ballot box is an easy feat. But Timothy famously made social care key to the Tory manifesto in 2017 and tried to win an election on an unlikely ‘we’ll tax you when you’re dead’ ticket.

Still, top Tory advisers seem a shameless bunch. Just before Cummings set off to test his eyesight by taking his family for a drive Timothy published a book on Conservative philosophy and it’s received a fairly warm welcome.

The gist of it is that communities are the building blocks of society. Empower communities and you achieve the small state that many Conservatives crave while creating a safety net and equality of opportunity because folk in the same community will be driven to look after their own.

Given we’re all supposed to be more community minded courtesy of the coronavirus experience it’s a philosophy that seems designed for these times. Plus it doesn’t have the negative connotations of populism. Which is why quite a lot of Conservatives are keen on it. Watch out for it gaining currency in the weeks and months to come.

But be wary. For it fails on two fronts.

First, the idea that we’re all more community driven looks shaky. Those punters making for Bournemouth beach last week were more concerned about their own sweltering than either their own community or the one they trashed at the seaside.

And ultimately just as populism needs an ‘us’ and ‘them’ to survive so the whole concept of community is susceptible to ugly definitions of who belongs to any given community and who does not.

If communitarianism is to catch on it is in fact because it fits the defining character of our times – division.

Coronavirus has been a great leveller, it infects without prejudice. If some groups have suffered worse outcomes, particularly black and minority ethnic populations, it’s because society is discriminatory not the virus.

The shared experience of this pandemic could be used to bring us together and heal wounds inflicted by the politics of the last decade, particularly the referendums of 2014 and 2016. Sadly the signs are that the administration in Number 10 is embracing ‘isms’ that divide. 

Men, mental health and flexible working

I was asked to speak at an Acas conference on mental health and work recently. The organisers wanted me to speak as a working dad with caring responsibilities. Other speakers were knocking off policy issues and research, I was brought in to offer a personal view.

But inevitably I plugged my books and went heavy on flexible working, paternity leave etc.

I ought to charge for this stuff but at the same time there’s limited opportunities right now to get out there, make these sorts of speeches and make the case. The internet seems the best bet. So in that spirit I’ve copied my speech below. I got a lot of good feedback from folk who said it contained many good, strong points. So I reckon it’s worth a read if you’re interested in HR, mental health, gender equality – basically if you like good things.

Inevitably I changed things up a little in the delivery but it’s the core message that matters…


Hello and thank you for asking me to speak today at this really important event.

When I was first approached to join the panel today I was at first slightly wary of talking about work and mental health. I am not a mental health professional. However I took the call just as the latest lockdown got under way and I decided perhaps I have got something to offer. After all I have mental health.

I’m primary care giver for my two children.

And when I took the call I was completely wrung out. 

As I mentioned, lockdown 3 had just been announced and I felt like I just had nothing left. During the first lockdown we’d gone for a daily walk as a family, I’d invented little games to occupy us on those walks like choosing your favourite car that we walked past. The conversation on those walks invariably turned to one of two subjects – what you’d do if you won the lottery or what superpower you’d have if you could choose. That got wearing after three months. The thought of having the same conversations again for another three months was a trying one.

I’d been furloughed from my role with for some of that first lockdown and that gave me more capacity to muck in with homeschool. This time round I’m editing for some of the week as normal and the rest of the time picking up my freelance projects including writing politics columns and producing the A Podcast of One’s Own podcast for former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. (It’s a good listen, I heartily recommend it).

And as this lockdown has progressed I’ve become bored. Not just bored of the monotony but, in particular, bored of apologising for missing emails, being slow to respond or putting together speeches without slides to make them a bit more interesting and blaming the pressures of juggling work and homeschool. Even if I tell myself it’s entirely reasonable to drop the balls sometimes when faced with that juggle.

So I am aware of the mental health demands on employees, particularly those with caring responsibilities.

As editor of I’m aware of a lot of the best practice employers have worked up to cope with the pandemic.

And as a dad who has worked part time and flexibly for some time I’m aware of many of the issues about genuine choice in how people work and gender equality. 

Today I want to first of all just fill you in a little bit on my background and how I came to do what I do.

Then I want to look at what I’ve termed the ‘micro’ – the steps that employers have taken around mental health over the last 12 months, share some ideas and best practice that have caught my eye.

And finally I want to look at what I’ve termed the macro. The larger forces that impact mental health, particularly gender equality and how that applies to the workplace and flexible working in particular.


So, a bit about me first of all and my engagement with flexible working.

When my daughter was born 13 years ago I was working as a journalist on Fleet Street. I got two weeks of unpaid paternity leave. Shared Parental Leave had yet to be invented. However I wanted to be around, to be as hands on as I could. That amounted to exercising my right to request flexible working and condensing my hours. 

When I handed in my application for flexible working – using the Acas template of course – there was much furrowing of brows, people going out of the office to have conversations that were clearly about me. I couldn’t really see the issue but my then boss let the cat out of the bag when he asked ‘Why did you have to go about it like this?’ I had broken the boys club rule. I should’ve just asked him off the cuff if I could flex my hours a bit, come to an arrangement, coincidentally left him with the power to take that away at will rather than have it in writing protecting us both.

It remains the case that the vast majority of men with flexible working arrangements have informal flexible working arrangements, deals struck in the canteen or even on the golf course. That is less than ideal.

Not long after that I was working in political journalism and after covering the 2014 Scottish independence referendum at close quarters I asked my line managers about flexing again. I was fairly worn out. My partner and I wanted to do four days at work each. My bosses were resistant. I floated the idea of a job share which they said was inappropriate because ‘journalism is not like making cans of beans’ – which was both true and entirely irrelevant.

(Interestingly I recently put together a job share application for a job in political journalism and the application was dismissed out of hand by the person with responsibility for hiring. Disappointing that not much has changed in the last few years in that industry at least.)

The result of this episode was that I went part time, working three days a week. The reaction at work was informative. There was much confusion. I was working in Westminster, in the Houses of Parliament at the time, a place that is fuelled by ambition. Reducing my hours equated to lacking ambition in many people’s eyes in journalism and politics. A telling response. Do all those women who go part time after starting a family lack ambition? I think not.

But at home things clicked into place. My partner went full time and everything in our lives felt much more balanced. We were both fulfilling the roles we wanted to do. Our mental health was much improved. 

In 2016, after another referendum, I went freelance, flexing around school drop off and pick up. There are of course different stresses that go with being self employed. But the parental guilt is much reduced. Though of course it can never be eliminated entirely.

After that came two books. 

The Gender Agenda, co-authored with my partner and inspired by our @GenderDiary Twitter account looked at the different ways boys and girls are treated from birth – based on our experience of the different ways our son and daughter were treated – and the limits stereotypes impose.

I had gone into that project as a fully fledged feminist looking to break down the barriers society puts in front of my daughter. I emerged from it aware that boys are also subject to damaging stereotypes. And nowhere are they more powerful than when boys become dads.

Hence my second book Dads Don’t Babysit, subtitled ‘towards equal parenting’. This book looked at the benefits to men, women, children, the economy and society if men and women share childcare more equally. And we looked at why that isn’t happening and how to overcome the barriers that currently exist.

Both books are still available on Amazon. In fact if for some reason you found yourself watching Scottish Questions from parliament yesterday you may have spotted a copy of the latter on the bookshelf of shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray!

When an opening arose to edit the new website in early 2019 I was confident of landing the job since I literally wrote the book on the subject, and so it proved.

