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July 15, 2013

Shocker: Mommy-Friendly Policies Not So Friendly to Moms

The Clue Bus, il est arrivé!:

After moving to France two years ago and having my first child, I’ve decided to go back to work. Or rather, I need to go back to work, for both financial and mental reasons. I’ve read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, and I am ready to lean in.

Here in France, leaning in should be a piece of cake. France has both the highest birth rate in Europe and one of the highest percentages of women in the workforce. There are wonderful supports and guarantees here that we don’t have in the United States—a four-month-long maternity leave, inexpensive health care for all, five weeks of vacation a year, and many quality and affordable full-time day care options. France has made getting mothers back to work a priority.
But after my first job interview here, I realized that progressive France might not be quite as enlightened as I thought. I interviewed at a small, female-led company for a job for which I was quite qualified. The interview was in French, which made me a bit nervous, but after a few minutes I was chattering away. Everything was going great.

Then my interviewer asked if I had children. I told her I had an 18-month-old, and that we found Paris to be a much friendlier city to raise a family in than New York, where we’d moved from. “Ah,” she said, “Votre fille—comment est-elle garder?” What followed was a long discussion of my child care situation, who cared for my daughter during the week, and for how long, and if I’d have to leave work early to pick her up. Then she asked how old I was, and if I was planning to have more children. I felt myself cringing —why was this coming up, and in such detail so early in our discussion? Would you even be allowed to ask these questions in the United States? (No.) My French became emphatic, Neanderthal like, as I tried to assure her I wouldn’t leave at 6 p.m. every day: “I can hire nanny. I want to work at job I like, not just leave every day at six hours.” Eventually, either impressed by my vehemence or appalled at my French, she dropped the subject. And though I haven’t heard one way or another, I’m pretty sure the possibility of hiring me got dropped as well.

I don’t want being a mother to change the way employers see me, but of course, it does. I’m in my 30s. It’s true that I’ll likely get pregnant again. It’s true I will sometimes want to have dinner with my family. And it’s true that any company that hires me is making a long-term investment—it’s much more difficult to fire people in France than in the United States. This causes employers to think about the future when hiring, including how a woman’s eventual or actual children might affect her job performance. It’s also not illegal in France to ask about a person’s age and marital status in an interview. It is illegal to discriminate based on the answers, but this kind of discrimination can be very hard to prove.

As I continued to look for work, I learned that France actually does quite poorly in world rankings of gender equality in the workplace. In its 2012 Global Gender Gap Index, the World Economic Forum ranked France a shocking 57th, behind most other European countries, the United States (too low at No. 22), Jamaica, and Russia. This year, the Economist ranked it slightly higher on its list of best countries to be a working woman, at No. 11—just in front of the United States. And while the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows France doing better than most of the developed world on key indicators, such as women’s education, health care, and the availability of child care, the country has comparatively few women in senior management positions, and even fewer elected female representatives in Parliament (20 percent as opposed to the OECD norm of 25 percent). Though the government has passed legislation calling for equal pay for men and women, an appreciable wage gap (currently 12 percent) still exists, and gets worse as employees age.

Why is a country that is so outwardly progressive still plagued with such basic workplace inequalities? While France has a wonderful safety net for women, much of it is designed to promote the growth of families as a way of boosting the birthrate. Indeed, families in France receive numerous supports and subsidies the more children they have. A family with two children is eligible for an automatic monthly stipend of 125 euros, regardless of income. With three children, a family is designated a “Famille Nombreuse,” which includes a raise in the automatic stipend, a possible further subsidy of up to 500 euros a month for the mother if she chooses not to return to work, and even reduced admission for transportation, museums, and amusement parks. And, at four children, a woman becomes eligible for the “medaille de la famille,” an honorary medal from the French government.

But some of the government protections and incentives offered to mothers in France may in fact make their advancement in the workplace more difficult. Paid maternity leave increases with the number of children, from 16 weeks for one or two children to 26 weeks for three or more. (In contrast, paternity leave stays fixed at 11 days.) This much guaranteed leave can make employers nervous to hire and promote women. In a 2010 survey of French employers, only 25 percent said they were strongly interested in hiring mothers, and 41 percent expressed fear that there would be less flexibility in the schedules of mothers who worked. Interestingly (but perhaps not surprisingly), employers didn’t express this fear when asked about hiring fathers.

