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Working mothers - their conundrum remains

Shona Stewart, a senior staff nurse at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital in London, is also the single mother of 13-year-old autistic twins.
A working mother bottling preserves with a baby on her hip to make some extra money. (Image: Wiki Commons)
A working mother bottling preserves with a baby on her hip to make some extra money. (Image: Wiki Commons)

Stewart, who earns about £33,000 a year, needs childcare each morning before she heads to work and after-school care for her boys in order to remain in her job. However, the high cost means she can barely cover the overdraft on her bank account every month.

"As a parent, I question whether [working] is really worth it," she says, noting that both the financial and physical strain of child rearing are so great that her nursing career has stalled.

Stewart's situation will be easily recognisable, particularly for women, in many industrialised countries where the percentage of females at work has grown markedly over the past few decades. However, it still lags behind that of men and one reason is that parents must weigh up a mother's potential earnings against the cost of childcare.

Access to affordable childcare, economists say, is one public policy most likely to help women decide to get a job.

Encouraging mothers into work is no longer simply a matter of equal opportunities or of helping people to achieve their personal aspirations. It is becoming a matter of urgency for economies and employers. As working-age populations across the world dwindle while the numbers of elderly grow, nations need to make the most of the workforces they have to keep up the flow of tax revenue and output growth.

In addition, failure to maximise the number of women in the workforce may have undesirable consequences, such as higher labour costs.

Funding, regulations

Recently, the UK government published plans to improve the supply of affordable childcare. The measures proposed include funding and relaxed regulations so that schools can offer childcare during holidays and beyond the school day - either alone or by working with private and voluntary partners. "The government would like to see primary school sites open for more hours in the day, from 8am to 6pm if possible, and for more weeks in the year," it said.

Working mothers - their conundrum remains

An OECD report this year noted that a number of factors - rising levels of educational attainment, expansion of the services sector and the rise of part-time employment - have encouraged women both to have children and work outside the home.

"The rising provision of formal childcare services for working parents with children who are younger than three is a main policy driver for female participation in the workforce," the OECD concluded, noting that other factors including family leave and tax policies were also important.

In addition to the economic benefits of affordable childcare, there is evidence that countries that help women stay at work also have higher fertility rates - at a time when birth rates across much of the developed world are considered too low to keep the population profile stable.

"Countries with relatively more open societies allowing a better work/life balance have higher rates of female workforce participation," says George Magnus, a senior economic adviser to UBS who specialises in demographic trends. "These are also the ones with higher fertility rates."

For businesses, one consequence of expensive childcare is that many skilled staff are forced to work part-time. In Sweden, for example, where net childcare costs are less than 10% of average wages, about 20% of women work part-time. But in the UK, where net costs are 35% of average wages, the figure is more than 40%.

For many, the benefits of that flexibility are mixed. "So many couples come to the conclusion that having one parent working part-time while the other works full-time is a good solution," according to advice posted on Mumsnet, a popular UK website. "The downside is that in many careers this means one of you end up on the 'mummy track', by not being in line for big promotions, pay rises or other glittering prizes in your particular field."

For its part, the CBI, Britain's employers' body, has added its voice to calls for more affordable childcare, urging reform of the provider market to help cut costs.

Dilemma for mothers

"The key to success for these schemes will be ensuring availability of places and access for children from all backgrounds," says Neil Carberry, the organisation's director of employment and skills. "We support the targeting of additional funding at childcare settings to improve access and affordability for all."

A babysitting co-op that shares the duties of childcare. (Image: Wiki Commons)
A babysitting co-op that shares the duties of childcare. (Image: Wiki Commons)

For female employees, the dilemma posed by high childcare costs varies according to their investment in their education and career. Economists refer to this as the opportunity cost of child rearing - and it is particularly high for those who delayed having children until their career was underway.

"The opportunity cost of taking five to seven years off is much greater if you have a law degree than if you are a high-school dropout," says Gary Burtless, senior fellow at Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Likewise, Vidhya Alakeson, deputy chief executive at the Resolution Foundation, which focuses on households in the low to middle incomes, notes: "The more senior you are, the bigger the penalty."

Alakeson says the real issue is what happens to mothers trying to return to work. "

"Women who want to work fewer hours will find that their career trajectory has shifted downwards," she says.

Getting women into work requires much more than making childcare affordable, she adds. "It is more about availability and accessibility," she says, although the issue is often framed as one of cost.

"The childcare has to be more flexible and the employment has to be more flexible," she says. "If your only option is to hire a nanny, you have priced most women out of work."

Senior OECD economist Willem Adema notes that culture also matters. In recent years, Germany has recognised the need to expand its workforce and in 2007 enacted key parental leave reforms.

But culturally, it has been resistant to the idea of mothers in the workplace and institutions have yet to adjust.

School days, for example, are typically 7.30am to 1.30pm and primary school begins at the age of six or seven.

Germany has only recently begun to invest in childcare facilities and places are limited. Much of the country's public policy efforts have been via cash benefits rather than investment in childcare.

There is even a pejorative word for working mothers - Rabensmutter - conjuring up the image of an evil raven.

"This means you are not a good mother," Adema says. - Financial Times.

Source: Business Day via I-Net Bridge


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