Not only do women get off track for long periods, many simply never get back on. European government and corporations have not adapted to changing times. Few offer the flextime that makes it easier for women to both work and manage their families.
Among Europe's myriad problems, this one is huge—with ramifications way beyond gender relations. In fact, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Europe's future hinges on it. "We have got to get more women into the labor market," says Vladi mir Spidla, the EU commissioner of Employment and Social Affairs. Declining birthrates and aging populations threaten the financial stability of almost all European nations, he explains.
With a massive skills gap and pension crisis looming, the Continent must bring in more high-level workers. Immigration—the main solution thus far—presents obvious cultural challenges. Taking better advantage of existing female populations is an obvious answer.
Employers are understandably reluctant to hire and promote someone who may absent herself for years on end, often more than once. "Being a potential mother becomes an obstacle for women in certain types of jobs, and that is the case all over Europe," says ILO labor sociologist Manuela Tomei.
Removing one's wedding ring for job interviews has thus become commonplace. So have probing questions. "Your family plans come up at every single job interview," says Sasha Buehler, a Munich film buyer. "I've had to promise potential employers that I won't get pregnant." While questions like this might elicit a lawsuit in the United States, European women are less likely to fight back. Europe doesn't allow class-action suits and, outside of the public sector, the burden of proof in a discrimination case still falls on the individual rather than the corporation, making it incredibly difficult for a single person to initiate and win a case.
The result is a system where most European women do some kind of work outside the home, but relatively few enjoy genuine upward mobility. Often excluded from the more lucrative and competitive private sector, they work in disproportionately large numbers as teachers, nurses or health-care aides rather than as business managers.
There's also a marked concentration of women in public-sector and government jobs compared with the United States and even some developing countries. This is particularly pronounced in the Nordic countries, where women enjoy as many as 480 paid days of maternity leave. Half of Sweden's working women are in the public sector, for example, while more men work in better-paid private-sector jobs. Compare that to 30 percent of women in the public sector in the U.K., and 19 percent in America.
A recent study by the U.K. Equal Opportunities Commission found that women part-time workers made 40 percent less per hour than men—the same pay gap as 30 years ago. The two-tier nature of the European labor market—in which jobs tend to be either lucrative and protected or low-skilled and precarious—makes it tougher to turn those part-time jobs into better full-time ones. Taken together, the combination of a very long leave and a part-time job "can give the impression that women aren't serious about investing in their careers," says the OECD's Willem Adema, a senior economist and author of the Babies and Bosses report.
Most European countries base their tax structures around the notion of a single breadwinner. The result: taxwise, it's often advantageous for families if the mother doesn't work. Germany is exhibit A. Second incomes are immediately taxed at the highest bracket. Many union contracts are still modeled after the single-breadwinner family, providing standardized pay increases for marriage and each child. Public health care is free for stay-at-home moms if the husband works—but if both parents do, they pay hefty premiums. A monthly stipend of €800 for child care can be paid out only if parents take care of their own child, which has led the German Association of Working Mothers to call it a "stay-at-home subsidy."
Child care is another big problem. American women might dream about the advantages of subsidized, Continental-style day care. But access and cost vary wildly. In —Germany, there's an extreme shortage of child care, and much of it is available only for the morning and early afternoon. Most kindergartens and grade schools let out at lunch—yet another blow to working mothers. In the Nordic countries, well-developed state day-care centers offer longer hours, which mean that women sacrifice much less of their earning power than they do in, say, Spain or Italy. Still, says the OECD's Adema, "there's a social pressure on mothers in places like Denmark or Sweden not to use more than six hours of care a day." France counts among the best countries for working mothers. There, any child over 3 years old is guaranteed state-funded day care, without social stigma. That means roughly 80 percent of French women who wish to work can do so. Still, French women hold only about 30 percent of managerial positions.
Politicians should rethink the tax structures that penalize a second family income, encourage shortening maternity leaves (limiting their length to six months to a year) and come up with creative ways to divide parental leave more equally between mothers and fathers.
Norway imposed royal decree that all corporate boards must be 40 percent female within two years, or face being shut down, while the European Commission for Employment and Social Affairs will soon begin a yearlong study to determine whether discrimination laws in Europe are being properly enforced. Meanwhile, the EU has set aside funds for the creation of a gender-equality institute in 2007. Its goal: to "come up with concrete solutions" to Europe's gender gap, according to Commissioner Spidla. The solution is simple, actual equality, not dogma enforced by police decree's or masked government supported bias. Untill people are free to act contrary to the welfare, they will not move forward.