Work and family, European style

I’m surprised that the blogs I read haven’t lit up yet with discussion of the Newsweek International Edition cover story on how the generous European family benefits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  The headline is "Stuck in Place: The Myth of Women’s Equality in Europe" over a photo of a woman’s legs with skirt, high heels and ankle chains.

The article makes a reasonably strong case (heavily drawing on this OECD report) that the generous paid leaves that American women drool over come at a cost to women’s professional accomplishments.  As in the United States, women who take several years off of work find it hard to get back on to the fast track.  Many wind up returning to work on a part-time basis, in jobs that are less prestigious and pay less per hour than full-time work.   (As Jennifer pointed out in her comment on my post about part-time work, national health insurance doesn’t make the problems with part-time work go away.)  And employers blatently discriminate against women of childbearing age — even those who plan to return to work quickly, or not to have children — for fear of having to carry them during extended leaves.

The Newsweek article includes a recommendation that European countries should shorten paid maternity leaves to 6 months to a year.  I’m not entirely convinced this would change things dramatically, but even if it would, it raises some interesting distributional issues.  All women, not even all mothers, don’t have monolithic interests; what’s best for some isn’t what’s best for others.  It it reasonable to ask women who don’t have any ambition to have a "career" rather than a "job" to give up some of their benefits in order to improve things for the elite who do? 

I’m more intrigued by some of the proposals that would make a portion of the parental leave only available to fathers.   I do think that even short periods of full-time childcare both dramatically increase dads’ confidence in their parenting skills, and give them a better appreciation for the work that’s involved.  And they might even the professional playing field a little bit.

16 Responses to “Work and family, European style”

  1. Beanie Baby Says:

    That people haven’t been writing about it might be because they can’t read it–I’ve tried a few times now and I can’t get anything past the first page to load. Frustrating.
    Assuming I can, I might have something to say about it–my gut reaction to what you’ve posted is that it still comes down to the myth of the Ideal Worker being an honourary male, and giving in to corporations by slashing benefits to working mothers is the wrong approach to take.

  2. Danigirl Says:

    I can’t click through either, but I’ll keep trying. Without reading the source document, I can comment a bit about extended maternity leaves – I’ve had two years off with full pay, as my (Canadian) government position tops up the 55%Employment Insurance rate to 93% of my salary – which actually results in a higher weekly take-home because many of the usual deductions are suspended.
    Personally, I haven’t come across anyone who has seen the year off as an impediment to career progress. I do sympathize with employers who are finding it increasingly difficult to back-fill positions for an entire year but only a year, especially in small-to-medium sized companies. And of course, not everyone benefits from the Canadian plan – if you have an ownership interest in a company, or are self-employed, you don’t pay into the Employment Insurance plan so you don’t qualify for benefits.
    There are 35 weeks of paternity benefits available, also at 55%, and also potentially topped up by employers. It’s not a perfect system, but it seems to work pretty well.
    I’m not sure I understand your question, “Is it reasonable to ask women who don’t have any ambition to have a “career” rather than a “job” to give up some of their benefits in order to improve things for the elite who do?” I would count myself in the ‘job’ category because even though I’ve risen fairly high in the ranks, it was more by luck and happenstance than by design. I don’t see how one group supports the other.

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    I don’t know why you can’t get through — I’m reaching it fine.
    The Newsweek article concludes that the European system is great for women if they just want “a job” but not if they want “a career” or “to reach the highest rungs of power” and recommends changes to maternity leave policies. But it seems that those changes *might* benefit a small minority of elite women, and would hurt a bunch of others.
    Does that make my question more clear?

  4. landismom Says:

    I guess my response is along the lines of this: if the problem of women’s advancement in Europe is a multi-faceted one (they list lack of access to childcare, half-day kindergarten, etc.), then why try to solve that problem by taking away benefits? Is halving the paid maternity leave going to increase childcare slots? or create full-day kindergarten programs If not, then what’s the point?
    I was able to click through the whole article, fwiw.

