Women’s experiences differ drastically around the world based on the policies and practices that are in place to support professionals who also serve as caregivers.
By Christine Coolick, SWE Contributor
In the United States, the White House recently held its first Maternal Health Day of Action, with Vice President Kamala Harris stating the nation is “in a maternal health crisis.” The child care situation in the U.S. has also been dubbed a national crisis. The country is the only wealthy nation that does not guarantee any paid parental or caregiving leaves, and invests at some of the lowest levels in child care. These caregiving challenges are left, instead, to individuals and families to sort out.
Not surprisingly, the burdens of caregiving tend to hit women harder, making their efforts to pursue their careers while also providing care for others all the more challenging. Those challenges have become more acute during the pandemic.
According to 2015 Pew Research Center data, women in the U.S. are more likely than men to adjust their personal schedules and make compromises when the caregiving needs for their children or other family members intersect with the needs of work. And, when a caregiver must reduce their hours at work or leaves their job altogether, most of the time it is a woman who does so, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The concept that women should spend more time providing care for others is a deep-seated societal notion in the U.S., and it bears out in the statistics. According to an Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Oxfam America analysis of the 2018 American Time Use Survey, women spend two more hours daily than men on household and care work.
“Yet, [my graduate advisor] was the one saying to me she wasn’t sure if I could finish my studies now; she wasn’t sure if I could come back and focus.”
– Hamideh Ahmadloo, Ph.D., strategic sourcing manager, Dow
A 2018 investigation by The New York Times found that in the U.S., “many of the country’s largest and most prestigious companies still systematically sideline pregnant women. They pass them over for promotions and raises. They fire them when they complain.”
A perception exists that pregnant women and mothers won’t be as dedicated to their jobs, work as hard, or perform as well. This belief affects women’s career aspirations — and paychecks. A 2014 analysis by the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that for each child a woman has, her wages are reduced by 4%. Men, on the other hand, find their earnings increase by 6% when they become parents.
Hamideh Ahmadloo, Ph.D., understands the challenges that having children can create for a woman’s career. For the past seven years, she’s worked in technical roles at Dow Chemical in Switzerland and now serves as a strategic sourcing manager. But a decade ago, she was planning her first child while in the last year of her Ph.D. studies in chemical engineering at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. She thought having her first child while finishing her studies would be better than when she was interviewing for jobs or in her first year of employment.
Her thesis advisor was a mother with children, so she thought she would be supportive and understanding.
“Yet, she was the one saying to me she wasn’t sure if I could finish my studies now; she wasn’t sure if I could come back and focus,” said Dr. Ahmadloo. The lack of support was very difficult — and unexpected. Their relationship remained strained after that.
The experience was so negative that, five years later, while working at Dow, Dr. Ahmadloo was so worried about telling her supervisor that she was pregnant with her second son that she spent time researching the best way to share this news with a boss. Fortunately, her manager was supportive and understanding.
Yet Dr. Ahmadloo knows many women continue to encounter the same isolation and concern that she did with her first child. She recently had a conversation with a friend worried over whether she should have a baby at this point in her career because her contract work was up for renewal, and she feared her manager wouldn’t renew her contract if she was pregnant.
Becoming pregnant, having children, taking care of aging parents, “this is the life cycle,” said Dr. Ahmadloo. “This is a natural thing, and we can support it and still business can go well.”
Anthea Udu received support from her sister, who met her at work and watched her daughter in a space set aside by her employer for child care. That made it easy for her to continue to breastfeed her daughter and feel connected to her throughout the day.
Paid leave for caregiving
When Dr. Ahmadloo had both of her children in Switzerland, she received 16 weeks of paid maternity leave — both times feeling it wasn’t enough, especially when just across the border in Germany, she knew new mothers were given one year of paid leave, with an opportunity to extend it for another six months.
At the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. is striking in that it is the only high-income country that doesn’t require employers to provide paid leave time for caregiving. This could be the reason almost 30% of working women in the country quit their employment when they have a child, a 2019 working paper from American University found.
