The Czech Republic has been experiencing a sort of mini baby boom for the past six or so years, with one of the first generations of well-educated Czech women deciding to put off motherhood until their thirties. These mothers, who had held high-level jobs, travelled around the world and started their own businesses before having their first child, have initially enjoyed the government-subsidized maternity leave, but for many of them this benefit turned into a burden.
The reality for women who want to be both mothers and productive earners is that the generous four-year maternity leave in the Czech Republic – one of the longest in Europe – is actually an employment shut-out.
Relying on the fact that a woman can, if she wants to, stay at home for a number of years and still retain a position in the company and receive social benefits, employers in this country rarely offer flexible working hours to their female employees, which would encourage them to come back to work earlier and to help them maintain a healthy work and family balance.
As a result, mothers are more likely to stay at home rather than risk not spending enough time with their child, or not being able to afford the necessary childcare. Those who do come back to a full-time job are also often put at a disadvantage, as a well-known sociologist Jiřina Šiklová points out:
“Women with small children are not sent on business strips, they are unable to go to trainings as often, all of which ends up impacting their salaries.”
Two weeks ago, a new online recruitment website called PraceZeny.cz was launched in Prague. The site that translates literally as ‘woman’s work’, caters specifically to women who are looking for high-skilled jobs with flexible hours and employers who are mindful of their situation at home.
Petra Janíčková, who founded the website, says the underlying problem of underemployment of women with children is the stereotype that still exists in Czech society:
“The Czech Republic is a very chauvinistic country. There is a stereotype that says that women have to stay at home. And those women who decide to have a career are perceived as being unhappy with their family, or as strange, not well-respected, etc.”
Although a similar stereotype was in place under Communism, Petra admits that at least women who wanted to come back to work after giving birth could place their children into state-run nurseries. It was a reviled institution back then and the Czech state had gotten rid of the majority of these nurseries in the 1990’s, leaving modern mothers with few options – paying for an expensive private nursery, hiring an even more expensive nanny, or staying at home.
“Twenty years ago, there were around 1500 nurseries, whereas now there are around 35 public nurseries. So if you imagine that there are some 100,000 children born every year, and there are only 35 nurseries around the whole of the Czech Republic.”
Petra, who before giving birth to her first child was the executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce, chose to hire a nanny and continue working.
“From my experience, as I do have a kid – who is six months old – and I have not stopped working, it is possible to have a kind of a work-life balance. I can only balance it, though, because I have a nanny. And I wouldn’t put him in a nursery, because I want to stay with him myself and have private help. On the other hand, once my kid is two or so, I do not see a reason why not to put him in a nursery, if there were any.”
Even before she became a mother, Petra was well aware of the challenges women face on the Czech job market before and after having kids. She told me that when she began working as the executive director of the BCC, she realized that part of the reason there are few women in top positions in Czech business is that during the maternity leave they often lose the confidence necessary to re-enter a high-pressure work environment.
“I started to see that women sometimes lack self-assurance and this is what goe me thinking about what we can change on the Czech job market. The reason for this mentality really is that there is a three-year parental leave, and unfortunately after a few months, it can be hard to be confident in yourself, because you stop working mentally. On the other hand, I so much appreciate women who take care of children, I know that it is very hard work.”
One of the main solutions in her opinion is offering working mothers various types of flexible work schedules. Here is how Petra explains what flexible work means:
“It is part-time jobs, it can be home-office or also shared jobs. In the Czech Republic, only 5.5 percent of all positions are flexible in this way, while the unemployment in the country is the highest it has been since 1993. There are 580,000 people looking for jobs. And who are these people? Mostly, they are women. Only 60 percent of women are on the labor market, whereas it’s 80 percent when it comes to men.”
The statistics look even bleaker when it comes to mothers with children up to 6 years of age. In the Czech Republic, a bit over a third of this group is employed, whereas in the whole of the EU, around 60 percent of women with small children have a job.
Czech mothers are interested in working, but working in a way that also helps them maintain a happy family life. And when I spoke to Petra last week, the initial interest in the PraceZeny site serves as good proof.
Of course part-time jobs have always been available, but most of them are miles below the professional mothers’ skill levels and former pay grade.
Employers are also beginning to realize that by not encouraging skilled female employees to return to high level positions, and thus stagnating women’s growth in the workplace, they are losing money and valuable skills. A number of large corporations, mostly international companies in the financial and telecommunication sectors, have decided to partner with the new recruitment site. Petra explains why:
“They became partners of this job portal because they believe in diversity. It’s not only about gender diversity, it’s diversity of ideas. And this has to do with the make-up of the consumers. Some statistics say that 60 percent of decisions that are made by the Czech public are made by women. So if you want to have better economic results, you have to have women in charge as well.”
Employers are not the only ones who can make a difference. Politicians have a role as well. The Agender project, which created PraceZeny, wants to eventually get legislative backing for flexible work options. Although Petra admits there is little political will for this right now, some politicians, like the newly elected deputy chairwoman of the Social Democratic party, Alena Gajdušková, has expressed their support for the project.
Some government and public bodies are slowly beginning to do their part in encouraging employers to offer flexibility to their staff. The Ministry of Social Affairs started a project last fall that provides a so-called audit of family-oriented policies for companies. They are then offered training and advice on how to improve the work-life balance of their employees. The Czech Chamber of Commerce, for example, is supporting employers and small businesses in starting in-company day-care centers.
The overall progress to help women re-enter the job market at an appropriate level and when they want after giving birth, though, is slow. Petra Janíčková is not expecting instant results from her vernture, but is trying to set realistic, yet also optimistic, goals for the future.
“My goal is to double the percentage of flexible work options in the Czech Republic, which is currently 5.5 percent. So within five years, by 2018, we really want to get to around 10 percent. We also want to have thousands of CVs on our website. After a few days we have already over one thousand, which is wonderful, and we didn’t expect it to grow so quickly. We also want to have thousands of job offers. We already have a few hundred.
“If we fulfill all of these things, we can then we can say we’re done and I can leave this project [laughs]. And then I can go and see all the happy faces of the people who have entered the Czech job market, and how many successful women and happy families there are.”