  5. Jody Says:

    Ah, yes, the solution to the gross-order problem — women who take the offered maternity leave suffer career setbacks — is to reduce maternity leave. Yes, that solves the problem entirely.
    Historically speaking, the advanced industrial economy isn’t that old — a couple of centuries at most. The service economy is practically in its infancy. The idea that we have to accept certain standards about what makes for a career-building work history as inviolable strikes me as absurd. How many of these jobs absolutely require total commmitment at the expense of a personal life (the 60-hour workweek, etc), and how many of them are going in that direction because of exogenous factors on which we could and should go to work? We’re not actually required to order society on the basis of what a childfree worker who is happy to devote his or her entire life to the workplace chooses to do.
    But never mind the 60-hour workweek, which hasn’t been enshrined in natural law as the ideal for anyone, whether male or female, parent or not. WHY can’t a 40-year old returning to the work force embark upon a 20-year career with the same opportunities and expectations as a 22-year old? Does anyone really expect the 22-year old to pay back whatever company investment is being made through a 40-year commitment? Of course not. For the vast, vast percentage of the workforce, there’s simply no reason why time off should hurt someone willing to start at the beginning, or resume where he or she left off. And yet, women who’ve taken some chunk of maternity leave are treated as if, because they haven’t advanced with their peer group, they’ll never have careers at all. This is absurd, not least because at the level of career-talk, most people are starting over at least once these days.
    To some extent, we’re back in the realm of devaluing the parenting skill-set. That admittedly somewhat condescending and/or Erma-Bombeck funny litany of skills that at-home parents do acquire, and that prove they haven’t “stood still” for whatever period of time they’ve been out of the workforce. (Even academics can get caught up on the literature, or get back up to speed in the lab. Is a woman with scientific training who’s been on the sidelines for 4 years really less capable of picking up the next techniques than a brand-new grad student? I doubt it. And yet the bias in favor of the graduate student is real.)
    The other issue at play is that taking care of children and a household isn’t a part-time job even once the kids are in school. Even with good after-school care, there are repair people to coordinate and school/community volunteers needed and errands to run and basic necessities to secure. One of the reasons why women (and men) might be returning to jobs instead of careers and part-time instead of full-time work is because they’re discovering that the nuclear household still requires some significant chunk of time to maintain itself, and it’s just not that easy to do it when both parents work. There’s a huge burden of stress that accumulates in two-income families, and under certain conditions, having one parent sacrifice career for home looks like a decent trade-off. It certainly appears to increase overall household happiness. In other words, given a choice (a choice that not all people have), people will discount their future problems (lower retirement savings, greater economic dependency on a potentially gone spouse, long-term frustration with the repetitive nature of household maintenance) because the current costs to full-time career-pursuing work are so high. Childcare is only one of many services that an at-home spouse provides.
    I haven’t read the article yet. Does it mention the fact that German and Italian women, when faced with the choice between careers and children, are choosing careers? That the birthrate as fallen so far and so fast because women in the aggregate are realizing that they can’t have it all, and that they want work more? To some extent, the situation in the USA starts to look stereotypically American: we continue to behave in ways that imply we can and will have it all. Our pursuit of both multiple children and a career looks like typical American greediness, pie-in-the-sky optimism about what’s possible. European women seem to be demonstrating that stereotypical European pragmatism, even cynicism.
    Then again, for all that maternity benefits in Europe are better than in the USA, I’ve always had the impression that American career women faced far fewer informal prejudices than European women when taken in aggregate. I couldn’t explain quite why, however. Except that in the realm of academia, as much as it sucks to be a woman in the USA, I have the distinct impression that it sucks much, much worse in Europe, the UK and the continent alike.

  6. Jody Says:

    Okay, now I’ve read the article, and I’m incredibly disturbed by the editorial POV. European women face gender discrimination during hiring, gender discrimination during employment, and the vaunted childcare programs are inadequate. There are tax incentives for families to rely on a single income. All of these problems can and should be redressed through direct action directed toward the problems. So HOW, for the love of all that’s holy HOW, does limiting maternity leave help women workers? Reduce their benefits so they have more reason to fight for better wages? Yeah, I guess that works. Or it just makes people have even fewer kids than they’re having already. The problem with indirect incentives is that you never know how people are going to respond to them.
    Why not just outlaw employment discrimination and make it harder for employers to ask those questions about pregnancy and maternity leave? Why not just improve childcare so that it does what it’s supposed to — provide care while parents are at work? Why not just increase flextime and increase parttime wages? If you can mandate sex equality on Corporate Boards (because _that_ will solve the problem, ha), you can certainly mandate increases in the part-time wage.
    I especially love how the US’s lack of a safety net for parents becomes the reason for its better corporate environment for women. It’s not feminism, it’s the _failures_ of feminism, that explain the better status of women workers in the USA. Riiiiight.
    And I’m just tickled that the reason why European nations should take seriously this problem of women in the workplace is so that they don’t have to rely on the dread immigrant laborer. Let’s solve our immigration problems by eliminating the need for immigrants in the first place. Very nice. Why not just chant Kinder Kirche Kuche repeatedly and be done with it?

  7. Monisha Pasupathi Says:

    delurking to comment: i spent a 3-year post-doc in germany and am married to a german man; I returned to the U.S. for academic positions in part because of the types of issues mentioned in the article. many of our friends with PhD’s left germany for canada or the u.s. for those same reasons. of course, we are all phd’s, so not especially representative. however, my sister-in-law, who just had a second child, and has a bachelor’s level education, is home for her long maternity leave. my brother-in-law reports that she has looked into heading back and there simply isn’t any good opportunity. moreover, there was blatant discrimination against women in academia and in staff positions, largely b/c of the likelihood that they would leave for child-bearing/rearing and have to have their positions ‘held’ open during that period. while officially i get only the 6-week federally mandated leave (Utah is not an exceptional state for “women’s” issues, despite its family friendly rhetoric), the flexibility of academia and the fact that many of my senior female colleagues have children, and many male colleagues spend alot of time being dads, make my particular institution a great place for work-family balance. so there is, i think, something to the idea of a culture in which people work and parent – and the very policies that make europe look so attractive continue to make it look like doing both things is just not possible.
    not that we couldn’t do alot more here to make it more sane to do both – and allowing males to be involved to the greatest extent possible. My husband had to do alot of babycare with our first child, 4 years ago, in part due to his own feminist ethos, and due to our career imbalance (i’m tenured, he’s tenure-track). certainly not due to his love of small children. but while i did not feel odd bringing our son to my office, faculty meetings, etc, he certainly felt weird carrying the car seat into meetings with corporate types – that despite having a baby who slept through all such events.

