An Economist article recently examined the state of equality at home and in the workplace at a global level. As a parent and a mother I've spent a lot of time thinking about and debating this issue with basically anyone who will listen. And while it's so painfully clear what is needed on this front - to make family life and careers more doable and equal for men and women alike - it's depressing and discouraging to see how slow progress is, especially in a socio-politically conservative place like Switzerland.
From my perspective there are a few things that need to happen for equality at home and at work to become even close to a reality (at the moment it's hardly within reach, except perhaps in Nordic countries like Sweden and Norway, but they also have their issues.)
- Truly shared parental leave that men also take in order to free up their partners to go back to work earlier. Parental leave should, in my view, be available for at least the first 15 months of a child's life, and be something that mothers and fathers can divide along a 50/50 or 60/40 model. Most countries now acknowledge the importance of giving mothers time off to care for infants, but fathers get almost nothing; again, except in Sweden and Norway. In Switzerland a petition has been submitted for vote to give fathers one month off. At the moment they get one day. Yes, you read that right: One day. (You get one day here to move as well.) Even in Finland where men are offered much more, they tend to take little, mostly for cultural reasons and because of workplace pressure. And why does this matter? Not only is parenting a truly shared experience, but placing the burden on women alone solidifies gender stereotypes around parenting both at home and in the workplace, and results in lost earnings and career opportunities for women. Not working for several years usually has very real consequences for lifetime earnings and puts women at a significant long-term disadvantage, particularly in terms of pension savings and earning power in case of divorce or the death of the family's breadwinner. The damage done to many careers that have 3-4 year long gaps in them are another matter women deal with disproportionately. This won't be detrimental to all careers - say, teaching, or if you're self-employed - but it is in most.
- Cheaper, high quality early childcare. In my experience part-time childcare starts being feasible developmentally and in terms of family dynamics around the 8-9 month mark. This depends on the child, of course, and the family's situation. The jury seems to be out in general on the impact of daycare on younger children, but overall, I've read more positive things than negative. Groups should be small, the quality of care high and children should feel connected and safe with the caretakers there. Some German studies have even shown that these close social connections to adults outside the nuclear family are key to a child's long-term mental health, particularly in a society where close and ever-present extended families are rare. And why is this so crucial? Quality childcare that doesn't break the bank frees women up to go back to work and ensures that the financial burden of raising a family continues to be shared. Perhaps some men enjoy being the sole breadwinners and as many men's careers pay better, financially this may make sense, but it's still an issue that deeply effects equality and needs to be addressed in order to give both women and men genuine options. Childcare options are getting better and better in most countries, but the costs are still often prohibitive. In Switzerland the cost of one child's full-time daycare rivals that of rent, causing many families with two or more children to fall to the default "1950's model" that the Swiss social system is effectively based on: the mother, who usually earns less, stays at home.
- More flexible work arrangements. Most parents of young children would probably really appreciate the opportunity to work part-time, at least for a while. While in my own experience it's hard to grow and build a career at, say, 60%, an 80% job, while financially less rewarding, of course, gives a good balance of career and family and enables - albeit with the usually challenges - one to build on both. I'd also argue that the availability of 80% work would appeal to many, if not most, fathers, and be perfectly feasible as well. What is needed is an attitude change on the part of companies, as well as workers, who should recognize that most jobs - even ones with managerial responsibility - can in fact be handled at 80%. What this boils down to is a more flexible attitude to work overall, and the acknowledgement that a healthy and happy family life is an asset to employees as well as companies. For women there is an additional challenge here: While not available everywhere, part-time work when done at a really low level, say 40% (or 60% long-term), can also be problematic: it can lock women into low-level roles and lower lifetime earnings. This is a well known, if not often discussed, issue here in Switzerland, for example.
And I have to add: Staying at home with young kids is not a "wrong choice" - for mothers OR fathers - but we must acknowledge how a social system that encourages this model (or sets it up as default due to overwhelming financial or practical constraints) sets women up for a lifetime of lower earnings and poorer career prospects, and slows down the very slow march toward more gender equality and equal pay.