|

French values and child-care policies put family before work

by Takashi Kitazume

See the main story:
Low birthrate threatens Japan’s future
See related story:
Environment, not career major hurdle to big families

France is often cited as one of the few advanced industrialized countries to have reversed a falling birthrate. Dominique Meda, a researcher at the National Research Center for Employment in France, said the turnaround owed much to heavy government spending for child-care support as well as the country’s social values that emphasize family ties.

Like many other European countries, France faces an unavoidable aging of its population, but the birthrate is no longer considered a problem, Meda told the Oct. 31 symposium.

After bottoming out in 1993 and 1994, the birthrate in France has recovered to reach 1.92 in 2004 — the second highest in Europe after Ireland.

According to Meda, more than 90 percent of women in France give birth to at least one child, and many of them have two or more children. In other words, very few women choose not to have babies, she told the audience.

One of the reasons, she said, is that the government has spent heavily on financial support for households raising children so that women can continue to pursue their careers after giving birth.

Kindergartens accept all children when they become 3 years old, and child-care facilities available outside kindergarten hours enable mothers to work into the evening, she said.

The ratio of women’s participation in the workforce has steadily increased since the 1970s. Today, roughly 80 percent of women of child-rearing age (between 25 and 54) have jobs, nearly double the 42 percent in 1960, Meda noted.

Another major factor, she said, is a trend among French people — backed by various research findings — to attach greater value to their family than to their job. This trend is common among women and men, and across different income levels, she added.

Despite such support, women with children in France still face disadvantages in career opportunities, with less than half of them with children under 3 years old having jobs, Meda noted.

Among European nations, the gap in the employment rate between men and women in the 25 to 54 age bracket in France is wider than in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Austria, Britain, Germany and Portugal, she said.

Women still account for a major portion of household chores, she said. Women spend about 4 1/2 hours a day on average on such chores — roughly double the time spent by men — and mothers with children under 3 spend 90 minutes with the kids — compared with 30 minutes by the men, according to Meda.

Some 30 percent of working women in France are employed on part-time contracts — far higher than the 5.3 percent for men, she said.

On average, women earn only 80 percent of what men earn in a year, and pension benefits paid to women amount to 56 percent of those paid to men — because they work fewer years and their income is lower, she said.

In 2002, France reduced regular working hours and introduced an 11-day annual “father’s leave” so that men can spend more time with children. However, these and other efforts have yet to achieve the “double-income, double-career” model seen in Scandinavian countries, Meda said.