The other week I was dawdling into work, thinking of nothing in particular, when I became aware that two people walking behind me were having a spectacularly interesting conversation.
“I really want kids,” said one, in what sounded like a male voice.
“Same here,” said the second, also sounding a lot like a man.
“But the thing is,” said the first, “I’m not sure if she is that keen and I don’t want to be stuck home doing all the child-minding. I really like my job.”
I immediately stopped walking and started pretending to scrabble around in my bag so I could see who these people were.
Sure enough, it was a pair of young men. Utterly ordinary, probably in their late twenties, dressed for a day in the office. As they wandered past, I stared at them, dumbfounded. This was an unfamiliar species.
Obviously, I know a lot of younger men are more interested in parenting than their fathers.
I have seen research from Google claiming millennial fathers watch more parent-related videos on YouTube than mothers. And surveys showing young Britons are far more likely than baby boomers to think paid parental leave should be divided between a mother and father. Yet that snatch of conversation underlined how profoundly the workforce is changing — and how slowly politicians and business leaders are changing with it.
I was reminded of this again last week when the latest dismal batch of gender pay gap figures came out. Yet again the numbers showed that men earn more than women on average, often by a whopping margin. This time we also learnt the gap has widened at thousands of companies.
The difference persists for a lot of complicated reasons but much of it boils down to children: women still look after them more than men do and end up being paid less as a result.
The discrepancy takes off after women give birth and continues to rise so that by the time a child is 12 years old, the gap is around 33 per cent. Yet governments, and companies, still cling to maternity leave that encourages women to do more parenting.
The British government pays 26 times more to a mother on the average wage in the first year after a birth than a father, according to family researcher Duncan Fisher, one of a growing number of men calling for the scales to be balanced.
In the US, a former CNN correspondent named Josh Levs says men “cried on the phone” to him after he went public with a legal battle he launched in 2013 over the broadcaster’s policy of offering biological fathers fewer weeks of paid leave than mothers and any parents who adopted.
Men told “heartbreaking stories” of the pressure they felt to rush back to work and leave their wives at home with their children, Mr Levs wrote in last month’s Harvard Business Review.
Men are not just fed up in the US, the only country in the developed world that does not require companies to offer paid parental leave to either mothers or fathers.
In the UK next month, the Court of Appeal is due to consider the cases of two fathers, a police constable and a call centre worker, who both claim to have suffered discrimination after being offered less shared parental leave pay than female colleagues on maternity leave. I doubt they will be the last to take such action.
There is clearly pent-up demand from men to do more parenting. When Aviva, the British insurer, started offering men the same generous parental leave as women last year, nearly half the UK-based staff who took time off in the first 10 months of the scheme were men. Diageo, the drinks group, announced a similar policy last week, just days after O2, the mobile operator, boosted its paid paternity leave. But those companies are still a minority. This needs to change. More countries should follow Sweden, a pioneer of well-designed paternity leave policies, and home to some of the EU’s highest female employment levels.
According to the European Commission, the evidence shows that when a new father takes parental leave, mothers go back to work more easily, female employment is higher and the gender pay gap is lower. Something else should also be clear by now: a lot of men will be much happier.