In Nigeria, maternity leave is four months, paid at half the salary, but is required to begin one month before the woman’s due date, so on average women are at home with their newborns for three months.
Anthea Udu, an irrigation and water engineer with the Nigerian government, gave birth to her daughter in October 2019 and returned to work full time when her leave was up. In Nigeria, it’s customary for women to bring their babies to work with them when their leaves end, so even though the transition was hard, Udu found comfort in having her daughter nearby.
She also received support from her sister, who met her at work and watched her daughter in a space set aside by her employer for child care. This made it easy for her to continue to breastfeed her daughter and feel connected to her throughout the day.
Still, Udu thinks more time at home on maternity leave would be incredibly helpful, and she is part of a group actively petitioning the government to extend maternity leave to six months.
In India, the government recently updated the law to six months of paid maternity leave. When Charulatha Varadarajan had her twins in 2013, she was eligible for three months of paid leave. Her employer, Texas Instruments, had already been incredibly supportive of her journey to motherhood. She had gone through months of fertility treatment, and then a round of in vitro fertilization, to become pregnant. That process entailed appointments that required her to leave work for more than an hour each day. Her manager was completely supportive of her need for work flexibly.
When she was about five months pregnant, it was another female manager — not her own — who pulled Varadarajan aside and asked about her plans for maternity leave and helped her coordinate a six-month leave by incorporating her sick and vacation time.
“Everyone understands that I’m a responsible adult, and it is understood that people will have times when they need to step away from work.”
– Charulatha Varadarajan, software engineering manager, Intel India
Near the end of her pregnancy, Varadarajan was put on bed rest, and her twins were born two months prematurely. They spent a month and a half in the neonatal intensive care unit and required follow-up care afterward. When her leave was up, Varadarajan didn’t feel ready to return to work. She reached out to the same female manager, who helped her extend her leave — though unpaid — for another six months.
Across Europe new parents receive, on average, 14 months of paid leave. Romania and Estonia offer the longest leaves for mothers with 92 weeks and 84 weeks, respectively, at full pay. In Mexico, it’s 12 weeks.
There seems to be a sweet spot. “Most economists who’ve looked at it would say that there’s an optimal length of parental leave that is somewhere between nine and 12 months,” said Jane Waldfogel, Ph.D., Compton Foundation Centennial Professor for the Prevention of Children’s and Youth Problems at the Columbia University School of Social Work. “And that’s optimal in terms of child development and child health, but also in terms of being able to reintegrate into the labor market and into your old job.”
The countries that have longer leaves and extensions face unintended consequences for women’s position in the labor market, especially if a parent stacks multiple leaves back-to-back due to having a second child. It’s hard for employers to hold a job for that length of time, so women often come back to a different job, and it can take up to 10 years to catch up to where they were.
For parents who return after nine to 12 months, however, Dr. Waldfogel says, “it’s as if you never left in terms of looking at wage trajectories, earnings, and career progression.”
Varadarajan was ready to return to work after her one-year maternity leave and, as a mother of young children, felt supported by her employer. “It was an excellent place to work as a parent,” she said.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after her return that her division was closed, and Texas Instruments gave her six months to find a new job. Though many of her co-workers found new positions quickly, Varadarajan was determined to find a job at Intel India, because as a now-single parent, she needed an employer that would understand her needs regarding her family, and Intel had a reputation for being very supportive of parents.
She took her time waiting for the right position at Intel, and was hired as a Chrome engineer, where she found the supportive culture she was looking for.
The company has a variety of committees to help support individuals in different stages of life, including a women’s committee and a parenthood program. Its H2O program — Home to Office — is a support network for individuals transitioning back to work after several years away.
“It could be for any reason, whether it was a long maternity leave, or you took a break, it doesn’t matter.” Varadarajan’s own team has two individuals who used the H2O program to support their transitions back to work.
