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Big Ideas

Leading thinkers and activists share game-changing ideas about motherhood and improving maternal health and women's rights.

Irene Natividad
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What Must Be Offered to Working Mothers

Irene Natividad is President of the Global Summit of Women, co-chairs Corporate Women Directors International, and is a Global Council Member at the International Museum of Women. She spoke with IMOW Executive Director Clare Winterton about her Big Ideas to improve the lives of working mothers by requiring more companies to offer paid parental leave, offering tax incentives to companies who do so, and offering the same parental leave to mothers AND fathers so as not to stigmatize mothers.

Clare Winterton: How has the world changed in recent decades with regard to the role of mothers in the work force?

Irene Natividad: There are now more women working than ever before. In fact, the majority of women work.  Depending on how you count, in terms of paid work, women comprise about 40% of the labor force. If you want to include the informal workforce, the majority of who are women, that percentage is much higher. Various countries do not include informal workers when they discuss paid workers. Informal workers, for example, would be the woman who is selling vegetables in the market.  There is no record of that kind of work in most countries.

But of course, while mothers’ participation in the labor market has increased, their roles as mothers and their domestic roles have not decreased. When I think of a woman working, I imagine an African woman, working in the fields with her child on her back. That is representative, in a way, for all women; you can be an Executive and you still metaphorically have the children on your back.

C: What happens as a result of having a significant number of mothers in the workforce?

I: Several things. First, many of these women have been lifted out of poverty by entering the workforce.  It also enabled more women a higher degree of independence and respect within their families. When women bring home money to their family, they gain power not only within the family and but also within their community. The health and educational welfare of families improves as women enter paid work, because women bring home 90% of their income. It’s a much lower percentage for male workers. Those are the positives.

Of course, there are also negatives. With so many women and mothers working, family dynamics are being redefined.  Families have to find childcare, whether through extended families or government policies or corporate programs. Clearly, that part of women’s roles still has to be dealt with, and in many parts of the world it hasn’t been.

C: How are mothers and women being accommodated, now that the majority of them are working?

I: They aren’t being accommodated. Let’s take a look at the number one economy in the world, the United States. Some companies, usually the biggest ones, have childcare policies or in-house childcare centers (with long waiting lists).  But the majority of American working mothers take care of their own childcare arrangements.  Even the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was supposed to ensure that working parents had parental leave, only provided unpaid leave.  In terms of actually developing effective policies, the only countries that have been particularly successful have been the Nordic countries, which have been ranked high in every listing of countries that are good for women.

C: What are some of the more effective policies that have been implemented for working mothers?

I: Lots of Western European countries offer paid parental leave, whether you are a female or male employee.  In Sweden, Iceland, and Finland there is required male parental leave. This is an amazing program.  What they discovered is that if only women were guaranteed paid parental leave, salaries went down because they took time off to raise their children.  So what these Nordic countries did was force the man to take advantage of his paid leave, and if he didn’t, he would receive a tax penalty. One of the results is that there is now a decreased divorce rate in Sweden, for instance. They also found that women’s wages over the long term have gone up because they no longer interrupt their careers in order to take care of children.

So there is now a division of labor in the family that didn’t exist before this forced leave. It’s social engineering, largely from countries that believe in a welfare state. The cost of that is enormous--the taxes in the Nordic countries are almost 50%. But they have been very successful in forcing two parents to take care of children. In many countries where you have paid or unpaid parental leave, mostly the women take these leaves, and they, as well as the few men who do take them, are stigmatized.  There are other countries with lots of laws and policies covering childcare and parental leaves, but the majority of these policies are not implemented or lack oversight, so they exist in paper only.

C: What must be done to transform the situation for mothers who work?

I: At the very least, governments should offer paid parental leave. Unless women are guaranteed their jobs even after they take time off for the care of a child, their careers will suffer irreparably. There are studies that show that for every year that a woman takes off to take care of children, her wages diminish, and it carries throughout her entire job history.

Government should also give tax breaks to companies for developing flexible parental leave policies.  Without incentives, companies will not necessarily implement them fully.  I think those are, at the very minimum, two things that need to be done.

There was a survey done of the employees of several companies, and they asked what work benefits workers valued most. Both male and female employees overwhelmingly cited flexibility. It was ranked higher than pay.  What this points is a recalculation of what defines a productive employee.  The success of a worker should be measured on output rather than the number of hours spent in the office.  When you measure success by counting how many cars are still on the parking lot at 6 o’clock, then women are going to lose.  Flexibility is huge issue for women, and increasingly for younger male employees who want a larger role in raising their families.

I think flexible work/life benefits should also be given to men, because if it is not, there would continue to be a stigma placed on women who take time off for childbirth, or work from home or who come in on a part time schedule.  It has to work for everybody. That’s very important   No worker should be stigmatized for using the very benefits that make him or her able to care for their family.

C: What about women in the informal economy? Are there ways for them to get support they need?

I: There is an organization called the Self-employed Women Association (SEWA) in India. The founder is a woman named Ela Bahtt, who created a union of women informal workers. She began by creating a union with those women who sold vegetables at the market.  As a union, formally recognized by the government, they were able to negotiate as a unit.  They were able to establish their financial presence and were able to ask for whatever the government provides in terms of family benefits. This is a model for other countries where there are a lot of women in the informal sector.

C: What about men? What level of change do we need to see in men in order that there is a change for women and mothers?

I: Actually, it’s already happening in the U.S.  A lot of young men want a bigger role in childcare than previous generations. I think young men have a different model in mind, and many of them grew up in households where both parents worked.  House work may not have distributed fairly among their parents, but they saw the consequences of their mothers’ attempts to balance their work and family responsibilities.   

Among the young women I have heard they don’t want what women baby boomers wanted.  One college student said to me, “women of your generation wanted to work, and you suffered, I don’t want to sacrifice just for a job.” So there is maybe a different attitude towards work and family after they have seen their mothers going through the stresses of trying to do it all and not necessarily succeeding. 

About the Author 

Irene Natividad is founder and president of the 22-year-old Global Summit of Women, an economic forum for women from around the world.  She also chairs Corporate Women Directors International, which conducts research and convenes women on boards globally.  Originally from the Philippines, she defines herself as an advocate whether for Asian American women, US women and now, women around the globe.  Whether in politics or business, she views women as not yet in charge in sufficient numbers, so her mission is to help women accede to leadership roles.  In 1985, she was elected Chair the National Women’s Political Caucus, becoming the first Asian-American to head a national women’s organization.  After her Caucus tenure, she served as Chair of the National Commission on Working Women for nine years.  For the 1996 elections, she led the Women’s Vote Project, a coalition effort among leading U.S. women’s groups to increase the percentage of women voters.  She led other coalitions to get more women appointed to government posts both for the first Bush administration and recently for the Obama administration.  She was named one of the 21 Leaders for the 21st Century by Women’s eNews, one of the 25 Most Influential Working Mothers by Working Mother magazine and one of 100 Most Important Women by Ladies Home Journal.