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Can you have children and a career?

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Published Oct 17, 2015


London/Rio de Janeiro - Almost half of women in the G20 are confident that having children won't wreck their career, with women in emerging countries and younger women most optimistic that they can juggle families with work, a survey reveals on Tuesday.

A poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation found 47 percent of more than 9 500 women were confident of having a family without hurting their career. Only 23 percent fear a negative impact and the rest are uncertain.

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Brazil tops the table with 74 percent of women saying they did not think having children would damage their career, followed by South Africa, Turkey, Indonesia and India where about three-fifths are optimistic about having both.

By contrast, it is women in some of the richest G20 countries - Germany, Britain, France and Japan - who are most worried that having children would sideline their careers.

“Having kids was never a problem for my career development. I've been able to achieve what I wanted to, and I continue to look for new challenges,” said mother-of-two Raquel Caldeira, 29, a nurse at a Rio de Janeiro hospital.

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“My mum is the one who takes care of my kids so I can work. I'm very fortunate to have a mum who is so hands-on.”

The poll found younger women are slightly more upbeat on being able to juggle both with 48 percent of women aged under 35 confident compared to 45 percent of women aged 35-64.

Under Brazilian law, women get four to six months maternity leave with a guarantee they can return to their jobs and an option to work part-time until the baby is one.

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Carmen Migueles, a gender expert at leading Brazilian business school Fundacao Getulio Vargas, says close families and the availability of affordable domestic labour are key factors behind women's optimism.

“Families in Brazil tend to remain in the same city or even the same neighbourhood, so when children get married, they continue to have the strong support of parents and other relatives,” said Migueles.

Grasping opportunities

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In South Africa, Ndundu Sithole, 37, is another go-getter.

In between a demanding career as a TV editor and raising her three children - the youngest aged just two - Sithole is studying to become a lawyer.

She says young women are keen to seize opportunities that were not open to their mothers under apartheid. The poll found 63 percent of women in South Africa thought you could combine children and careers while only 12 percent disagreed.

“The opportunities are there and there is a feeling that you can achieve anything that you want to. The end of apartheid opened up a lot of opportunities for women and they are keen to have careers,” she said.

Sithole relies on a home-help from Lesotho and her mother for childcare.

World Bank gender expert Henriette Kolb said common factors among countries which came top in the poll included the greater involvement of extended families in raising children and the reliance on cheap, unregulated domestic labour.

Brazil's Migueles said the confidence expressed by working mothers in her country was a reflection of a deep-rooted inequality in Brazilian society - where upper middle-class families often employ poorer women to care for their children.

The lack of daycare remains a huge challenge for women in the lower classes who want to build a career, experts say.

The poll found women with higher household incomes were more confident of juggling children and careers with 51 percent confident compared to 40 percent of low income women.

‘Motherhood penalty’

In wealthier countries women have to rely on nannies, nurseries and after school clubs. A typical London nursery costs around 1 300 pounds ($2 000) a month, eating heavily into an average pay packet. A woman with two children in nursery could find herself paying to work.

“What this means is that many, many skilled women who wish to work often simply cannot work because of the cost of childcare,” said Jane Gentle, a spokeswoman for Mumsnet, a popular British networking site for parents.

Gentle said the overwhelming majority of working mothers on the site also felt there was a “motherhood penalty” relating to pay and promotion.

“The hurdles that come up time and time again are the cost of childcare, the lack of understanding from employers, feeling out of touch after maternity leave, and generally the very long hours required to hold senior positions that do not fit in with the school run,” she said.

For German economist Katinka Barysch it was not the cost of childcare but the availability. She wrote 67 applications to nurseries in Munich and didn't get a spot for her daughter. The fact the German schoolday ends at lunchtime is also a headache for working mothers, as is a lack of employer flexibility.

Barysch, who lives in Germany's conservative south, said the practical difficulties are compounded by a moralising attitude towards women who put their young children in daycare. “There is this conviction in German-speaking countries that your child will develop best if it clings to your legs until it is six years old,” she said.

Childless women

The poll found 37 percent of German women believed having children would damage their career while only a fifth, or 21 percent, were optimistic about combining both.

The short school day, lack of nurseries and traditional views on motherhood mean women have tended to take longer breaks from work than in other European countries. They often return for small part-time jobs not conducive to forging a career.

Michaela Kreyenfeld, an expert on gender and work at the Max Planck Institute, said it was no coincidence that almost a third of highly educated women in their late-40s are childless.

But she said things were changing. Faced with one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, Germany has brought in generous shared parental leave and rapidly expanded nursery provision to encourage more working women to have children.

However, she pointed out that 25 years after German reunification there is still a significant east/west divide.

“In east Germany full time employment rates of mothers are much higher, daycare cover is much higher and childlessness is much lower - that is a legacy of the old East German regime.

“East Germany is very open towards maternal employment, while west Germany is conservative, but it is changing.”

The survey was carried out online by Ipsos Global @dvisor from July 24 to August 7 and face-to-face in South Africa and Indonesia from August 6 to August 25. Data are weighted to match the population profile of each country and the margin of error between two country sample sizes of 500 is about 6 percent at the 95 percent confidence interval.


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