What’s it like being a working mum outside the UK? We often hear about the forward-thinking policies of Scandinavia and Iceland, but what about elsewhere in Europe? Mandy Garner from Workingmums.co.uk told Parental Choice how Europe compares to the UK in terms of flexible working.
The picture for flexible working varies widely across Europe. In the Netherlands, for instance, Dutch parents – men and women – are encouraged to work part time. The UK also has one of the highest rates of part time workers in Europe, but most of these are women who continue to take on the lion’s share of childcare duties. This is changing slowly in different parts of Europe as shared parenting legislation has come in. But even in countries like Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands where there is already a sharing of parental leave and encouragement for dads to take it such as ‘use it or lose it’ legislation and financial incentives men often only take up leave that is specifically allocated to them and women do the majority of the childcare and housework, including, for instance, taking days off when children are sick. These policies are also accompanied by large subsidies for childcare – provided by highly qualified childcare workers – which has helped Sweden in particular to high rates of full-time maternal employment, even if they tend to be concentrated in more flexible, public sector jobs.
The picture in Europe suggests that shared parenting, when it comes in in the UK next year, will not be widely taken up without greater incentives for men to both take it and work more flexibly on a regular basis. This means it is likely women will continue to occupy the prime carer role and to take the career hit that often accompanies this. Meanwhile, in other parts of Europe the push for flexible working is still a hard upwards climb.
In the last few years, Workingmums.co.uk, which was set up in the UK in 2006, has heard from women in central and Eastern Europe who are trying to establish their own groups to make the case for flexible jobs and careers.
Joanna Gotfryd and Agnieszka Kaczanowska recently launched Mamo Pracuj [Mummy work – if you want]. The site includes articles about everything to do with working mums from finding a flexible job, work life balance and how to transform your hobby into a business to how to start up a new business.
Joanna and Agnieszka say that in Poland there are very few companies that offer flexible working hours and few that offer part-time jobs.
Joanna is a mum of two girls aged one and five and had 10 years’ experience in export sales and marketing for an international flooring company when she set up the site. After her second pregnancy she asked to go back part time, but was told there was no chance of that. She started to look for a new job and could only find full-time options which required a lot of business trips away from home and long hours. “There was no flexibility. I did not want to see my daughters only at weekends,” she says.
She spoke to Agnieszka. Her background is in working for NGOs as a web editor and manager specialising in labour market issues. Her work was based in Warsaw so when she moved to Krakow, she was allowed to work from home.
Agnieszka wanted to promote a similar flexible set-up for other women. She and Joanna felt that there must be other mums who were looking to balance work and family life. “That’s when the idea came for the website,” says Joanna. The two searched Polish websites – there was nothing that promoted flexible working.
Their top challenge has been to convince Polish employers of the business case for flexible working. Most flexible working was in international companies. They want to promote good practice and inspire employers and mothers and advertise flexible jobs on the site.
Jill Altenburger and Nanette Steiner say there are similar issues in Switzerland. They both worked full time in managerial positions before they had children. Nanette worked in product marketing and finance and Jill in sports marketing and events management.
Jill found it difficult to find a suitable part-time position with less travel once she had had her daughter. There is no legal right to request flexible working and employees have to rely on their employers’ goodwill.
She had a few interviews for new part-time positions, but they were all at a lower level than the qualifications and experience she had. In Switzerland paid maternity leave is just 14-16 weeks at 80% of full pay. Depending on the employer, women can take another three months on top of this unpaid, but have no legal guarantee that their job will be there for them when they return.
Childcare, says Jill, begins from three months and costs vary depending on the area where it is located (city or countryside) and whether it is subsidised or not. Private nurseries tend to be very expensive, particularly if you have more than one young child. Like in the UK, though, where Workingmums.co.uk’s annual survey consistently finds that lack of flexible working is the major barrier for working mums, the availability of good flexible jobs are the big issue in Switzerland.
“I wanted a job that progressed my career rather than taking me backwards,” she says. “I could not understand why I had to take a different job at a lesser level than I had done before just because I was a mother.”
Nanette, who has two children aged three and five, had similar problems. So the two women decided to set up an organisation – Jobsfürmama [Jobs for Mums] – which, like Workingmums.co.uk, advertises flexible challenging jobs which match women’s experience. At its inception it linked up with two German women seeking to establish a similar service in Germany.
Just as in Poland, Jill says the biggest challenge has been trying to get across to employers, in particular to SMEs, the benefits of flexible working and hiring mothers. “In Switzerland many people still think of mothers as being hugely stressed and often absent when their children are sick, although the statistics show the opposite is true. They are very efficient, organised people who can work well under pressure and in a team.”