Demography and Gender Equality : Two Sides of the Same Coin

Grassroots movements established to act in the public’s interest are the very essence of democracy. Social activism is still frowned upon in Poland due to its historic connotations, so initiatives like these deserve our attention, especially if their voices become loud enough to make politicians listen and consider their suggestions in the course of policymaking. Unfortunately, there are times when actions demanded by the vox populi can undermine the efforts of the interested parties themselves, or in the worst case scenario, the entire society. The “First Quarter Mothers” movement, which gained momentum in the past few months, is an example of such a destructive initiative; the movement was an umbrella organization for mothers who were barred from taking a longer maternity leave, because they had their babies before the government’s initial cut-off date for the maternity leave extension program, which was 17 March 2013.

These first quarter mothers successfully pressured the Polish government to grant them the “privilege” of taking advantage of the extension program (which would allow them to take a one-year-long maternity leave instead of the usual six-month-long one) with 80% pay for the duration of the leave. The solution was originally proposed by the authorities but it was the mothers’ movement that created the illusion of mass approval for the maternity leave extension. And that’s clearly a damaging solution – harmful in the short-term for women, primarily the younger ones just entering the workforce and  in the long-term harmful for the whole society, because it won’t improve and probably will even worsen the dramatic demographic situation in our country.

Let’s start with young women. In both Poland and Europe the unemployment rate has been steadily rising for months, and more women than men are currently out of work. Nearly 3 out of every 10 people under 25 are unemployed in Poland.[1] For young women, entering the workforce is a challenge in itself, and the maternity leave extension has just made them an even more high-risk employee. In practice, this extension translates into a woman being absent from work for more than a year: “in practice,” because even though its voluntary, there is no feasible alternative daycare system for young children; and “woman,” because even though the father can take paternity leave in principle, acceptance and understanding of that behavior is limited to a very small group of companies, most of them owned or backed by Scandinavian capital. Besides, men still earn more than women and have higher chances for promotion. Therefore putting the father’s career on hold only for the mother to resume work is inefficient as far as family finances are concerned. Thus, the circle closes as women’s salaries and their chances for promotion are decreased exactly because of a prospective break in their work life caused by pregnancy and motherhood. The longer this gap is (and 12 months is a huge gap), the bigger the risk. New maternity-related privileges will thus only worsen women’s position on the job market, in turn forcing families to embrace traditional gender roles where the woman does the housework while the man is the family’s breadwinner. It’s not hard to imagine how that will shape the future job market if employers trying to maximize profits are already thinking twice about employing a childless 30-year-old woman.

Extending maternity leave wasn’t a way to make things easier for women, it was supposed to improve the difficult demographic situation in Poland, where one of the lowest fertility rates in the world[2] may lead to a total collapse of the social security and pension system. Many European countries are facing a similar problem, and the situation is especially dire in Germany, Spain, and Latvia.[3] Yet, extended maternity leaves are not a viable solution in the long run, also in the context of demographics. International research on family policy presents us with clear conclusions. In the social context of Western, developed countries, women decide to have children when they have a possibility to combine parenting and work. France and the Scandinavian countries have the best demographic situation in Europe, and all of them are countries where the female contribution to the economy is fairly high. Longer maternity leave undermines women’s position on the job market and discourages them from having kids as the lack of economic stability is one of the biggest obstacles on the road to becoming a parent. Most of the time, families achieve economic stability only when both parents are working, especially after the end of an extended maternity leave.

Women cannot be encouraged to have children simply by promising them a longer stay home – effective policy aimed at enhancing fertility has to create a roadmap for coming back to work after childbirth and combining parenting with participation in the workforce. To achieve these goals, we need to meet two basic conditions – there has to be a proper child daycare system in place and the parental privileges need to be equal for men and women.

Proper infant daycare system means that every child over 6 months can be put in daycare located a reasonable distance away from the parents’ place of residence. The daycare has to be affordable for a household with an average income of two employed adults and has to be open for parents working all kinds of different shifts. This means that some daycares and kindergartens will have to open 24/7. Shocking? Not quite. A similar system is already in place in Sweden and will be operational in Luxembourg in the near future. A daycare system like that isn’t supposed to provide parents with a place to dump their kids when they want a night at the movies, it’s supposed to give a chance to people employed in retail, media, and other sectors with atypical business hours to combine parenthood and work. Aside from overhauling the daycare system, we also need to support alternative methods of child care, e.g. subsidize nanny employment or home daycare facilities. Funds earmarked for extended maternity leave, newborn allowance, and even sport stadium construction budgets would be better spent on the aforementioned programs and facilities as they have a real chance of convincing young people to have children. Poland lacks a single, unified vision in this regard. In 2014, kindergartens in Warsaw will shorten their workday and close at 5pm, but one needs to admit that this change will be followed by a drop in daycare costs. Also, in the last few years, the government implemented incentives for people employing in-home child care, e.g. nannies.

For the efficiency of fertility-enhancing policy, a proper daycare system has to be accompanied by a push to make parental “privileges” equal between mothers and fathers.  This translates primarily into extending paternity leave without the possibility of transferring that leave onto the mother. In the case of other legitimate work absences (including child care leave and caring for a sick child), labor law should also encourage equal distribution of child care duties between both parents. Additionally, the state shouldn’t force an employer to bear the losses incurred by the employee’s absence due to childbirth and childcare, and should cover these costs using public funds. The situation of women on the job market, and by extension, the economic stability of Polish families and their inclination towards having children, will improve only when the employer’s “risk” when hiring young and (yet) childless women is as high as when hiring a childless men. Extending maternity leave is in and of itself a bad solution, but to compensate for the consequences of the extension, the government’s legislative package might have included an attempt at equalizing the distribution of parental duties and obligations between both parents. Alas, that hasn’t happened – maybe through oversight; maybe to preserve the traditional model of the family; and maybe the goal was to patch up the unemployment statistics by pushing young mothers out of the job market.

A smart government would pay attention to the issues raised by grassroots organizations and would consider their recommendations when making policy decisions, but publicly opposing ideas that are popular but harmful in the long run, also requires courage. On the other hand, both society’s energy and people’s involvement in public affairs are very rare and precious commodities. It’s unfortunate that sometimes the will to push things forward is there but is wasted on moving them in the wrong direction.

[1] According to Eurostat data for March 2013, the unemployment rate for women was 11.4%, 10.1% for men, and a staggering 28% for people under 25

[2] According to World Bank data, in 2011 the fertility rate in Poland was 1.3 (and falling), only six other countries out of 214 where the rate is measured had a lower rate

[3] In the three countries mentioned – like in Poland – the fertility rate was below 1.4 according to World Bank data