That any of this was a revelation to this woman is surely one of the great mysteries of the modern world. This is the problem with policies that focus solely on what's perceived to be "fair" or "good for women/blacks/transgendered Arctic wolverines" - they ignore the obvious fact that raising the cost of hiring Identity Group X relative to other applicants is probably not a great way to boost their chances of getting or keeping a job.

Looked at straight, such "benefits" are actually handicaps.

Posted by Cassandra at July 15, 2013 07:02 AM

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"This much guaranteed leave can make employers nervous to hire and promote women."

The . . . the bastards.

I know it's unlikely this callow young woman will ever try to run a business and hire people, but it would be fun to see the clue bus back up and run over her a few more times in that event.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 15, 2013 09:44 AM

Articles like this just boggle the mind. I expect that kind of thinking from a teenager - not from an adult with any experience of the real world.

Now if people like this could just connect the dots...

Posted by: Cass at July 15, 2013 10:00 AM

Now if people like this could just connect the dots...

That we need another law to protect those noble workers from the predation of those greedy bastards who care more about their profits than the good of the country.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 15, 2013 10:13 AM

Long ago, I read an article analyzing citations in scientific publications by women scientists. The authors had expected to find that women with children (and presumably more child care duties) would have fewer citations than women without.

But that wasn't what they found.

Instead, as I recall, women without children did just as well, or maybe a little better. (There were a few men -- super stars -- who did much better than average.)

Why? Again, as I recall, the authors weren't sure, but they did identify two things that helped the women with children: Many of them were married to men in the same field, and often did joint papers with their husbands. And, being smart women, many of them had figured out that they could avoid the time-wasting academic jobs by appealing to their children. (For example: "I'd love to be on that committee, but little Natalie is going through a tough time right now, and she needs me.")

Posted by: Jim Miller at July 15, 2013 06:20 PM

Correction: Women with children did just as well as women without.

(Sorry. I did read the comment before posting, but not carefully enough.)

And just to clarify: Men averaged more citations than women, but only because of those few super stars.

My general point, in case it is obscure, is that the personal is more important than the political, that women scientists who chose husbands well often benefited in their work, too. And that those personal choices are often far more important than laws and bureacratic rules.

Posted by: Jim Miller at July 15, 2013 07:43 PM

Sorry I missed your comment, Jim!

I don't have comments emailed to me anymore, so I don't always see them (especially if work is busy or I have to start early).

re: being smart women, many of them had figured out that they could avoid the time-wasting academic jobs by appealing to their children. (For example: "I'd love to be on that committee, but little Natalie is going through a tough time right now, and she needs me.")

This kind of thing used to drive me crazy. But then I worked in a bank and noticed (after being told that women with children aren't as "available" as men) how many guys were always taking off early to play golf or to get ready for a hot date.

I've always worked longer hours than most of the people in my office, so while I do sympathize with working Moms, my sympathy is limited by the awareness that I decided I couldn't take a demanding job when my kids were small.

My husband reports that this behavior has spread to the men - even ones whose wives don't work at all. They take off because 'it's their turn to watch the kids' while Mom does... well, something.

Doesn't seem like a good thing to me, but I'm notoriously humorless about that sort of thing :)

Posted by: Cass at July 16, 2013 07:48 PM

Gosh! Should my response be:

Posted by: CAPT Mike at July 16, 2013 09:36 PM

I get that feeling that for some of these folks, life serves up a constant parade of unexpected outcomes :p

Posted by: Cass at July 16, 2013 09:47 PM

Cass - Most of the jobs that the woman scientists with children were evading were jobs no one should be doing. What was wrong, in my opinion, was that the jobs existed, not that a few were able to find ways to evade them.

Back to your general point: I believe that some of the legislative efforts to help disabled people get jobs have actually made it less likely that they will be hired. And that result, too, would be "unexpected".

Posted by: Jim Miller at July 17, 2013 05:56 PM

I worked for plenty of years in a job that was basically 24/7 as needed. Clients and senior partners thought absolutely nothing of calling at 3 a.m. or requiring us to cancel a vacation without notice. (We never, but never, bought nonrefundable tickets.) But that was the lawyers; most of the staff didn't have that kind of flexibility or total commitment -- nor should they, for what they were paid. There were also some lawyers with special low-hour deals, temporary or permanent, which generally signified a non-partner track.

I never had that much trouble with the arrangement. I knew who was available to pull all-nighters and who wasn't. It was up to me to arrange for special coverage after hours if I needed it. The important thing was transparency and clear expectations.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 17, 2013 08:25 PM