Best practice

That job has brought me into contact with a lot of dads working differently and a lot of employers thinking deeply about things like D&I and about mental health, particularly over the last 12 months.

Earlier this week we held our annual awards ceremony. It was online for the first time. And we rejigged our award categories to recognise the different challenges that employers and their HR teams had faced in 2020.

I should point out that as a journalist I was completely bewildered by our Top Employer awards when I first encountered them. In journalism the awards are doled out on the basis of no more honourable or systemic basis than ‘buggins turn’. But for the Top Employer awards we get a panel of experts to go through the entries with a fine tooth comb. It’s bewilderingly impressive.

McDonald’s won our best for mental health award. They’ve obviously faced huge disruption to their business because of the pandemic. But the judges were impressed at the way they tailored their response. A lot of their staff are young people, and lockdown impacted those people differently to some of the managers and franchisees for example. 

The awards, and a lot of the coverage on (and our big sister site over the last year has looked at mental health in the workplace. 

Some of the innovative and impressive measures that I’ve come across included the widespread roll out of mental health first aiders. But I was impressed by the company that employs a lot of male engineers to fit meters in peoples homes and things like that who made a point of making sure the mental health first aiders came from across the company. They had plenty of women working in head office volunteer but they had to put in the effort to get the men in the field to get involved too.

The same company set up a wellbeing page on its intranet. And as well as posting resources there around what helps was available they provided links to webcams from zoos and nature reserves after it was suggested that just looking at animals and nature can relieve stress.

Another company provided time out for exercise and scheduled wellbeing days.

Apps have been useful for those working remotely – whether that’s mental health apps like Unmind or sleep apps.

Another firm measured its success around remote working by not just measuring engagement but empowerment among employees too.

There are a few over-riding themes I’ve perceived in companies response to mental health and Covid.

The first is honest communication. The companies that have done it best have been honest with their employees about the situation. 

And I’m working on a new motto which is something like Communication is Key with Covid. Whether that’s communication between employer and employee. Or employee and employer when the employee has caring and homeschool responsibilities. Or within the household between partners. Or between parent and child. Good communication helps make everything easier.

Employers have to recognise that for many people work is a cause of stress. 

And while it looks good when employers give their teams plenty of different channels through which they can communicate that needs to come with a hefty message that they don’t need to use ALL the channels or that too can cause stress if employees feel they must respond to emails, WhatsApp groups, Slack chats and all the rest.

Similarly, encouraging employees to take time out of their day for exercise or days off for wellbeing is all well and good. But if they return to the same workload in fewer hours that will actually increase anxiety. Workload has to be managed.

And fundamentally a key cause of stress is money. The best companies topped up furlough pay to 100% where they could or provided emergency loans or handouts where possible. By doing so they telegraphed loud and clear that they understood that their people would be stressed and anxious as a result of the pandemic and its attendant upheaval, and that they understood the potential sources of that stress.

The next big issue in mental health and the workplace is going to be the end of the furlough scheme. Even in a best case scenario a huge number of people are going to return from an extended period out of the workforce. I know when I returned from furlough I was surprised at how tricky it was to get back into the right headspace and to get back up to speed.

Now, most mums have already experienced this. I’m hopeful that men returning from furlough will understand the challenges mums returning from maternity leave have to face and be more empathetic going forward. 

But there is another way we can engender that empathy….

Are we truly working flexibly?

So this is where I look at the bigger picture. There is certainly a school of thought that says now is the time to look at the bigger picture, to build back better, that to return everything to the way ti was this time next year would be a failure and disservice to everything that has happened in between.

And I’ve a lot of sympathy with that approach.

The question posed in this session is ‘Are we truly working flexibly?’

The answer is a resounding no. 

Fundamentally, because not enough men are doing it.

Not enough men because we know men want to do more of it

Not enough men because we as long as we are stuck with a picture in which the majority of men work full time and a huge proportion of women work part time, as long as we make it easier for women to work flexibly or part time and to fall out of the workforce entirely then we end up with the situation we faced in 2020 as the pandemic played out – women expected to do more childcare, they suffer more from having to juggle work and domestic life and they are more likely to lose their jobs. See the horrifying stat from America last month that found the US economy lost 140,000 jobs in December – all of them women.

I want to look at how we fix that, and why we ought to fix that. Let’s start with the why. And the answer to that is tied closely to issues around mental health. 

Firstly because everyone wants it.

Statistics from Statista show 78% of women described themselves and feeling positive or very positive about flexible working. The figure for men? 77%

That matches almost perfectly the findings of our most recent survey for workingdads in which 8 out of 10 respondents said they wanted more flexible working in the future.

Employees who are content with their work life balance make better employees. They’ll be happier, more productive, more loyal. If you want to attract and retain the best talent from here on in then you simply have to offer flexible working.

Look at the recent example from Zurich for proof. They started advertising all their roles as open to flexible, part time or job share and saw the number of applicants rise not just among women but among men as well. And those already in the company and working flexibly of part time reported a greater sense of belonging.

If we recognise that work can be a cause of stress. Then we have to accept the challenge of ensuring that work is not a cause of stress. Flexible working provides an answer.

Another reason why we ought to encourage more men to work flexibly is that the potential benefits are too big to be ignored.

We know that where men’s work life balance allows them to get more involved in parenting and family life they enjoy better mental health. 

And so do their partners. 

And so do their children. 

In my book Dad’s Don’t Babysit we called it the parenting hat-trick. 

Men who are more involved in family life are happier, healthier, and more productive. They report better mental health, stronger relationships and a better romantic relationship with their partner. If this is what it takes to convince men to change they way they work: men who flex get more sex as I memorably headlined an article on before being told to tone it down a bit. (The only time in two years in the job I’ve had any editorial interference!)

Women whose partners are more involved in family life also report feeling happier. There’s some evidence that they are less likely to suffer poor mental health if their partner is more involved. They certainly reap the benefits of sharing the load of parenting and that makes it easier for them to pursue their own goals.

Children of more engaged fathers grow up smarter, less likely to get in trouble with the law, have better relationships and a more gender equal outlook. 

These benefits cannot be ignored.

And whilst I called it the parenting hat-trick in my book there is another benefit not to be sniffed at (it’s just there’s not a name for something with four elements, there’s now quad-trick or whatever)

Where men do more childcare that frees up women to pursue the work-life balance they actually want and with more women in the workforce the modelling shows the economy swells to the tune of up to 12% of GDP – so billions of pounds that could come in handy as we try to bounce back from the economic hit inflicted by Covid. Gender equality is not just a nice to have, it ought to be at the core of any recovery for lots of reasons. And any government that ignores that is open to accusations of deep seated sexism.

Far be it for me to mention at this point Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s comments earlier in the week about ‘thanking all the mums’ for stepping up through the pandemic and successfully hacking off dads who also do more during lockdown (though not as much as women) and women who’d like more than just thanks – job protection, recognition of maternity leave in the job support schemes and gender equality for a start.

So that’s why we need more men working flexibly. How do we make it happen. 

We need to give men the opportunity to be the dads they want to be. In a notable survey for GQ magazine around two thirds of men chose ‘being a present father’ as the most important aspect of masculinity.

Asking them to achieve that on two weeks of paternity leave is patently absurd. Why would they want to stay closely involved in family life if they are granted one 26th of the leave granted to mums, implying their role is one 26th as important.