“My manager and co-workers were extremely understanding and supportive. Even if there was an urgent issue, they would try to sort it out and avoid contacting me during my time off.”
– Hwee Yee, master technologist, HP Singapore
The need for more child care
The greatest need at the end of a parental leave is to coordinate child care. Unfortunately, the end of paid leave does not typically coincide with the start of access to federally provided or subsidized child care — leaving working families with young children across the globe to find their own solutions.
“Almost every country in the world, regardless of income level, or region, is not doing enough on child care,” said Amanda Devercelli, global lead for early childhood development for the World Bank. “There are very few countries that are investing in child care with the kind of comprehensive approach that families need to be sure they have choices about how they care for their children or how to find others to care for their children.”
On average, rich countries contribute $14,000 per year for the care of a toddler, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Norway spends the most, at $29,726. Iceland, Finland, and Denmark are close behind. The United States spends just $500 annually.
All rich countries do provide free child care, but in many this doesn’t begin until 3 years of age or later, via public preschools and schools. Only Belgium, Denmark, Lithuania, Norway, and Slovenia offer free child care for children younger than 3. And, in many cases, this free care covers only part of the day, making it sufficient only for a parent who works part time.
Dr. Ahmadloo finds frustration with the academic calendar, which, she says, feels decidedly “not designed for working moms.” The 13 weeks of school time off in Switzerland are scattered throughout the year. Additional holidays, teacher-training days, and afternoons off make it a constant scramble to coordinate care. “This is one of the major challenges why many women in Switzerland cannot follow the profession they want.”
In Denmark, 2-year-olds are guaranteed a spot at a child care facility, and parents pay no more than 25% of the cost. If a parent chooses to stay at home instead, or hire a nanny, the government subsidizes that as well. And parents of toddlers receive an additional quarterly child benefit of $700.
In the U.S., 2-year-olds are less likely to attend a formal child care center and, if they do, parents compete for a spot that will cost them on average $1,100 a month. The U.S. government invests only about $200 a year on care for children 2 and younger — taking the form of a once-a-year tax credit for most families.
Yet, an investment in state-provided child care can make financial sense. Devercelli explains that in 1996, the province of Quebec, Canada, introduced an extensive child care program. Now, she says, “the money the government is spending on the child care program is being recouped in increased tax revenues due to increases in female labor force participation. So it’s not going to happen overnight, but in the medium- to longer-term, countries can recoup the investment they’re making in child care.”
“Most economists who’ve looked at it would say that there’s an optimal length of parental leave that is somewhere between nine and 12 months. And that’s optimal in terms of child development and child health, but also in terms of being able to reintegrate into the labor market and into your old job.”
– Jane Waldfogel, Ph.D., Compton Foundation Centennial Professor for the Prevention of Children’s and Youth Problems, Columbia University School of Social Work
Increase work flexibility
A third critical policy that directly impacts women’s abilities to both pursue their careers and provide needed care to loved ones is flexible work arrangements.
Throughout Europe, there is a right to request part-time work if you’re a parent. When Dr. Ahmadloo returned to work after her second son was born, she requested to work 80% of full time, but her request was denied. Her position was considered at a level that couldn’t be less than 100%. To cover the one extra day from home a week that she wanted, Dr. Ahmadloo resorted to utilizing vacation time, using one day per week until her son was 6 months old.
Hwee Yee, a master technologist with HP Singapore, also approached her employer about reducing her schedule to an 80% work arrangement. At the time, Yee had three young children, and her middle child, Lyn, 3, had recently been diagnosed with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. This severe form of epilepsy causes frequent and multiple types of seizures, which required many doctors’ appointments and treatments, including multiple hospitalizations and the need to withdraw from school for a year.
“Having to juggle parenting two other school-going kids and caregiving a sick child was physically and mentally exhausting,” said Yee.
Both she and her husband served as the main caregivers for their child. To balance their family’s needs with their careers, Yee requested the 80% arrangement, which her employer approved. She coordinated her schedule by not working two afternoons a week, freeing her for appointments and other needs.
