Working Moms: How the US Stacks Up Against Other Developing Countries

It’s been a while since we’ve talked about working moms and work-life “balance” and I was quite inspired by some interesting articles this week on this subject. I can’t help but wonder, as the new session of Congress gets underway, stacked with the most women in history, will we see a surge in legislation around issues like work-life balance?

One certainly hopes, yes….right?

Fantastic image of Senator Kristen Gillibrand at the mock swearing-in ceremony with her young son Henry and VP Biden. Photo Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

So first up, over in the New York Times, there was a letter to the editor about work-life balance in the US versus in Europe. The author notes that women in many European countries, like England and Germany, don’t opt-out of the work force at the same rate as women in America, in part, because these countries have enacted laws that prohibit employers from reasonably refusing an employee’s request for part-time or non-traditional working hours.

Okay, stop the presses.

Did you know this?

Cause I didn’t.

And I thought I made it a point to keep up with these types of issues.

I had



Not only must employers in these countries “seriously consider” these requests but they also must not discriminate against those who ask.

To think I used to get hung up on the endless weeks of maternity leave women in European countries are given – now this? A law protecting them and frankly, almost encouraging them, to seek out alternative work arrangements to help them balance a career and a family?


The author then goes on to explain this: “Legislation modeled after the modest British law and introduced six years ago by Representative Carolyn Maloney, with co-sponsorship by Senators Barack Obama, Edward M. Kennedy and Hillary Rodham Clinton, is stalled in Congress. By increasing access to part-time schedules, the Working Families Flexibility Act would end or diminish the practice of assigning less important work to part-time workers and lessen their career stigma. Full-time workers taking reduced schedules might create jobs for those unemployed.”

Well doesn’t that sound grand? Wouldn’t it be lovely to see the influx of women among the halls of Congress take up the Working Families Flexibility Act in 2013 and generate some more attention around this issue – this issue that is as important to working mothers as it is to working fathers?

The thing is, I had to know more. So I dug up this article from the British press and as it turns out, this law was passed in England in 2002.

You got that right people, 2002….not exactly recently.

Turns out, it was written to help those with young children, here’s a direct quote: “The changes, brought in last April under the Employment Act 2002, gave parents of children under the age of six (or disabled children under the age of 18) the right to have flexible working requests seriously considered.”

So our next question is, were these requests seriously considered or were they just brushed aside? How was this law received by employers?  Well, here you go:

“Trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt has released figures showing that 77 per cent of employees requesting flexible working were granted it by their employer. She said the new laws had been communicated effectively with 58 per cent of parents who qualify for the rights aware of the legislation….Since April 2003, the number of requests being declined by employers has halved – from 20 per cent to 11 per cent – with women more inclined to ask for greater flexibility.”

And the kicker….the same article notes that England fares poorly compared to neighboring European countries in terms of workplace flexibility arrangements.


Are we just the laughing-stock overseas?

And much like some earlier discussions we’ve had about how government mandates in Europe to require more women on corporate boards are what impacts change, not a company’s desire for diversity, it’s hard not to wonder the same here – will it take federal legislation to force a sea of change among our business culture — is that what is necessary to motivate employers to help working parents manage the demands of work and family life?

Meanwhile, over in the Washington Post, I stumbled across this piece that evaluated how the workforce rate of women in the US stagnated from 1990-2010 while it grew exponentially in many other developed countries, like, say Germany and France.

Surprise surprise:
“But on average, other countries have improved at a quicker rate than America. Spain and Italy, in particular, had massive 31.4-point and 17.7-point jumps, and Germany and France also saw double-digit increases in the rate of women’s participation in their workforces. The United States, however, gained only 1.2 points over the 20-year period.What’s the explanation? A new working paper from Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, two professors at Cornell University’s labor school,  considers how and why the United States lost so much ground. A major factor, the researchers found, is the divergence between the U.S. and other countries’ family leave and other work-life policies, a gap seen back in 1990 that has since widened considerably.”

Here are some other fun facts from the piece that I am inserting directly in case you are too lazy to click on over:

“In 1990, the United States offered no mandated parental leave time, compared with a non-U.S. average of 37.2 weeks. By 2010, the United States was offering 12 weeks’ leave, but the non-U.S. average had leaped to 57.3 weeks. Neither in 1990 nor today did the United States provide public paid leave, while other countries paid, on average, 26.5 percent of previous wages in 1990 and 38 percent today. Blau and Kahn found that about 28 percent to 29 percent of the decline in the American female labor force participation can be explained by the relative stinginess of its family leave and part-time work policies.”

Can you imagine 57.3 weeks of maternity leave?

And how about the disgrace of losing almost 1/3 of the women in the labor force because of our antiquated family leave and part-time work policies? Isn’t this another very strong reason to take up the Working Families Flexibility Act?

The Washington Post article concludes with some perspective on the rate of women in senior positions in the work force and notes that American women are more successful at reaching positions of “authority” than women in other developed countries. So the question is – is it because the women in these other countries are opting for flexible work arrangements at much higher rates than American women – or are there other cultural issues at play here? Let’s not pretend that European countries are perfect. I have friends living overseas right now and the stories of blatant sexism and sexual harassment of working women in professional settings in developed European countries would shock any one of us and get people fired immediately in the U.S.

And ultimately, if the answer is, women in the U.S. are more likely to reach positions of “authority” than women in Europe because more women there are given the chance to work flexible hours – isn’t that simply the trade-off? When we talk about “having it all”  — do we mean we want to work part-time and reach the most senior levels of management and raise perfect children? Or do we just want some more time at home and less time at work and we’re willing to accept the consequences?

What do you think? And would you like to see similar legislation brought forward and actually gain traction here in the U.S.? Keep up with the discussion and fun on the Wired Momma Facebook page.

One Response to Working Moms: How the US Stacks Up Against Other Developing Countries
  1. […] long ago, I blogged about how the Europeans have laws that protect parents, specifically those with children under the […]

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