  8. Maggie Says:

    I love Monisha’s phrasing “a culture in which people [both] work and parent”. I think that’s precisely what’s lacking in many workplaces, the simple recognition of, respect for, and tolerance of dual roles.

  9. Jennifer Says:

    I agree with Jody – just because generous benefits for mothers exist at the same time as poor outcomes for professional women doesn’t necessarily mean one caused the other.
    I haven’t worked in continental Europe, but I have worked in the UK, and it is a much more sexist place, professionally, than Australia, and I’m told that the US is better than Australia. The sexism doesn’t really come from the fear of women becoming mothers and hence costing the company money. It’s just good old-fashioned sexism.
    Here in Australia we have compulsory unpaid 12 maternity leave, and many private sector companies have started to offer paid maternity leave (generally 2-3 months) in an effort to keep the women they have trained at great expense. I would have said better maternity leave has reduced, rather than increased, discrimination against women.

  10. jen Says:

    I second many of the comments I’m hearing here: as an American woman I have often worked with Europeans, and am startled by the levels of sexism. (Has anyone ever had their ass grabbed by a fellow American at a business meeting? I bet not. But don’t make any such assumptions when working with Europeans or South Africans.) I have to remind myself that there simply is no Bill of Rights in other countries: discrimination is not necessarily illegal.
    OTOH, for women who do want to step out of the workplace returning to Europe may be a good option. A couple of years back a Swedish-born Web consultant I worked with moved herself and her American husband back to Sweden so she could start a family and stay home.

  11. Becky Says:

    What do you think about Norway’s new quota?
    “Female directors must make up at least 40 percent of all new shareholder-owned companies’ boards of directors from January 1. Existing stock companies will have two years to conform to the new quotas.”
    European authorities apparently don’t like it:

  12. Jody Says:

    This provision re: Corporate Boards seems like putting the cart before the horse to me. If Scandinavian women are removing their wedding rings to avoid hiring discrimination (because employers don’t want to carry women on maternity leave), then why not start by outlawing that behavior via sanctions that have teeth? Let women sue potential employers for sex or maternity discrimination, and scare companies into stopping that behavior.
    The idea that you can just solve women’s employment problems by putting more women on corporate boards seems to me to lead us back into the Linda Hirschman debate. Women are not a monolithic class, and the women with status enough to get board appointments (presumably multiple appointments, too, if the percentage of women in upper-level management in Scandinavia is as low as Newsweek reported) are not automatically going to have the same interests as other women vis-a-vis parenting, employment, or anythign else.
    The weird ways in which Europeans mandate external change while holding onto all sorts of anachronistic informal behaviors and opinions — especially with regards to women and employment — are endlessly intriguing to me. I’m glad I didn’t have to contemplate a career in Europe.

  13. Decomposition Says:

    Not This Again

    Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Weekly Mom-Against-Mom Round-Up, International. This week, an oldie but a goodie: is it better for women to live somewhere sexist and family-friendly or nominally feminist and family-hostile? To find out, let’s pit …

  14. Becky Says:

    I thought it was interesting that Norway moved the gender quota into business. It started in government with Gro Harlem Brundtland as prime minister in the ’80s and ’90s. She had the highest number of female ministers than ever before in Norway or the rest of the world. (And I believe she instituted the 40 percent quota within government.)
    I remember her response to a reporter’s question if Norwegian women wanted to take over the world. “No,” she said. “We just want to hold up our half of it.”
    I think she felt that you could pass all the laws and rules you want, but unless you have women writing and enforcing them (as well as men), you run into the same walls.
    This is not to say that Norway is perfect or a utopia for women. But Brudtland’s story is an inspiring one. If anyone is interested, I highly recommend “Madam Prime Minister, A Life in Power and Politics.”

  15. Becky Says:

    Along the lines of having women writing and enforcing rules … it’s also true that, unless you get men more involved at home and with childcare, that all stays in the women’s realm.
    I think Sweden is even more agressive as far as time required (not allowed — it’s required) for paternity leave. But Norway is just as strict with requiring paternity leave. A portion of the leave is required to be taken by the father. If not, both parents lose some of their benefits. This has greatly increased the use of paternity leave by Swedish and Norwegian fathers (and their involvement in the home and with childcare). And they are more likely to work part time and/or work flexible schedules, especially when their children are young.

  16. Rebel Dad Says:

    Is the European System Screwed Up?

    I spend a lot of time here pining for European-style policy changes in this country — stuff like paid parental leave and better daycare and the link. So I took special notice when Newsweek’s international edition ran a cover story on how European moms…

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