News / Europe

Western European Women Look for Middle Ground Between Careers, Family

Part of an ongoing series about women and the challenges they face across the world.

Italy's Member of the European Parliament Licia Ronzulli takes part with her baby in a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg December 16, 2010
Italy's Member of the European Parliament Licia Ronzulli takes part with her baby in a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg December 16, 2010

Western Europe includes some of the most progressive democracies in terms of women’s rights, with Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden leading the World Economic Forum’s list of countries with the greatest equality between men and women. An egalitarian political culture and family-friendly policies have enabled Nordic and Scandinavian countries to reverse declining birthrates that continue to drop in other parts of Europe where women are faced with more stark choices between career and family needs.

One of the most telling signs of gender equality, according to Muriel Rouyer, Visiting Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, is how a country treats women and maternity. She says the European Union (EU) greatly reduces the consequences of childbearing because of its declared commitment to gender equality and its recognition that maternity should not impede participation in the labor market.

Western European gender data

"[It is] the duty of the community or society to pay for that because it is acknowledged that women create a kind of resource for the country and ... they should not be penalized by that," said Rouyer, who is on loan from the French University of Nantes.

Swedish expatriate Elisabet Baldwin, founder and owner of www.ebconnects.co.uk, a networking and business support company in Britain, says in an email interview that Swedish society expects parents to take leave and makes it possible for them to do so up to a year.

VOA Graphic: T.Benson


In Britain, where Baldwin says she was expected to be a “non-working stay-at-home mum,” child and home care fall mostly “on the woman’s shoulders,” which means many women have to go to “extreme lengths of ingenuity to organize practical workable childcare.”

In the case of Germany, Rouyer says mothers traditionally stop working for three years and keep their kids at home. Women who continue to work while raising children run into cultural stigmas.

“And it's very badly configured if you have a child and you go to work. There is even a word to designate those bad mothers ... Raven Mothers," [a reference to old legends claiming that the black bird pushes its chicks out of the nest] Rouyer explained. "So these parents have kids and try to work, and it's very difficult."

One month before becoming prime minister, Britain's Conservative Party leader David Cameron David Cameron (C) visits the Women Like Us agency in London, which supports mothers looking for flexible work and businesses seeking part-time staff, April 14, 201
One month before becoming prime minister, Britain's Conservative Party leader David Cameron David Cameron (C) visits the Women Like Us agency in London, which supports mothers looking for flexible work and businesses seeking part-time staff, April 14, 201

As a result, many women drop out of the workforce or work part-time. Many German women, for example, work less than 20 hours a week, while in the Netherlands, where Hegewisch says not working or working full-time while caring for children is unacceptable, Dutch women hold three out of four part-time jobs, the world's highest proportion, according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

The downside is that the longer women work part-time, the harder it becomes for them to find full-time jobs or build careers. Many, according to Arianne Hegewisch, Study Director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, are “trapped in the secondary labor market,” occupying marginal jobs and earning less than men, or doing the bulk of unpaid work.

"Especially in responsible jobs - managerial/professional - the expectation is that you can work long hours,” said Hegewisch. “But if you need to work 60 hours or more to advance in your career, then it is very hard to also raise children, especially if you are married to a man who has similar working hours."

Oyuki Matsumoto holds a GeekGirlMeetup session in Mexico in November, 2011
Oyuki Matsumoto holds a GeekGirlMeetup session in Mexico in November, 2011

Swedish entrepreneur Heidi Harman, who founded a female health running community at RunAlong.se and co-founded GeekGirlMeetup.com, a website for women interested in the Web and business development says her chances of making a decent career would have faltered had she or her boyfriend chosen to have kids at an early age. But she goes on to say in an email interview, “It’s a mindset. “If want a career and kids, you make things work. It's like that for both women and men in Sweden.”

It’s a different story in Italy, where Hegewisch says few women work and those who do take on full-time jobs. "And what has happened in Italy is that women have ... voted ... with their bellies, or whatever - they don't have children any more ... So birth rates in Italy are very low."

"In [the] 1980s and in 1970s, the countries with the highest fertility rates were the countries with the lowest female employment rates," said Willem Adema, Senior Economist with OECD's Social Policy Division in the Netherlands. "Nowadays, the countries with ... the highest female employment rate are also the countries with the highest fertility rates. So, what is happening is that those countries, which somehow managed to ... give a lot of parents the feeling that they can reconcile work and caretaking - that these countries have the highest fertility rates."

Adema says women in Spain and other countries where fertility rates are low "often have to make a choice between following a career and having children, whereas that choice ... in Scandinavian countries or in the Netherlands is far less stark."

Rouyer agrees. She points to France, Sweden and the Nordic countries as examples of countries with high fertility rates and high female participation in the labor force.

"Why?” Because there exist very good public policies to conciliate or balance ... work life and family life - meaning cheap daycare,” Rouyer said.

You can put your child in ecoles maternel, which are pre-school and it's free and it lasts from 8:30-4:30 ... so you can work all day and you don't have to pay anything for that except for the lunch at noon," Rouyer said.

Denmark's member of the European Parliament Hanne Dahl (R) takes part with her baby in a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg March 26, 2009
Denmark's member of the European Parliament Hanne Dahl (R) takes part with her baby in a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg March 26, 2009

U.K. blogger and feminist Emma Sheppard says in an email interview the biggest problem women with kids complain about is that childcare is expensive. “So unless you can find a job that’s really flexible, or have family members who can help, you have to choose between paying a lot of money for childcare [sometimes too much to make working practical], or having a single income, which assumes a two-parent family where one parent can afford to stay home,” said Sheppard.

Women have been pushing for remedies for some of these issues, both as political candidates and policymakers. “And you can see a clear link between having a high proportion of women in parliament or as ministers in local government, and getting the kind of laws and provisions that help women,” said Hegewisch.

Women in EU member states can appeal to the European court those cases overturned by courts in their own countries, although Sheppard says the EU should be more serious about enforcing its gender equality laws.

A pro-choice campaigner celebrates after the announcement of the
A pro-choice campaigner celebrates after the announcement of the "No" vote in Ireland's Abortion Referendum, Dublin, March 7, 2002

“Instead we get a lot of talk, but not a lot of action – and it’s up to the individual countries to choose whether or not they fall in line, and to what degree, and how they put it [i.e., gender equality laws] into action. Instead it’s up to individuals to take things up, to go to court and kick up a fuss,” said Sheppard.

It is also up to individual countries to tackle the factors that contribute to their declining birth rates. Recent figures from Germany, Europe's largest economy, show that the country has some of the lowest birthrates in the region, with a drop of nearly 7,000 live births between 2007 and 2010. Italy faces a similar decline. And unless these countries reverse the fertility curve, as France, Spain and others have done, their aging populations will have bigger problems to contend with in the long-term.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs