In the January 2nd issue of the Economist, important issues regarding the difficulties of women and the changes of society are debated: If the empowerment of women was one of the great changes of the past 50 years, dealing with its social consequences will be one of the great challenges of the next 50.

Let us begin with the obvious. Women have not yet achieved what they had in mind joining the work force. At least not the very ambitious ones. The middle rungs are dominated by men and the upper rungs are out of reach. Only 2% of the bosses of Fortune 500 companies and five of those in the FTSE 100 stock market index are women. Women make up less than 13% of board members in America. The upper ranks of management consultancies and banks are dominated by men. In America and Britain the typical full-time female worker earns only about 80% as much as the typical male.
This is what we already know.

According to the Economist, what has been less obvious is the choice women are forced to make between motherhood and their careers. This is because, at successful firms, wages rise steeply and schedules are demanding. Future bosses are expected to have worked in several departments and countries. Professional-services firms have an up-or-out system which rewards the most dedicated with lucrative partnerships. The reason for the income gap may thus be the opposite of prejudice. It is that women are judged by exactly the same standards as men.

At least this is a positive outcome of females entering the work force. So supposedly the assessments being made are fair and based on merits. However females trying to balance the private sphere alone while shining on the job, leaves little room for promotions. Men are simply not as much part of the home maintenance and child care as women, as they have not been used to using their energy on this type of work (and certainly not a type of work which pays no money).

So we are left with a society that more often than not poses certain obstacles for women with high aspirations. Be it a childless society or a society where big bucks can be made on fertility research for the late bloomers. Maybe this is how the world naturally is trying to put an end to over-population. Maybe this could loosen up some of the uneasy adoption rules and ensure that orphans around the globe can come to good, safe and most importantly wealthy double income homes. While these are without doubt interesting ideas, women are the losers as they are the ones who come back to their jobs part-time to ensure the family balance. An American study, this time of women who left work to have children, found that all but 7% of them wanted to return to work. Only 74% managed to return, and just 40% returned to full-time jobs.

For some, the double income is actually a necessity to avoid financial distress. British children brought up in two-parent families where only one parent works are almost three times more likely to be poor than children with two parents at work. However, the price paid for all those (wo)man hours on the job, according to the Economist, then falls on the children. Luckily in Denmark (as well as in Sweden), comprehensive systems of after-school care exist. But this system does not ensure that women can climb to the top. Something else must change for this to happen. What this ‘something else’ is – is yet to be discovered.

The truth of the matter is that although the child care issue should help to push more women into boardrooms and manager chairs, reality is actually proving quite the opposite. Sweden is not quite the paragon that its fans imagine, despite its family-friendly employment policies. Only 1.5% of senior managers are women, compared with 11% in America.

Other countries seek to solve the problem of child care quite differently. Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland and Hungary provide up to three years of paid leave for mothers. Germany has introduced a “parent’s salary”, or Elterngeld, to encourage mothers to stay at home. Britain, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and, above all, the Netherlands are keen on mothers working part-time. Can women then become the next leaders of the world or at least take on some of the CEO jobs if they are incentivized to stay at home longer? And if the Scandinavian model does not ensure more leaders, what should then be done so women can break the glass ceiling?

Some demographics speak in favor of women entering the job pool. The combination of an ageing workforce and a more skill-dependent economy means that countries will have to make better use of their female populations. Goldman Sachs calculates that, leaving all other things equal, increasing women’s participation in the labour market to male levels will boost GDP by 21% in Italy, 19% in Spain, 16% in Japan, 9% in America, France and Germany, and 8% in Britain. However this does not mean changes in the number of senior female managers. Instead it will just complicate the work life balance even further and require that someone soon will come up with an answer to the ‘something else’ dilemma.

Sarah-Alice Skade-Rasmussen


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