It took several years, but fortunately her daughter became seizure-free. Still, the illness affected Lyn’s development and learning, so Yee maintained her 80% work arrangement until this year, when her daughter turned 18.
Yee said the flexible work schedule and support of her supervisor were important to managing the stress of it all and balancing the caregiving long term.
“My manager and co-workers were extremely understanding and supportive,” said Yee. “They would ensure they did not set up meetings with me during my afternoons off. Even if there was an urgent issue, they would try to sort it out and avoid contacting me during my time off.”
The arrangement helped Yee better manage her time and be more efficient at work. Despite the reduced working hours, she continued to take on lead roles on projects and progress in her career.
In Nigeria, a policy allows new mothers who work to reduce their hours, providing two hours off work daily to breastfeed, express breastmilk, or care for their babies. Many women schedule this time by leaving work two hours earlier, but this is harder for those in industries like Udu’s that are project-based. She relies on excellent time-management skills and being very conscientious of her schedule to ensure she hits project milestones and has time for her daughter and her home.
Varadarajan finds the flexibility her employer allows critical to her well-being. “If I need to, I can walk out at 4 p.m. and I don’t need to tell my manager,” she said. Or if school calls because one of her kids has fallen ill, she doesn’t think twice about heading out. Even on days when she feels overwhelmed and needs a reset, she can simply email her manager to say she’s logging off early.
“Everyone understands that I’m a responsible adult, and it is understood that people will have times when they need to step away from work,” she said.
This flexibility makes Varadarajan incredibly dedicated to Intel India, and she works hard there, receiving several promotions over the past seven years, and now serves as a software engineering manager.
Impacts from COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic not only created additional challenges for access to children’s education and care, but also for the well-being of many parents who suddenly had to juggle their full-time work requirements along with full-time caregiving. As schools and child care centers went on lockdown worldwide, and informal arrangements like dropping children at in-home care or with grandparents were reduced, parents were left with little to no support.
“The COVID pandemic exposed how incredibly fragile child care provisions are in most countries,” said Devercelli. “In the U.S., there were projections at some point that 50% of child care centers wouldn’t be able to reopen after the pandemic. In South Africa, surveys of providers showed something like 40% were concerned they wouldn’t be able to manage.”
And while the world’s wealthy countries flowed unprecedented amounts of funding to combat the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, only 2% was slated for child-specific social policies — with only a smaller subset of that earmarked for child care.
Unsurprisingly, much of the additional child care burden fell to women. In the U.S., women’s participation in the labor force hit a 33-year low in January 2021, with one-third of the women who left work citing child care issues as their reason.
The Society of Women Engineers conducted member surveys in June 2020 and again a year later regarding the effects of the pandemic on their personal and professional lives (https://swe.org/research/2021/covid-19-research/). Many respondents reported feeling high levels of dissatisfaction with work/family balance and reported an overall uneven balance of family responsibilities, including child care, educational support and adult care.
Echoing the sentiments of many, one respondent shared, “I had to help my elderly mother with groceries and her household as she doesn’t drive or see well enough to use the Internet well for help and she lives alone in an area where grocery delivery really didn’t work. She is 75 miles away, which ate into my personal time. … I was able to work remotely from her home and have had work that allowed me to flex time in order to meet all these competing situations, but it was and remains exhausting both mentally and physically.”
The silver lining for many is the potential of making flexible work arrangements a long-term solution — but other support policies aren’t following suit.
“While a number of employers implemented flextime and remote work options during COVID and may continue to offer these options,” said SWE’s Associate Director of Research Roberta M. Rincon, Ph.D., “benefits associated with child care and elder care are lacking, including subsidized child care, subsidized elder care, and additional paid family leave.”
This missed opportunity could be leveraged by employers as a way to recruit or retain working caregivers — while also providing much-needed support to individuals.