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Breaking Glass

Family-unfriendly policies driving moms from the workplace

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Running away to Europe is probably not the first thing on any new mother's mind.

But the continent certainly makes “having it all” a heck of a lot easier.

The New York Times recently published an article citing all sorts of research and statistics as to why women — namely, mothers — aren’t working in the U.S., but are in Europe.

Well, for one thing, the average 20-plus vacation days can’t hurt. 

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And for those with children, European countries often offer subsidized child care, generous parental leaves and taxation of individuals instead of families.

So it’s no wonder that, according to the article, Switzerland, France, and Germany — as well as Australia, Canada and Japan — now outrank the U.S. in prime-age women’s labor force participation.

“As recently as 1990, the U.S. had one of the top employment rates in the world for women, but it has now fallen behind many European countries,” the article stated.

“After climbing for six decades, the percentage of women in the American work force peaked in 1999, at 74 percent for women between 25 and 54. It has fallen since, to 69 percent today.” 

The article hypothesizes that this decline is largely due to the lack of family-friendly work policies available in U.S. workplaces.

“It’s tougher and tougher for women to make it worthwhile to work,” said Pamela Stone in the article, a sociologist at Hunter College.

“For low- and middle-income families, it literally isn’t worth going to work if the cost of child care exceeds what you’d bring in, and that calculus is exacerbated in an economic downturn.”

In Europe, however, a lot of focus is placed on mothers and how to help them adjust to both working and taking care of their families.

For example, Britain offers a year of maternity leave — much of it paid — in stark contrast to the standard 12 weeks offered in the U.S.

“I would have been okay putting a 1-year-old-baby in day care, but not a 12-week-old,” Kerry Devine, a 32-year-old U.S. mother, said in the article.

“More flexible hours and being able to work from home part of the time definitely would have made a big difference,” she said.

The article also references a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted last month in which 61 percent of nonworking women in the U.S. ages 25 to 54 said family responsibilities were a reason they weren’t working — compared with only 37 percent of men.

And, of those who identified as homemakers and have not looked for a job in the last year, nearly three-quarters said they’d consider going back to work if a job offered flexible hours or telecommuting.

That’s what the women said, at least — but it may also be their partners’ perceptions that are still holding them back from rejoining the workforce.

“A recent Harvard Business School study found that among its graduates in their 20s, men expected that their careers would be more important than their wives’ and that they would do less child care,” the article stated.

Interesting enough, women have ignored that. Whereas women are half as likely as men to be managers in Europe, women are just as likely in the U.S.

So, there’s one upside to being a working woman/mother in the U.S. — slightly better advancement opportunities.

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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@njbiz.com

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