Again our surveys repeatedly find men say they don’t think two weeks is enough. Yet a tiny proportion, certainly lower than one in 10, take up the option of Shared Parental Leave. 

First of all that expectation – set out so clearly in the paltry amount of paternity leave on offer – is off putting.

Secondly there’s the issue of pay. With men most likely to be the primary earner in any given household it’s more a drop for them to give up their regular salary for the £150 per week of statutory parental pay. Though personally I think many more men could swallow that even if only for a couple of weeks. As one dad I spoke to who had done Shared Parental Leave pointed out he had at least six months before the birth and another six months after it to give up takeaway coffee every day, bank the savings and build a fund to support him through six weeks of Shared Parental Leave.

We know that where men are offered well paid parental leave they take it. There’s clearly an appetite. You can look at the example in Sweden of course where men who don’t take months of paternity leave are regarded as weird. Closer to home look at a company like Aviva. They offer dads around six months of paid paternity leave. And the vast majority use it. At the last count the average length of paternity leave there was 23 weeks. They don’t employ some unrepresentative sample of dads.

But it’s not just about pay, Aviva are very good at sharing best practice, getting dads who’ve taken leave to talk about it and normalising it. I spoke to one dad at Aviva who was nervous about taking such a long stint of paternity leave after starting a new position but his line manager was incredibly supportive. Compare that to the dad who asks his line manager about Shared Parental Leave and is met by the traditional sucking of teeth.

And if men get the opportunity to be an engaged dad from the start they stay engaged.

The European Parliament published a policy paper just this week on helping women into and supporting women in the workforce. Among it’s key conclusions: men who spend more time with their families from birth tend to be ‘full time’ parents for life. Consequently employers need to offer more paternity leave, properly funded and take steps to normalise men using paternity leave, working flexible and essentially normalise the idea of dads being dads.

Flexible working is the next step to keeping those men engaged and creating equal opportunity for men and women, mums and dads. 

Currently less than 10% of dads have a flexible working arrangement. But that’s not to say so few dads actually work flexibly. As I’ve found in my working life, lots of dads have informal flexible working arrangements. Agreements with their line managers that aren’t written down. That’s fine as far as it goes as long as those dads speak up about the fact they are working flexibly. Too often they come to an agreement and it’s all done on the nod – mysterious off site meetings on a Friday afternoon are a well reported phenomenon.

Too often among men and among employers flexible working is seen as something for women.

In my book we found an example of a woman who was granted the flexibility to move to Greece to care for her elderly mother and work from there. But a man at the same company requesting flexibility was straight down refused. The problem isn’t the unfairness in that scenario, it’s that a woman with caring responsibilities is regarded as normal and catered for but a man is denied a caring identity. And everyone suffers because of those stereotypes.

The legislation is there for men to ask for flexible working. Line managers need to encourage it, bosses need to grant it, men need to ask for it. 

And when men work flexibly they gain in empathy, a vital skill post pandemic. It’s noticeable that for as long as the flexible workforce has been overwhelmingly female problems around part timers and remote workers missing out on training and promotions have been overlooked. Last year many many more men found themselves working from home and suddenly those some problems became live issues. 

So true flexible working would involve men and women doing it equally. I’m focussed on mums and dads but true flexible working would see everyone working as works for them and their employer. If taking Fridays or Wednesday mornings off to pursue their passion – whether that’s training for a marathon, or a round of golf or even just meeting friends for an early evening pint – aids their mental health and makes them a happier and therefore more productive employee then it’s good for everyone if it can be accommodated by business needs. And yes, true flexible working also means that employee joins the Zoom call or comes into an office if there’s a vital meeting or genuine business need in the time they are meant to be off. It does work both ways.

True flexible working means encouraging more men to do it and the way to do that is to offer them better, well paid paternity leave to give them the opportunity to be involved from family life from the start. And to normalise men working flexibly. That means sharing best practice and case studies of men working differently at all levels of an organisation.

True flexible working means accommodating plenty of options. A 2019 document claimed there’s 100 different ways of working flexibly. There’s a lot of talk about the 9-5 but if working five days a week in an office between 9-5 works for you then go for it. But it has to be one of a suite of options including working from home, flexing your hours, job share,  and, the one that is currently talked up most in light of the great pandemic working experiment of the last 10 months – hybrid working in which someone combines working at home with working in a specified workplace. 

True flexible working makes people happier, shares the mental load more equitably between the sexes, engenders fairness. That’s the mental health benefit.

I hope that many of you watching this today are already aware of this, and working to make it a reality. If not, then get on board because this change is happening and the most successful organisations will be the ones that embrace it.

If you are already working on it then I wish you every success and if I can help at all then get in touch. Hit me up on LinkedIn or through 

Best of luck and thanks for listening.

A commission

This will sound like boasting. But I sometimes wonder how my life came to this. 

Last week I was able to help a relative writing a university essay about a certain Hollywood film by putting her in touch with the director of said smash. That’s weird.

This week the fruits of my turn as an expert witness were published. Call it imposter syndrome. I don’t think of myself as an expert in much at all. But, looked at dispassionately, as author of two books on gender stereotypes and editor of a website campaigning for equality I guess I am.

Over a year ago my partner and I gave evidence to the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood. We were invited by Sam Smethers, chair of the Fawcett Society to share the insights garnered from our @GenderDiary project that culminated in the book The Gender Agenda.

The commission included some powerhouses in the field of gender stereotypes. David Lammy MP and Professor Becky Francis chaired. Stick a pin in the list of commissioners and you’ll come up with quality. For example: Mary Bousted of the National Education Union, neuroscientist Gina Rippon, Justine Roberts of Mumsnet, Owen Thomas of Future men and the gang from Let Toys be Toys and The Fatherhood Institute. 

So it’s no surprise that the resulting report – titled Unlimited Potential – is quite brilliant. Clear, well researched, and full of straightforward recommendations.

It is surprising to spot your own influence running through some of the sections. Surprising and gratifying. 

It’s worth dwelling on what’s in the report. 

Why challenge stereotypes?

First – why challenge gender stereotypes? As the report says, “There is a clear, positive, case for the benefits to our economy, to society, and to us as individuals as a result of challenging gender stereotypes.”

  • Girls are put off taking up STEM subjects
  • Boys develop lower reading skills
  • Children who hold gender stereotyped views have poorer wellbeing
  • Boys self esteem is boosted by using literature that challenges gender stereotypes
  • Girls are more likely to feel their are valued for their looks causing eating disorders and leading to suicide attempts
  • Boys are constricted by the stoic and breadwinner role models leading to higher male suicide rates
  • Challenging gender stereotypes can reduce violence against women
  • Gender stereotypes contribute to abuse and harassment of LGBT people
  • Gender stereotypes interact with and compound the harm caused by stereotypes about race.

All this by page seven of the 93-page report.


That’s the case against stereotypes. But, like The Gender Agenda, it’s not about pointing to the problem and whining. It’s about proposing solutions. And there are plenty of them in Unlimited Potential. None of them overly difficult or expensive. But each radical and potentially world changing. And all backed by evidence, research, testimony and expertise.

