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Between babies and bosses

Soon, the beginning of the new year will usher in the second leg of the extended paid maternity leave for public, private sector and self-employed mothers. It is now time to turn to other types of family-friendly measures and to encourage the take-up of the existing ones by all parents. Failing to do so, we would be only galvanising further the perception of familialism and mother as the main carer for children.

In order to ensure further social repositioning of women in our society, it is necessary to move from a dual-earner towards the dual-carer family approach, not only in terms of legal provision but in practice too. This in turn would help parents to achieve their desired number of children (the current total fertility rate of Maltese mothers is only 1.37 children), increase the retention rate of employed mothers, and would contribute positively to the female labour force participation rate in general.

The take-up of family-friendly measures does not depend only on what is on offer but also on the cultural and organisational factors in each specific micro or macro set-up. The variations between sexes, professions and geographic areas are immense. Fathers reluctantly accept leave for family reasons with reduced pay in comparison to mothers. More educated parents have better negotiating powers and stand higher chances of getting a ‘work-life’ deal. Nordic examples of work-life balance show less resistance from the fathers’ side than the Southern ones. Organisational factors are also evident – even the best quality child-care and schools will not help unless accompanied by opening hours that are tied to the office hours.

There are different examples to explore. The Dutch owe a lot to their relatively healthy population picture due to a high level of acceptance of part-time jobs by women but also by men. Austria has recorded a consistent increase in the employment of women since paid parental leave was introduced in the 1990s. France benefits from its longstanding family policy which has been enhanced by successive administrations, thus leaving the couples assured that family will be indeed at the heart of all other government policies.

Population ageing, the pension time bomb and demographic depression are consequences of neglected family policies. Translating other nations’ examples of good practices is not always a linear process. Tradition and customs play an important part. However, our own figures show that the number of persons inactive due to family responsibilities, including looking after children, has declined between 2009 and 2011 by 13,381 persons, of whom 12,962 were women (data: LFS, NSO). This trend could suggest a process of de-familisation of caring.

In Malta, the focus should be on mothers’ employment rate and not only on the female employment rate. In order to achieve this, parental leave coupled with affordable child-care should be the next step forward. In this context, affordability enhanced through selected fiscal measures has to be socially cohesive.

It is understandable that entrepreneurs meet news about work-life balance with trepidation, as someone has to foot the bill and find required solutions for organisational and management processes. Bosses, employers, entrepreneurs are not social workers and should not been expected to take that role. Creation of profit and increase in competitiveness is what concerns them. At the same time, they have to recognise that population ageing undermines productivity and availability of good working conditions aimed at balancing family and work has proven to play a crucial part in attracting the best and retaining the most valuable employees. The examples of such sterling practices exist in our private sector too and could be up-scaled for the benefit of similar existing business set-ups.

This requires looking closer into the organisational structure of the enterprises, refreshing legal frameworks, enhancing the negotiating powers of employed women and men and changing employers’ perceptions about family life. Change of mentality posits willingness to accept the fact that well-defined family-friendly measures, which are not a burden to the enterprise, are a win-win situation. Demands for work-life balance need to become an integral part of employees’ work package, rather than exceptional displays of individuals’ negotiating skills.

It is perfectly understandable that there is a conflict between working parents’ expectations and employers’ financial concerns. As the title of the OECD’s publication on reconciling work and family life suggests, it has to be babies and bosses. Keeping effective family policies steady and long-standing should be an imperative for the future. The slogan “demography drives your future” means exactly that.

Maja Miljanic Brinkworth lectures on demography at the University of Malta.

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