European Maternity Leave Is Generous, but Equality Is Elusive

August 2, 2013During a recent four-city roundtable tour in London, Zurich, Amsterdam, and Madrid, Catalyst Europe considered how best to engage men in gender diversity efforts and discussions of masculinity in the workplace. We wanted to learn from men themselves what it’s going to take to move the needle forward on issues of workplace diversity.

Catalyst research reveals that masculine norms may make it challenging for men, arguably the individuals with the greatest influence on diversity policy, to speak out on issues of gender equity in the workplace. Get a group of men together in a safe setting, and their opinions about what’s missing from the discussion of workplace equality are guaranteed to enlighten—and surprise.

One topic that arose during our discussions was the concept of over-the-top work-life policies. Could bold government initiatives in some parts of Europe be creating the impression that more than enough is already being done to help women and minorities in the workplace? If so, how does this perception impact support for diversity initiatives?

For example: in the UK, companies are required to carefully consider requests for flexible work arrangements from working parents. Maternity leave in the UK can be extended in various forms for up to 52 weeks. In Italy, maternity leave can last for five months. Sweden offers new mothers 16 months of paid leave. Compared to the United States, where far fewer of these provisions exist, many view European policies as generous indeed.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop advocating for workplace equality in Europe.  After all, myths about flexible work options abound, including the notion that only women are interested in work-life balance. (The fact is, men are just as likely as women to use flexible work arrangements throughout their careers.)

The newly uncovered myth during our recent tour of Europe is that the business case for gender equality in the corporate world is obsolete—because equality already exists in Europe and everyone understands what’s at stake.

At Catalyst, we know that what’s good for women is good for men—and business. We may be familiar with this message, but it hasn’t yet reached everyone. Instead of assuming based on its generous maternity leave policies that equality has come to Europe, let’s remember that, according to 2012 data, only 29 percent of senior executives and managers in countries across Europe are women. Women in business are, on average, still excluded from top leadership positions—in Europe as in the rest of the world.

Generous maternity leave is a wonderful thing, but it’s not a sign that our work in Europe is done. Acknowledging this is step one towards making the European business world more diverse and inclusive. Offering more and better flexible work options—and not making assumptions about who needs them—is step two.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.