Here’s some of the stand out recommendations;

  • Government ought to issue new teacher training guidance that includes knowledge and understanding of stereotypes and how to counter them. Anyone who remembers No More Boys and Girls on TV will welcome that one. 
  • Early years ought to have a focus on challenging gender stereotypes. This one appeals. Anyone who’s read The Gender Agenda may remember the tale of our first visit to a nursery in which the manager pointed to the corner with the toy cars and dubbed it ‘the boys corner’. 
  • Ofsted should include challenging gender stereotypes as part of its inspection framework. A few years back we spoke to a number of campaigners about how to take the work of No More Boys and Girls forward. The answer was that schools wouldn’t be interested when they’ve other things to worry about in order to scoop a decent rating of Ofsted. The solution is simple – throw smashing stereotypes into the Ofsted mix.
  • Get more men in early years. They can be role models that show caring is not the preserve of women.
  • Design toys for children not by gender. Obv.
  • Kids are all watching YouTube these days. But what are they watching? We can monitor and regulate gender stereotypes on TV and in ads. YouTube ought to encourage new content creators that challenge gender stereotypes. And research should be commissioned into gender representation in video games, kids TV, books and clothing with regular audits.

Dads Don’t Babysit

Now, I was invited to give evidence to the commission off the back of The Gender Agenda. But coming out of that project I was struck by how stereotypes constrict boys as well as girls. It was an element I had not expected. I thought I was doing it to bust the limits my daughter would face. I ended up pondering the limits my son was subject to. And so I came to write Dads Don’t Babysit. Because it became clear to me that equal parenting is the way to give dads more choice in how they live their lives, free women from an overbearing domestic load and unlock equality more widely.

So I was particularly gratified to see recommendations around dads and supporting parents to challenge gender stereotypes.

The report calls for equal parental leave and a longer, better paid period of non-transferable leave reserved for dads. Employers should strive to create ‘dad friendly’ workplaces modelled on the work of the University of Birmingham team who created a ‘Fathers at work’ toolkit.

And, because research shows that gender stereotypes can be crystallised around the point people become parents, midwives, health visitors and other health professionals ought to be trained to spot stereotypes, challenge them and enable parents and parents-to-be to challenge them. 

Wanging around

There are many more recommendations in the full report. I really hope campaigners and policy makers are paying attention. For even taken together the proposals do not add up to an expensive package. Particularly in the face of the sort of figures wanging around in the fight against coronavirus.

The government talks about building back better. Returning to pre-pandemic ways will be tempting. ‘The before times’ will hold the attraction of a comfort blanket. But we must press for change, for something better. Unlimited Potential offers a ream of ideas to achieve that.

We know that gender equality brings many benefits. I like it in the name of fairness. But it also swell the economy and brings with it better mental and physical health. Any government around the globe that wants to grow its economy, improve health and create a better society – and surely all administrations want to do that in 2021 and beyond – can achieve all of that via gender equality. To ignore steps that would improve gender equality is an explicitly sexist choice. 

‘Powerful’ evidence

It was a thrill to take part in the process. One of the commissioners has been good enough to suggest our evidence was ‘powerful’. Which makes me think the shadows of what we said can be seen in great chunks of the report. Fundamentally though the credit lies with The Fawcett Society who stepped out of their comfort zone to look at an issue affecting not just women and girls but society as a whole (of which, of course, women and girls are a part).

The title sums it up why it matters. If you want limited potential for your children that’s easily achieved. But please step aside and let those of us who want more make the case for Unlimited Potential.

Photo by BBC Creative on Unsplash

Vaccine nationalism

I asked a question on Twitter the other day. Mad, I know. Twitter is a place for saying stuff or belittling others not for engagement or seeking information. My mistake.

Within seconds, one of those right wing, Brexiteer, men dismissed my question, mocked it, refused to engage with it when I followed up. Quite the snowflake. Not just ignoring something he didn’t like the look of, seeking to close down the discussion.

A shame because I think it’s an interesting avenue for consideration. And one that would benefit from discussion and engagement.

It’s a chicken and egg thing. In which Brexit is a chicken and nationalism the egg.

British exceptionalism

I suggested that there’s a streak of British exceptionalism running through coverage of the Oxford vaccine. And when I queried where Brexit fitted into that my interlocutor could not cope. His decision to drop out I’m taking as a sign that I was in fact on to something.

To be clear, Covid vaccines are good. The three main candidates to report results so far are more effective than many dared to hope. Great. The end of the pandemic is maybe not yet in sight but we know roughly where it is and how to get there.

First out of the blocks on the vaccine front was the US/German candidate from Pfizer and BioNtech. (What is that cap N doing in the middle there??). Then came Moderna from America. And when both announced their breakthroughs the UK press seemed to report with a large dose of ‘but the one that really matters is ‘the Oxford project’. 

Throughout the pandemic the academics from Oxford have been vocal. That may be because they knew they were on to something from the start. I’ve been in journalism and around politics long enough to know that those with the most mouth are often the biggest bullshitters. So Oxford’s taste for the limelight triggered my scepticism. Possibly incorrectly. And I’m prepared to concede that the whole premise I’m setting out here may simply be a case of me trying to demonstrate that I was right all along.

The race

Pfizer won the race to produce an effective vaccine. End of. 

Moderna took the silver medal. 

Both reported efficacy upwards of 90%. 

The Oxford AstraZeneca effort claimed bronze and reported 70% effectiveness. This is a noble effort. Bronze medals are good. I have one from a Scottish media 5-a-side tournament played at Townhead pitches in the year 2000 and I treasure it. Not least because I’d been allocated to the B-team that day and we progressed further than the A-team. And because I scored a rare goal whilst lying on the ground like a worm.

Within hours of the news that Oxford had come third came new takes on their vaccine. It’s cheaper. Easier to store. If you give the doses in a certain order it matches the other candidates. Fine, the vaccines have differing pros and cons. But it felt a bit like a desperate effort to talk up the UK entry. 

Our vaccine is different and better than the other vaccines. It arrived later, is less effective, but somehow better. And the government has bought loads of it. I did wonder if there was a different angle on this story – that the Westminster administration that has bungled the pandemic throughout had gambled on the worst candidate.


It all felt familiar, particularly to someone who has covered Brexit at fairly close quarters. I spent three years working on a Brexit podcast for one of the nation’s foremost think tanks on the issue. We tried to balance guests between those known to be pro-Brexit and those anti. Repeatedly the Brexiteers failed to properly engage in the detail, dismissed concerns and talked up minor advantages as huge leaps forward.

For example one of the leading lights of the Brexit campaign dismissed my questions about the process and their lack of involvement in it after the referendum by claiming I had a ‘Remain face’. Another claimed Brexit was a good idea because it would be easier for the sick to get a pilots licence.



Oh and as I return to this blog it’s increasingly clear I was on to something. In the intervening days we’ve had questions raised about the Oxford vaccine. The claims about its route to 90%+ efficacy perhaps lack the full weight of evidence (yet). And We’ve seen over the recent days certain government figures claim that we could only approve this German vaccine that is manufactured in Belgium because we’ve left the EU. (I wouldn’t like to call this one, there may be a sort of grain of truth to it but clearly there’s a lack of the necessary nuance in the claims of Matt Hancock and Jacob Rees Mogg.) Meanwhile Gavin Williamson’s assertion that we were able to approve a vaccine faster than anyone else because we’re just better than everyone else once again raises the question of whether he’s a moron or a maniac. Possibly both.

The fundamental question applies. Is a sense of British exceptionalism endemic, and hence when the Brexit vote came along many people were susceptible to some of the flimsier claims that tapped into that feeling? Or is it Brexit that’s fuelled or engendered a sense of British exceptionalism?

Perhaps the answer is both. Let’s face it these questions rarely give rise to simple, binary responses.

More importantly what does it mean going forward? I felt I detected a bit more British exceptionalism than you’d hear a few years back in the BBC coverage of the Oxford vaccine. That may be in part due to the onslaught the corporation has faced around its impartiality. But whatever the reason it matters. If a sense of British exceptionalism is starting to infect and consume British public life it matters. Not least because it’s nonsense. 

Deadly bungles

It’s fine to be proud of your nation and there is much in the UK’s response to the pandemic to be impressed by – the mind-blowing bravery of frontline health workers, the people who’ve pulled together, the stoicism of supermarket workers etc. Not the response of the government which has been a litany of bungles. Deadly bungles. (If Deadly Bungles isn’t on the Mercury album award shortlist next year after support from 6Music I’ll be disappointed).

But the pandemic has predictably undone any sense that the UK is special. Unless you look to our particularly high death rate and deep economic recession. We’ve been hit in the same way other similar nations have suffered – Italy, Spain, France, UK. Broadly there’s little to choose between the industrialised, urbanised nations of Western Europe.  

We could’ve done things differently. Britain is different because it’s an island so we could’ve pulled up the drawbridge in theory. In practice of course that didn’t happen because it couldn’t. Citizens move between nations too freely for that. Remember there’s a theory that the majority of Covid in the UK was seeded by folk returning from February half term breaks in France and Italy. And business is too closely enmeshed with European supply chains to cut ourselves off.

Geography matters. As many Brexiteers are about to find out. It might be easier to get an Australian visa as a result of some trade deal with Canberra. Most folk will still holiday on the continent and be hacked off when they can’t join the faster EU queue at the immigration desk. 

Constructing policy infused with exceptionalism when there is no basis for that outlook is a bad idea, and it’ll end badly.

All this is not to say that Brexit is inherently a bad idea. I personally remain fairly open minded. But I have yet to see the decisive evidence in its favour. A last hope is that the practice demonstrates why it’s all worthwhile.

What’s the point?

So what’s the point of this ramble? That I detected British exceptionalism last week. (And while I take the point that talking about English exceptionalism might be more accurate I see enough shadows of the same sort of point of view running through nationalism per se, including strands of Scottish nationalism, to throw them all into the pot together). And that inkling was borne out by events. So others ought to be aware of it, look out for it, challenge it when it is unfounded. 

If Brexit is running on misplaced British exceptionalism (and I’m content to leave it as an ‘if’ for now despite a strong sense that for some of the leading proponents of the policy that clearly is the case) it will hit the buffers. And people will suffer. Fundamentally I’ll trade rhetoric and hollow patriotism for the condition of the poeple. Some Brexiteers take a different tack. Most believe the policy will improve life for the population. But if that belief continues to be held in the teeth of evidence to the contrary then it’s fair to ask what truly lies behind it. And at that point it must be challenged at least, stopped at worst. 

Socks and a snood

This country is great. But so are other countries. I like this country best because it’s my country, I’m invested in it. I own socks bearing the St George’s cross and a snood covered in St Andrews flags. But I don’t necessarily think it’s best because of that. 

And if British exceptionalism takes root, becomes normalised in policy and public discourse, feeds those who take that sense of exceptionalism too far into nationalism and beyond, then – no matter its regulatory regime or purchasing power when it comes to novel vaccines – this country will be diminished.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Dads Don’t Babysit: more relevant than ever

Two years to the day since the publication of Dads Don’t Babysit, my second book, it’s more relevant than ever.

So relevant it’s hard to choose which bits to focus on in particular.

Pondering this I flicked open the latest edition of The New Statesman to browse during a lunch break.

And ‘letter of the week’ gave me all the answers I needed.

A chap called Jim Simmons had written in to explain that having spent the last 10 years spending three hours a day commuting he had no intention of going back to that pattern after experiencing a different way of doing things through lockdown that brought benefits including increased productivity, more family time and a healthier diet.

Two years since publication day, the letter spoke to two key themes of the book. Firstly, why had Jim not changed his way of working before if it was so miserable? The options were there, he could’ve applied for flexible working at any time. Secondly, now that he’s seen the light how do we embed those changes to ensure maximum benefit for all?

Ahead of its time

Dads Don’t Babysit was ahead of its time. That might sound bumptious but it’s self evidently true. My co-author David Freed and I called for men to embrace different ways of working in order to spend more time parenting. 

Our reasoning was that equal parenting unlocks benefits for men, women, children and society. It’s all in the book but in short men are happier, healthier and more productive; women are unchained from the parental drag that hampers their career progress and earning potential; children achieve more at school bringing attendant benefits and carry a more gender equal outlook with them into adulthood. And all that adds up to billions on the national GDP. Handy when there’s a helluva a recession about to bite. 

Covid has forced a lot of men to work differently. And all that we predicted has come to pass. Not in every household of course. But there’s a growing body of evidence that productivity has held up through the pandemic. (And bear in mind parents were dealing with homeschooling and the fear of global disease in that time. Remove those two shackles and imagine how productivity could soar.)

Many dads, like Jim Simmons, report they’ve enjoyed having more time to commit to their family, and to spend on their own mental and physical wellbeing. As the headline on Jim’s letter put it,  folk like him are ‘Never going back’. 

Women won’t just be able to press on with their career because their partner is taking on more of the mental load. They’ll also likely bag more promotions now attention is being focussed on the fact that those that work remotely or part time are more likely to be overlooked for promotion.

In Dads Don’t Babysit we pointed out that in the world as it is men’s voices carry. Sure enough, as long as women were being disadvantaged by working flexibly this was not a priority issue. Now men must work from home and are feeling the same problems, they speak up and it’s getting addressed. 

It’s not how these things ought to be solved. But, as long as they are, I’ll take that. (I’m reminded of Julia Gillard’s comment in this podcast – that I produce – that as long as we’re moving in the right direction any amount of compromise is palatable. Of course what made Julia a better leader than the current crop is that she knew what to her was the right direction and consequently she could compromise while weaker leaders U-turn.)

The impact of lockdown upon children will take longer to measure. But it’s likely those with two parents at home offering support to their homeschooling and bolstering their emotional resilience will fare best no matter their economic circumstances. I’m not sure who is going to measure the gendered outlook of the children of coronavirus (Hello academia, I am available to take on this project with a bit of funding and that!) but I’ll bet any amount of pints of English beer that such a study will find a more equal outlook among boys and girls.

The paternity gap

So, let’s look at Jim’s issues. Why had he not previously considered and taken up flexible working? The obvious answer is that no-one gifted him a copy of Dads Don’t Babysit when it was published in 2018.

But he also fell into the paternity gap. With only two weeks of statutory paternity leave the state sends a clear message that men are a ‘nice to have’ when it comes to parenting rather than a crucial part of their baby’s first year. 

Consequently when mum returns to work it appears to make sense that she continues to shoulder the bulk of the childcare. Anyone who practises something five days a week for nine months will be better at it and more confident in their ability than the person who’s only been doing two days a week at the same task. Combine that with the likelihood that the father is the higher earner at home and you’ve a recipe for a gendered split in the household. (Hello gender pay gap you utter stain on any society that tolerates you. What’s that? Liz Truss sacked off gender pay gap reporting at the first opportunity in the spring even though most companies had done all the research and could publish without it significantly impacting their workload as lockdown began. Uh-huh…)

Jim’s unlikely to know any other dads that work flexibly either. Less than 10% of dads have formal flexible working arrangements. Fewer dads ask for one, those that do are more likely to be refused than a woman making the same ask. Because bosses assume a mother returning from maternity leave will want to alter her work pattern and factor that in to their plans. A man however is expected to work even harder now he’s a family to provide for. That’s a fundamentally sexist outlook. And it means that dads tend to increase their earnings upon parenthood, women suffer the motherhood penalty to their pay packet. *sarcastic voice* Well done everyone.

Gendered society

One could say that Jim hadn’t considered flexible working before because he’s not as smart and forward thinking as me. That’s for others to decide. I think he’s just another victim of a gendered society.

But he’s been woken up. 

Thousands if not millions like him have been alerted to the gains of flexible working. It’s notable in his letter that he dwells on the benefits to himself rather than his partner and family but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume The New Statesman edited his letter that way. This is, after all, a publication that notably misses Helen Lewis’s feminist input editorially. Her writing may have been replaceable (as is the case for any writer) but her influence is notable by its absence. (A piece on activist footballers earlier this summer that focussed on men and didn’t mention Megan Rapinoe – who faced down actual bullying by the misogynist President of the United States – is by dint of that omission incomplete and irrelevant.)

But if Jim’s letter was presented as is it’s an interesting insight into how we campaign for change. We appeal to men’s self interest. I wish it wasn’t so. It appears that might be the only way to go. (As I mentioned above, I’ll compromise along the way and campaign in any way alongside almost anyone if we get to the right end point.) It’s important to know what works as we move forward and try to embed the changes that have been forced upon us by coronavirus. Like everyone else I wish it hadn’t taken something so awful to get us here. But now we are here we have a duty to those victims of the disease to make a better future.

The manifesto

There was an eight point manifesto in Dads Don’t Babysit and a three point mantra for change. It remains necessary.

The eight demands of the manifesto are:

  • Paternity leave must be made a day one right for dads. This equalises the situation for women. If you’re going to become a parent, no matter how long you’ve been in a job, your baby needs you around.
  • Paternity leave must be extended. Theresa May converted to this cause on her political deathbed. A consultation on the issue closed last November. Nothing has been heard of it since. This government seems uninterested. They may claim the country can’t afford it as the economy tanks. We can’t afford not to involve more dads in family life. If you want both sexes to succeed economically, if you want to ensure the pandemic situation in which women were squeezed to combine more childcare with their work and consequently lost jobs in higher numbers is not repeated we need equal parenting. That has to start at the start of the parenting experience. Both parents should get six weeks off at 90% of pay. Any government that can find the cash to pay 80% of everyone’s wages can afford six weeks worth to fund paternity leave.
  • Equalise full parental leave at nine months each. Solves a childcare issue for new parents. Stops mum having to transfer leave to dad if they take Shared Parental Leave. And fund it properly. They manage it in Scandinavia.
  • In Dads Don’t Babysit we asked for a flexible working good practice hub. This one needs to be upgraded. Let’s have legislation making flexible working a right so that the assumption is that an application by anyone (not just parents) will be accepted.
  • Gender pay gap reporting has been rolled back. This is a bad thing. To achieve equal parenting we need to go further. Employers must publicise their parental policies so anyone applying for a job can make an informed choice. As with gender pay gap reporting this’ll likely lead to responsible companies trying to outdo each other to protect their reputation and attract the best talent. Men won’t feel bad about applying for flexible working if an employer is up front about it as an option from the off.
  • Death to Daddy Pig. See here. Still holds.
  • An awareness campaign. Jim Simmons can’t be held responsible for not knowing about the benefits of fatherhood. It’s very rarely out there. This one may even have gone backwards. When I interviewed David Lammy for Dads Don’t Babysit he suggested some posters in the antenatal clinic pointing up the bonuses an engaged dad brings to family life. Currently it seems fathers aren’t even allowed in the antenatal clinic. The Fatherhood Institute is trying to get a handle on what’s happened to antenatal attitudes towards dads during the pandemic but there’s been eye watering anecdotes of heartbreak and unfairness. We must reverse this particular tide.
  • Finally we called for better teaching in schools on boys roles in family life and measures to address the flood of bad science that popularises ideas about ‘pink brains’ and ‘blue brains’ that have no basis in fact. Sadly some of the reaction to the pandemic has shown that this remains necessary on lots of fronts.

The mantra

So how do we get there? The mantra remains the same: Act. Communicate. Agitate.

  • Act. If you’re a dad who has enjoyed having more time around your family then be like Jim (new, woke Jim, not pre-pandemic Jim who hadn’t considered flexible working) and embrace it. Get that flexible working request in to your HR department. There’s plenty of advice on how to do it successfully. I’ll help if I can, tap me up on social media. Be the dad you want to be. Role model a gender equal, engaged father who is moulding work and life in a way that suits himself, his family and his employer. It’s entirely possible as 2020 has proved.
  • Communicate. Talk to your employer about what you want to retain from the working from home experiment and explain why. Open that channel of communication as early as possible. Talk to your partner about what will work best for both of you going forward. 
  • Agitate. And talk to government about what you want. If you think all fathers should have the right to flexible working as a day one right and on the basis that applications will be accepted by default, then join the campaign. Lobby your MP. Help the Fatherhood Institute with their survey. Visit, the site that I edit, and partake in our research and share the best practice reports we produce.

We have a moment

We have a moment right now. Two years ago I hoped that Dads Don’t Babysit would hit bookshelves and herald a sea change in attitude and opinion. (Note ‘hoped’ rather than ‘expected’). 

For many reasons that didn’t happen. 

And I can’t emphasis enough that I wish what has happened this year had not happened. That arriving at this hinge moment had not taken a deadly virus combined with a bumbling government. 

But we must cash in the positives from 2020.

Buy my book. It’s never been more relevant. It contains all the arguments and tools you’ll need to convince your employer or your employees that change is necessary and achievable. Not just tinkering with work patterns but huge societal alterations that could bring equality that so many people want and need.

Dads don’t babysit, they parent. And when the time comes to change things for the benefit of everyone dads don’t sit on their hands either. 

The Disappointed

Maybe it’s getting old, maybe it’s the effects of lockdown but increasingly those talking about a new normal look like wishful thinkers.

The government is opening zoos before opening schools. Antelopes before A-levels. Profits before pupils.

Some say the coronavirus crisis will make us more empathetic and community minded. Surely the events of the last few days have knocked that on the head. The deep division of the culture wars remains raw. 

Instead of engaging with protestors to understand their anger a bunch of Red Wall Tory MPs did a photo op cleaning up the Parliament Square statue of Winston Churchill. Until a local authority cleaner – black, called Winston – came along to do the job properly.

The narrative seems to have already moved on from anger at racism to statue rage. Of course it has not among those affected. The reason George Floyd’s last words – ‘I can’t breathe’ – have sparked worldwide protest is because they sum up the suffocating experience of racism. Toppling Edward Colston was a symptom and a symbol. This is not a protest about public art.

Yet the media coverage is focussed on the most tangible element of the cause. This morning the white male presenter of the Today programme spoke to a white peer about a statue of a white man. There’s your structural racism right there.

But it’s not just the most recent protests that may wilt in the face of conservative interests and institutions. 

Spider creep

A few weeks ago there was talk of men engaging more with the family, re-assessing their work life balance in light of lockdown. Public discourse over the decision to can plans to get all primary school kids into the classroom by July has been dominated by mums. We’ve a male Education Secretary. The ex fireplace salesman seems to be too inept to be allowed on the airwaves but competent enough to occupy a seat at the Cabinet table despite being an unfaithful husband, an attention seeking spider creep, and sacked from Theresa May’s cabinet for leaking state secrets. Quite the CV. In his absence Rob Halfon, love cheat chair of the Education select committee, has shared his views. And these are invariably balanced or complemented by those of ‘mums’ – women reduced to just one element of their existence.

So much for any rearranging of gender roles. And for more on that see the research that landed today showing that those parents with the most education do the most homeschooling but more pertinently that women, whatever their schooling, do more domestic work than men.

Even as I type a new piece of research arrived in my inbox showing men think working from home will allow them to spend more time with their families (obv) and help women to progress in the workplace (here’s hoping). But neither will happen just because, they will only occur if men do more housework.

It’s disappointing.

But what’s really concerning going forward is the widespread disappointment that accompanies lockdown.

My kids were looking forward to the holiday of a lifetime at Easter. Cancelled.

My son was looking forward to getting back to school and seeing his friends next month. Cancelled.

Kids expect their parents in general to have answers and agency. We have neither in the face of coronavirus.

Compound disappointment.

Nadir of hopelessness

And I wonder what impact that’ll have on this generation going forward. Will they be less likely to make plans for fear they’ll be undone by circumstances? Will they bring a new nadir of hopelessness to the public realm when they are older? Why protest, why dream, why have ambitions if your memory is filled with disappointments? Will Covid beget a generation that always bets on black?

(I’m reminded of a long car journey with my daughter when she was very small, but old enough to play I-spy. “I spy with my little eye something black,” she uttered from the back seat. “Is it…the future?” I wearily responded.)

We can leave theses questions hanging. Or we can do something about it. There are people starting conversations about how to convert good intentions into concrete actions. How to harness the energy of the Black Lives Matters protests, or to help men embed the changes they’ve embraced in quarantine, or put mental health on the agenda alongside the economy. If we engage now, we can hopefully seize the initiative, and show our kids that disappointment is not inevitable.

From disappointment can come creativity and beauty. Let’s be like XTC:

Haircuts, holidays and hugs

News reaches me of a far more egregious breach of lockdown restrictions than the thousands protesting Black Lives Matter at the weekend.

An old lady, in middle England, who had her family – daughter, son-in-law and teenage grandchild – round for a roast dinner at the weekend.

Now, the crowds marching through various city centres are one thing. From a purely pandemic point of view they presented a far from ideal scenario. But of course there’s far more to what was going on at the weekend than just the health crisis. I have huge sympathy with the man on the news who said “Being a black man is a threat to my life expectancy so… coronavirus – come at me.”

But ultimately the marches were largely attended by folk who are young and urban. People whose risk from coronavirus is relatively low, who tend to be relatively engaged with social justice issues and who might be expected to follow the Covid rules but perhaps less strictly than others.

Far more telling, and more dangerous, if we’re concerned about a second spike in infections is the grandma in middle England.


She’d fit the model of the sort of person who doesn’t just vote Tory (she lives in a safe seat) but who is used to obeying the rules set by Tory governments. She may even have tutted at the pictures of Edward Colston tipping off Bristol docks when she sat down to watch the weekend news having waved off her family after serving them food she’d cooked and spending time in an enclosed space with them.

If the stats show an uptick in Covid cases in a couple of weeks think of her rather than the BLM protestors.

I don’t repeat the tale of the old lady flaunting the law to criticise her just as I wouldn’t criticise those joining the BLM movement. But she’s a canary in the coalmine of public opinion.

The fact she’s driven to break the Covid guidelines speaks to a wider problem with the government’s approach to coronavirus.

She wants to see her loved ones. Those in charge show little sign they get that.


It often feels that the most vital parts of easing lockdown are allowing people to go to pubs and shops.

Yet this is an administration that constantly carps on about common sense, albeit usually to mask decisions that are directly and obviously in contravention of common sense. Dominic Cummings taking his family for a drive to test his eyesight the most obvious example, and it’s going to take some beating.

Common sense is too vague a term to be any use. I prefer to think of it simply as being human, of knowing other people.

The three key elements this administration ought to address if it is to keep the electorate sweet and prove it’s in touch with normal people are haircuts, holidays and loved ones. Not necessarily in that order.


I hate getting my hair cut. Have done since I was a child. Being wrestled into a special seat at the local salon whilst wailing and flailing is probably one of my earliest memories. But I’d love a hair cut right now. It’d represent a little chink of normality and having a neater barnet would generally improve how I feel about myself. That’s true of lots of other people. Confidence in the government would come coursing back were it to announce a plan to open hairdressers as soon as possible and, crucially, how it’ll ration appointments. (I prefer a 24 alphabetised day plan with appointments on each date only open to people with surnames starting with a particular later. Nadhim Zahawi would have to wait till the end. If he had hair.)

Holidays are tricky of course. As with everything at them moment safety must come first. But it’s entirely reasonable that everyone wants a break after the last few months. That might not be possible. In which case the government needs to front up and tell us that. It’s worse to indicate we might be able to get a holiday then take that hope away – ie, do exactly as they’ve done to the nation’s primary school children by suggesting they’d be in class before September before turning round and telling the under 10s actually they can’t hang out with their friends after all. Not cool. Not cool at all.

If there is a way to make holidays happen then explain the plan and work towards it. What are the chances of air bridges to other countries? Can we all holiday in Ireland? Or does the government fancy nationalising Travelodge and doling out a week away to everyone? That last one sounds far fetched but remember the Tory administration has already nationalised, er, wages.

It’s important to get PPE and cleaning chemicals to hospitals and care homes. But it’s entirely reasonable to state that health is about more than just lack of physical illness. A week away and a haircut would undoubtedly improve the population’s wellbeing. Can sanitiser and masks be funnelled to hotels and hairdressers?

Human beings

Of course the thing that would improve the nation’s outlook more than anything is the opportunity to see loved ones and hang out with other human beings.

That’s why that grandma fed her family illegal roast potatoes. 

That’s why Robert Jenrick popped round to his parents. And so did Dominic Cummings. And scientist of doom Neil Ferguson had his girlfriend over. 

Broadly in business if you look after your employees the bottom line will take care of itself. So too if a nation cares for its citizens it’ll tick over economically.

Downing Street’s apparently established a mini committee to ‘save summer’. The one thing that’d save 2020 for most of us is the opportunity to see those we love beyond our own four walls. 

Give almost anyone the choice between a new pair of shoes and their grandson they’ll pick the latter. Same goes for a choice between a pint of Guiness in their local versus a cup of tea at their friends house.  


At risk of sounding a bit easy listening – what the world needs now is love. The government that clocks that and facilitates it will be rewarded. (As ever, see Jacinda Ardern’s popularity in New Zealand. It’s not just because she seems nice, it’s because she’s competent and in tune with her voters.)

But our current UK administration is a long way from that.

They vow to get the economy moving again when what we want is more basic than that – to be able to move closer to those we want to hug.

It adds to the impression that this is an administration focused on public opinion yet out of kilter with its electorate. The politicians seem beholden to behavioural insights yet blind to actual behaviour.

They love three word slogans yet remain oblivious to the alliterative triple whammy that’d improve the nation’s morale and quality of life – haircuts, holidays, hugs.

The battle for a better future

Furloughed, bogged down in home schooling and mainly focussing on putting one foot in front of the other at the moment it’s hard to get motivated for much beyond the day to day.

But there’s a battle coming. Anyone, like me, who believes in gender equality and yearns for a better world of work is going to have to get busy.

A couple of things started me thinking about this battle of ideas.

Last week’s New Statesman found its way into my house. It’s full of good and interesting writing as ever (apart from that drunk man at the back). But it gave off a little too rosy a glow. The editorial claims that the current pandemic has “demonstrated some of our best qualities: kindness, altruism, community and resourcefulness.” Maybe I’m just having one of the bad days that inevitably occurs during this experience but that doesn’t ring true.

I see too little kindness in the daily Downing Street press conferences. I see a revolving cast of men peddling optimism and statistics and giving off the stench of the sort of toxic masculinity that dictates that to not know is to fail. What is called for is honesty and empathy. That’s leadership. (Jacinda Ardern being the preeminent practitioner of that brand of leadership at the moment).

There’s plenty of altruism knocking about. People directing money at an old man walking round his garden was a spectacle as brilliant as it was bizarre. But I wonder to what extent Colonel Tom became a focus for our charity because he was tangible and an individual. Does the sort of altruism demonstrated in response to his excellent act run counter to a sense of community?

Stuck inside and making lunch for my home school pupils I’ve been listening to Jeremy Vine. Maybe not a good idea. I’ve tried to avoid it since a caller claimed badgers were eating his sheep. I sometimes wonder just what you’d have to say to get cut off from the nation’s most listened to new show. If I phoned in and claimed a tulip bit my toe would that do the job?

Earlier this week his topic of choice was re-opening schools. Caller after caller stated they wouldn’t send their children back because it was too risky. None of them was an epidemiologist or expert of any sort as far as I could ascertain. No-one spoke of what their children want. (Mine are desperate to get back in the classroom, see their friends and pick up a routine – all things all kids need.) And the question of inequality didn’t arise. Our community suffers the longer schools stay shut. A few weeks off won’t make much difference, but the research shows that while middle class kids are frazzling their parents with the demands of homeschooling and further up the scale private school pupils are enjoying a Rolls Royce service the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children lag behind. The inequality that already exists is being entrenched and stretched. The longer schools are shut the more hard baked that inequality becomes. Children falling behind now may never recover what they’ve lost. That’s bad for them and consequently for the community we are all a part of. Of course I would never knowingly put my children in danger and schools must open carefully and with due regard to public health. But I’m equally aware that I have a duty to try to be a part of a fair society.

Polling suggest the public back the lockdown overwhelmingly. I haven’t seen any that asks why people support it. (That’s not to say that polling is not out there of course). To what extent do people back the national quarantine in order to save others and to what extent because they want to save themselves? I hope the answer is the former. But I couldn’t say so with any certainty.

And it’s those questions that concern me going forward.

There’s a suggestion the government will make the right to work from home a law. Why? If the coronavirus experiment with home working has been a success business will embrace it. For business exists for one reason only – to make money. Could it be that with the economy tanking workers will find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous employers in the name of getting or keeping a job? Where demand for work outstrips supply bosses can dictate terms.

This sort of stuff is going to be the battleground.

I’ve written a whole book about why it makes sense economically and socially to overhaul fathers’ experience of work. Last year the government caught up and conducted consultations into increasing paternity leave and reimagining the world of work. Wither those findings? 

They matter because such steps aren’t just good for dads, most importantly they make life better for women too by facilitating further gender equality.

We know government and industry will find it easy to point to a grim economic, social and health picture and say they’ve no time for fripperies. 

We know because they already have. The government suspended gender pay gap reporting this year. We must not let them quietly forget to bring it back. The reasoning this year was that it was an extra burden on business struggling with the Covid maelstrom. Life isn’t going to be any easier for companies in the depths of economic depression next year. But gender equality isn’t an optional extra or a ‘nice to have’, it’s lived experience for men and women every day and it doesn’t improve on its own.

Those of use who want change are going to have to demand it, make the case for it. To that end surveys and research like that undertaken by Jasmine Kelland and Nadia Nagamootoo will prove invaluable in underpinning our arguments.

I intend to be out there writing, talking, campaigning for paternity leave and rights at work, gender equality and feminism. I hope others will join me.


The agency of grannies

Well, one good thing about Boris Johnson’s botched unlock announcement is that he’s brought granddad back into the conversation.

Government instructions that folk can only meet one-on-one have brought forth a slew of questions about meeting your folks.

Surprisingly, Philip Schofield, pitching for a new role as a pound shop Piers Morgan, summed it all up when he quizzed Matt Hancock on his mid-morning matters show. “That’s utterly bonkers!” he squeaked as the health secretary explained that it was OK to meet his mum in the park, walk round the block, and then meet his dad in the same spot a few minutes later.

The advice is undoubtedly a bit odd.

But it’s brought dad and grandad back into the equation where previously grannies ruled.

Since lockdown began there’s been far too much media coverage focused on lonely grannies and children that want to see their nan. Wither grandad?

Of course demographics show that there is more single grandmas left as their husbands are killed off by stupid male behaviours like smoking and stoicism. 

But commentary that talks exclusively of grannies and nans as a shorthand for old people denies men feelings. Grandads miss their children and grandchildren too. Old men get lonely. To deny these things is to peddle the sort of toxic masculinity that excludes men from family life and feeds poor male mental health.

Only one grandad has cut through – Colonel Tom the old boy who raised millions for the NHS by walking round and round his garden. Coverage of his impressive feat has focussed on his bravery and heroism. But his act was driven by charity and care. He has family who were rightly proud of him, I don’t recall talk of his love for them. 

It should come as no surprise that coronavirus coverage is once again relying on and repeating tired tropes around men and women.

Women are passive, victims of circumstance, driven by emotion, responsible for caring and fairly pathetic lonely creatures.

Men must be active. Should age and frailty rob them of that characteristic they are invisible. They can’t cross the stream and be caring or lonely. Except of course plenty are, and feeling that somehow they are betraying their masculinity by admitting it is what keeps many from seeking solutions. (See the Jo Cox Foundation’s Loneliness commission for more on this. I wrote about visiting a male loneliness project here.)

You can see this most clearly in coverage of our most recent Prime Ministers. The Sunday Times in particular seemed to have an obsession with whether and when Theresa May cried – when she lost the election perhaps, as she left Downing Street, upon hearing a sad story about puppy? Has anyone asked if Boris Johnson cried as he apparently faced death at the hands of coronavirus last month? Or at the birth of his latest offspring?

The reason much of the media trades in these tropes is because the people writing the stories and the headlines are too often men. 

Again Covid-19 has exposed this fact. Tally up how many of the reporters asking questions at the daily Downing Street press conference are male and how many female. There’s a clear bias which is probably only surpassed by the imbalance among those taking the podium. Science, politics, journalism. These are all jobs overwhelmingly for men apparently even in the 21st century. It’s certainly not the case that men have some innate talent for asking questions. When the PM faced the public it was Pooja from Solihull who skewered him most effectively. His response – effectively telling the pharmacist that everyone else understands the new lockdown rules and implying that if she doesn’t she must be a bit thick – is one all too familiar to women who speak up from the dinner table to board room.

One solution would be to get more older women into our newsrooms, bringing their perspective and experience. 

Diverse workplaces are successful workplaces. Diverse voices have a wider reach.

Far too many ageing male commentators are given space to spout no matter how daft their views become. Older women are represented by Yasmin Alibhai-brown. OK.

So media and policy treatment of older people, male and female, matters because it perpetuates stereotypes denying women agency and denying men emotions. That harms us all.